How to Save the U.S.-Saudi Alliance

May 8, 2023 | Bradley Bowman, Orde Kittrie, Ryan Brobst
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Yesterday, Saudi Arabia hosted a meeting attended by the national security advisers of the U.S., the United Arab Emirates, and India, where the agenda reportedly included an Israeli proposal for the construction of a rail network connecting the Middle East. The summit was a rare positive sign given the growing estrangement between Washington and Riyadh over the past decade. Among the reasons for that estrangement is the kingdom’s perception of the U.S. as on unreliable ally—a perception fueled by a growing American consensus that focus must be turned away from the Middle East and toward confronting China.

Bradley Bowman, Orde Kittrie, and Ryan Brobst examine the pitfalls of such thinking:

The primary effect [of concern over China] has been to incentivize decision makers in Washington to minimize the investment of finite military resources in the Middle East so that the Department of Defense can conduct its belated and vital modernization effort and better deter aggression in the Indo-Pacific. This impulse is grounded in sound strategic thinking. The essence of strategy, after all, is the coordination of ends and means and the realization that resources are not infinite.

[Yet the] problem with some of the arguments in favor of deeper cuts to U.S. military posture in the Middle East is that they fail to recognize that U.S. competition with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is unfolding around the globe, including in the Middle East. The great irony, therefore, is that while the United States is pulling military forces out of the Middle East to compete with the PRC, Beijing is increasingly moving into the Middle East. Indeed, if additional American forces depart the region, those smiling and waving goodbye most enthusiastically, other than perhaps the Iranians, will be the Chinese. The primary flow of personnel from Beijing to the Middle East has consisted of diplomats and businesspeople, but Chinese arms sales and security cooperation in the region are increasing.

More specifically, that includes growing coziness between Riyadh and Beijing. Yet Bowman, Kittrie, and Brobst are confident that smart policy can reverse these trends, and keep the Saudis firmly in the American camp:

[I]t seems unlikely that Riyadh has made an irreversible decision to break with the United States and to align fully with Beijing. Instead, Riyadh may be pursuing a strategy to foster substantive relations with both Washington and Beijing while using growing ties with Beijing to elicit maximum concessions from the United States—all the while maintaining the strategic partnership with Washington.

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