- After a decade of cold US-Saudi relations, the shock provoked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine provides pragmatic incentives to reorient the US-Saudi-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) alliance.
- The objective is to pursue “pan-security”: a broader, globallyoriented framing of security that also covers regular energy supplies andthe provision of commodities and maritime security,in an interplay of national interests and global security.
- The US, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies fear new “bread crises” which could generate unrest in the MENA region and Africa. They are also growingly concerned by the irregular warfare activities of Iranian-related armed groups which could, in the medium to long term, open a fissure in Saudi-UAE-Russia relations.
- The US-Saudi-GCC partnership could be re-energised by focusing on selective arms procurement to prevent irregular warfare threatening global supplies; the reality of outsourcing security to regional powers in the Middle East; the ad hoc engagement of Saudi Arabia (energy security), Qatar (food security) and the UAE (logistics and maritime security) in the new world balances.
During the next few months, the “big cold” between the United States and Saudi Arabia, epitomised by President Joe Biden’s lack of direct communication with the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman Al-Saud (and vice versa), is likely to be thaw gradually. Washington and Riyadh remain reluctant partners. They know perfectly well that they will continue to disagree on specific topics, from the role of the Asian powers to human rights. But realpolitik is now forcing them towards a win-win strategic compromise, even more so after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This plausible compromise has a keyword: security, which is the traditional backbone of the US-Saudi partnership. Due to the implications of the war, security can be seen now – at a global level – through updated lenses: those of “pan-security”. This expanded meaning of security defines a broader, globally oriented framing of security that also comprises, for instance, regular energy supplies and the provision of agricultural commodities. Maritime security – the precondition for the flow of most energy and commodities – also fits this concept.
The pragmatic incentives to reorient the US-Saudi-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) alliance lie at the interplay of national interests and global security.
The US-Saudi relationship: a cold decade
Saudi Arabia’s perception of political loneliness began with the Obama presidency (the “Arab Springs”; the JCPOA with Iran) and has increased under Biden (the focus on human rights, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and the approach to the Yemen war). Despite rich arm sales and exhibited friendship, even the Trump presidency did not react when Saudi Aramco was unprecedentedly attacked in September 2019. Nowadays, regardless of potential improvements, the American-Saudi alliance cannot return to the “oil for security” pact forged aboard the USS Quincy in 1945, since interests, players and the whole zeitgeist have changed. Nor can the alliance suddenly erase a season of mistrust.
However, it is possible today to imagine a reoriented US-Saudi-GCC alliance, centred once again on security (defined as selective defence and procurement to protect global supplies, and the containment of destabilising missile, drone and maritime attacks by Iranian-related armed groups in the region), the reality of security outsourcing to the Gulf monarchies and Israel in the Middle East (see the US-Israel-UAE-Bahrain-Morocco summit held in Jerusalem on late March 2022), and cooperation on pan-security issues (energy market stability, food security in the MENA region and Africa, and maritime security).
Here are three points to make sense of this possible scenario.
Interests and goals: what the US and Saudi Arabia want from the partnership right now
After the invasion of Ukraine, Washington aims to further weaken/contain Russia and China’s influence in third countries, including the MENA region and Africa. This is the main reason for the Americans to re-engage with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The US also needs stable global energy markets and increased energy production: this would also support the goal of American allies to reduce/overcome dependency on Russian energy, especially in the EU. For Washington, the reactivation of the nuclear deal with Iran (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) would also contribute to achieving this aim.
The Saudi kingdom aims to continue the diversification of investments and alliances, thus strengthening post-oil economic transition: to this end, China, India and, to a lesser but significant extent, Russia are (and will be) crucial players. The fact that Riyadh is considering oil transactions in yuan instead of dollars emphasises its foreign policy direction. However, Saudi Arabia is also interested in maintaining relations, business, and connectivity with Western players, and in avoiding/minimising the possibility of Moscow-related secondary sanctions.
Most of all, Riyadh is still vulnerable to missile, drone and maritime attacks by Iran-related armed groups. Economic projects related to “Vision 2030” can be affected by the ongoing escalation of irregular warfare. Over the first nine months of 2021, Ansar Allah’s attacks from Yemen against Saudi civilian targets doubled compared to the same 2020 timeframe, reaching an average of 38 attacks per month. Ansar Allah repeatedly attacked Saudi energy facilities on the Red Sea coast between 20-26 March 2022, even during the Formula One race held in Jeddah. The US is still the only power who can provide external and anti-missile security to the kingdom, unless Riyadh formally normalises diplomatic relations with Israel.
Shared interests and concerns: converging issues between the US and Saudi Arabia
A decade after the start of the “Arab springs”, both the US and Saudi Arabia (like all Gulf monarchies) fear the concrete risk of new “bread protests” across the MENA region and Africa. The Russian war against Ukraine has remarkable implications on the production and export of wheat, barley, cereals and fertilisers. Food insecurity, combined with inflation, is likely to generate social protests which could quickly turn into unmanageable political instability. From a geopolitical perspective, the US would not be able to cope simultaneously with a third “hotspot” in addition to the Asia-Pacific area and the Russia-NATO Eastern flank.
Riyadh and the Gulf capitals likewise have too much to lose from regional unrest. Since 2011, the Gulf monarchies have built economic and trade relations, infrastructural and defence agreements in the Middle East, the Maghreb-Sahel and the Horn of Africa. Therefore, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha now have to primarily defend acquired alliances and markets: this is the main difference from a decade ago, when the Saudis capitalised on unrest and (some) regime-changes to expand their leverage as part of an assertive foreign policy.
The US and Saudi Arabia are also concerned by the role of Iran-related armed groups in the MENA region, such as Hezbollah (Lebanon), Ansar Allah (Yemen), and part of the Hashd al-Shaabi’s constellation (Iraq, for instance Kata’ib Hezbollah). The rise of Iranian-related drone and missile attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE from Yemen and, to a lesser extent, from Iraq, reveals how much, despite improved military capabilities, the Gulf monarchies are still vulnerable to asymmetric attacks. For the same reason, energy and trade security must not be taken for granted in the Southern Red Sea.
However, shared concerns have not translated into a stronger US-Saudi partnership so far. Saudi Arabia and UAE’s discontent with Washington has grown: having not received greater protection from the US, the two countries feel abandoned. Now that the Americans are working to revive the JCPOA with Iran, Saudi Arabia has a sense of déjà vu. Not only the restart of the JCPOA would provide Tehran with energy-related financial resources to further invest in irregular warfare, but the deal excludes, again, the Iranian missile and drone program, as it was in 2015.
However, the invasion of Ukraine has partly changed the picture. On Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia have opposite stances, i.e. cooperation and opposition. The Russia-Saudi fissure could grow if Tehran opts for a stronger, anti-Western alliance with the Kremlin. Russians and Iranians launched a joint military committee in 2021, envisaging cooperation in military training.
There is another element to consider too: many pro-Iranian armed groups in the Middle East sympathise with Moscow and adopt anti-US stances, largely because of Iranian connections. With the exclusion of pro-Assad militias in Syria, some of these groups are attacking Saudi and Emirati territory (Ansar Allah) or contributing to training Yemen’s Ansar Allah (the IRGC and Hezbollah’s advisors deployed in Yemen). In the medium to long term, this could become problematic for Saudi-Emirati-Russian relations, especially in a context of international polarisation.
Policy strategies to reorient the US-Saudi-GCC partnership: how pan-security could work in practice
The US-Saudi partnership and the broader alliance of US-GCC states could be re-energised by a focus on three main areas: selective arms procurement to prevent irregular warfare attacks threatening global supplies, the reality of outsourcing security to regional powers in the Middle East, and the engagement of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE in the new world power balances.
First, it is in the United States’ regional interest to cultivate defence cooperation and interoperability with Saudi Arabia: the alternative is pushing Riyadh further towards Eastern defence procurement and military cooperation. The UAE has already planned to buy a dozen Chinese L15 training and light attack jets. At the first World Defence Show held in Riyadh (6-9 March 2022), there was virtually no official delegation from the US despite the fact that Washington still remains the main weapons exporter to the kingdom. Selective defence procurement to tackle irregular warfare – potentially a threat to global energy and trade security – could perhaps moderate US Congress’ growing scrutiny of weapons sales and relaunch the US-Saudi partnership.
Second, the regionalisation of security in the Middle East, with regional powers taking greater responsibility for stability, has been ongoing for a decade. The Americans “leading from behind” and the rise of the Gulf powers have accelerated the process. The Abraham Accords signed in 2020 represent the bulk of this nascent alliance for regional security, as the Jerusalem summit (US-Israel-UAE-Bahrain-Morocco) has just highlighted. Jordan and Egypt are involved in the game too. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although they have not yet formalised diplomatic relations with Israel, are also part of this regional security equation.
Focused on Russia and China, the US will have fewer political, military and financial resources to deal with hybrid contexts in the MENA region and with the long process of regional stabilisation (including Security Sector Reform/Governance). With this in mind, Washington needs to rely more on local partners, fostering indigenous capabilities and regional security formats.
Third, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies could play a role in the new world balances as a result of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, due to their wealth, infrastructural and logistic networks, and soft power. Opening the Doha Forum (26-27 March 2022), the Emir of Qatar, Shaykh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, not only defined the invasion of Ukraine “an unjust war”, but stressed the need “to take a serious stance to determine the future of the international order”. Riyadh and the Gulf capitals have long perceived the decline of the Western-centred liberal order and, conversely, the rise of the Eastern authoritarian model. They are working to navigate this power transition through parallel partnerships. Saudi Arabia and the ambitious neighbouring monarchies will continue to diversify their alliances. However, engaging Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE as leading players in global security, through ad hoc initiatives, conferences, funds, and stabilisation missions, could help the US to reorient these partnerships by setting win-win goals and promoting a pan-security mind-set.
Saudi Arabia, for instance, has a special interest in energy security (including renewable energies), Qatar in food security, the UAE in maritime security and logistics. Both the Qataris and the Emiratis also have crisis management experience. Energy, food, and connectivity are exactly the areas that the war in Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia are pushing to the brink.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and Riyadh’s unwillingness to take sides have revealed how much the US-Saudi alliance has changed in a decade. The Arab shore of the Gulf is not going to turn its back on the East, nor accept advice from the West. Nevertheless, this international crisis offers Washington and its Gulf partners urgent, incentives to find new ways of cooperating, towards a pan-security horizon. There could even be a role for the EU: bridging the gap between the US and the GCC to promote stability in the MENA region.