By Asad Mirza
The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Saudi Arabia, last week in an attempt to restore the strained relations between the two old allies. Apparently the relations have not been on the mend since the Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) took over the reigns of the state.
US-Saudi relations, centred for decades on energy and defence, were badly strained by the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. What vitiated the atmosphere further was a remark made by the US President Joe Biden, who described MbS as a 'pariah'. They were further exacerbated when Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, refused to help bring down skyrocketing energy prices after Russia's attack on Ukraine in February last year.
As usual the officialese this time described the Blinken-MbS meeting as fruitful, the two leaders covered the full range of regional and bilateral issues including Saudi Arabia's support for US evacuations from Sudan, the need for political dialogue in Yemen and the potential for the normalisation of relations with Israel, in addition to the human rights issue in the kingdom. To boost bilateral relationship, Blinken also attended a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting to meet with other regional allies also.
His trip came in the backdrop of quickly shifting sand affecting alliances in the Middle East. In March this year, China-brokered a rapprochement between regional foes Saudi Arabia and Iran. Another landmark change saw Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad invited back to the Arab League last month for the first time since the start of the 12-year civil war in which his government has been backed by Russia and Iran.
There are indeed many dimensions to the age-old ties between the two allies and what they expect of each other, both have a lot of expectations from each other yet seem uncompromising over their respective stands.
As per reports the Saudis want guarantees that the US will stand with it in face of any threat from Iran, in spite of the recently shown bonhomie by the two countries by restoring diplomatic channels, in addition to increase its nuclear capability. There are also indications that the Saudis want to be left alone on human rights issues, with no American interference. Further the Saudis have made the issue of improving ties with Israel contingent upon such demands.
This stand roughly follows the same pattern adopted by other Arab states to accept Israel's existence: Morocco obtained US concessions on the Western Sahara; the United Arab Emirates (UAE) got better access to sophisticated US weapons; and, earlier, Egypt received massive US aid in exchange for a peace treaty with Israel.
But in view of the trust deficit, which the Saudis currently have amongst the US lawmakers and leaders, this may backfire; though the apparent reason behind this seems to be the Saudi gambit to try reaping benefit from both sides.
This bargaining model might not the only way to approach the issue, and the Saudis could be better served by avoiding this indirect approach, which may yield uncertain results. With that in mind, the Saudis should examine the option of moving unilaterally to normalise ties with Israel.
This means that if the Saudis take the first step towards diplomatic establishing ties with Israel, it may result in favourable response from the Americans as it will address the goodwill deficit which they currently have at the Capitol Hill, and may lead to further concessions from the Americans.
In addition on the issue of being a major American defence partner in the middle eastern region, Saudis also want to be designated as a Major Defence Partner (MDP) of the US, in addition to extending the Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty to Saudi Arabia.
There is very little chance that the US would agree to such a demand, as it would translate to a commitment to Riyadh that would legally obligate the United States to consider an attack on the kingdom as an attack on the United States, and further may not get the required support of NATO-member countries.
Though the Biden administration has pledged to work towards normalising Israel-Saudi Arabia diplomatic ties, the visit last month to Riyadh by US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan did not produced any visible breakthroughs.
In addition, the optics may give an illusion that the US is particularly disturbed over the Saudi refusal to supply more oil to the US at concessional rates. But in fact this is not the underlying reason, the main reason is that any cut in oil production leads to an increase in oil prices the world over and this pinches the American consumer the most, who has become habitual of getting the cheapest oil on earth. In reality the Saudi has dropped to number three as the leading oil exporters to the US after Canada and Mexico.
Overall, the visit seemed to be an effort from the US President to cajole America's one time ally and its current de facto ruler, who has expressed his views on the Saudi stand on improving ties with the US as a ploy to play China and US against each other, to get the maximum benefit for the kingdom. MbS thinks that the only potential in the Middle East rests with Saudi Arabia, so both US and China would prefer to stand close to Saudi Arabia.
However, in this ploy the balance seems to be tilting more in favour of China, instead of the US, though in reality Saudi may loose a lot if it completely abandons the US in favour of China. Further in this game of one upmanship, both MbS and Biden, who are poised as emotional enemies are trying to outsmart each other and get an upper hand, and in this personal tussle, respective countries take a backseat.
(Asad Mirza is a Delhi-based senior political commentator.)