In March 2023, Riyadh entered the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a dialogue partner. Saudi Arabia had also signed a Beijing-mediated agreement with Iran to resume diplomatic ties. The Gulf nation has played an important part along with Russia in the OPEC+ cuts in oil production much to the displeasure of Washington DC. Yet, in recent days, Saudi Arabia has been pushing for getting a defence pact with the US ratified before the US election of 2024.
Like several other middle powers, Saudi Arabia has made important changes in its foreign policy approach in recent years – due to several global geopolitical and economic changes.
Changes in Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Policy
Saudi Arabia has moved closer to China in the economic and strategic sphere, and taken an independent stance on the Russia-Ukraine war (Saudis have dubbed their approach vis-à-vis the conflict as “active neutrality”), the Gulf nation has played an important part along with Russia in the OPEC+ cuts in oil production much to the displeasure of Washington DC and also entered the China dominated BRICS grouping, as a member, in January 2024. In March 2023, Saudi Arabia entered the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a dialogue partner).
In March 2023, Saudi Arabia had also signed a Beijing-mediated agreement with Iran to resume diplomatic ties. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have opened their embassies in each other’s countries and also exchanged ambassadors in September 2023.
Many commentators point to how Saudi-US ties were far more cordial during the presidency of Donald Trump — who shared a personal rapport with Saudi crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) — it is important to understand certain points.
While Saudi Arabia refused to increase oil production in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and US President Joe Biden’s Saudi visit – in July 2022 — failed to convince MBS, there are strong convergences. Before the beginning of the current Israel-Palestine conflict, both Saudi Arabia and Israel were moving towards normalisation of ties – this normalisation was being pushed by the US. This point was reiterated by both MBS as well as Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu in media interviews.
In the aftermath of the conflict, Saudi Arabia has stated that normalisation with Israel would only be possible if Israel accepts the two-state solution and ends the conflict in Gaza. In an interview, Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, while highlighting this point said: “That’s the only way we’re going to get the benefit. So, yes, because we need stability and only stability will come through resolving the Palestinian issue.”
The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken is also supposed to have conveyed this to Netanyahu last month. The Israeli PM, along with several other Israeli officials have categorically expressed their opposition to a two-state solution. Netanyahu while reiterating this point said: “I will not compromise on full Israeli security control over the entire area in the west of Jordan – and this is contrary to a Palestinian state,”
Saudi Arabia keen to sign a defence agreement
In recent days, Saudi Arabia has been pushing for getting a defence pact with the US ratified before the US election of 2024. Some of the important components of the deal are;
- US protection to Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis external threats in the region,
- US assistance to Saudi for development of the latter’s nuclear program, and
- Normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
This ambitious pact will need approval from the US Senate in the next few months – well before the US Presidential election in November 2024. US President Joe Biden is keen to push this deal since it will be touted as a major achievement for his administration. The Saudis are keen to go ahead with such an agreement so that they have protection against any potential attacks by Iran on their oil facilities. Saudi Arabia clearly realizes that it needs security and stability to push its ambitious economic plans ahead.
Riyadh has conveyed to Washington that it would be willing to normalize ties with Israel, even if Israel were to make a political commitment in favour of a two-state solution. The US has conveyed this to Israel. Normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel would be a major step. However, this could impact ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia – given the nature of relations between Iran and Israel.
A few points need to be borne in mind. First, Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to soften his position vis-à-vis a two-state position and it also remains to be seen whether Israel agrees to a ceasefire in Gaza soon. Second, Biden faces significant domestic and foreign policy challenges and pushing such a deal given the situation in the Middle East is likely to be a tough task. At the same time, the Saudi desire for a defence pact with the US reiterates the multi-layered dimension of the bilateral relationship and how Riyadh has managed to follow a balanced foreign policy where it has cultivated cordial ties with China while maintaining a robust relationship with the US –despite several differences.
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