The Middle East has witnessed a dizzying series of diplomatic moves by Saudi Arabia over the past two months. A deal brokered by China to reestablish relations with our arch-enemy, Iran, was followed in rapid succession by efforts to rehabilitate two of Iran’s most loathsome allies: the murderous Syrian dictatorship and the Palestinian terror group Hamas.
At least for this former United States official, watching a longtime partner like the Saudis cozy up to so many anti-American adversaries so quickly and largely, it appears, without much regard for Washington’s interests, has been, well, jarring to watch.
So what’s going on? The short answer is that it’s not clear anyone knows for sure except, perhaps, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, otherwise known as MBS.
That said, I’ve been reviewing my notes from a trip to Riyadh last November with a delegation from the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). We spent a week meeting top Saudi leaders. Nothing we heard would have led me to predict that less than four months later, the world would wake up to the shocking image of China’s top diplomat clasping hands with senior Saudi and Iranian negotiators. But in hindsight, there were plenty of clues dropped that provide important context for making sense of the kingdom’s recent machinations.
Saudi Arabia’s loss of confidence in its ties with the US
Three stand out. The first concerns Saudi Arabia’s collapsing confidence in the durability of its bilateral relationship with Washington. To a person, Saudi officials stressed that they want Washington to remain the kingdom’s core strategic partner. But their skepticism about America’s willingness to maintain its status as the region’s dominant outside power has never been higher.
For more than a decade, presidents from both parties have made clear their belief that Washington should be devoting less time and resources to the Middle East and far more to higher-priority theaters like the Indo-Pacific. President Joe Biden put his uniquely anti-Saudi spin on this abandonment narrative.
As a candidate, he pledged to turn MBS into a pariah for the grisly 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Within weeks of taking office, Biden ended US support for the Saudi war in Yemen, lifted the terrorist designation of Houthi rebels and declassified an intelligence assessment blaming MBS for Khashoggi’s death. When the Houthis responded by escalating attacks on Saudi territory, Biden withdrew US air defense assets from the kingdom.
Biden’s belated effort to course correct by visiting Saudi Arabia last July was almost immediately undone by his over-reaction to the Saudi-led decision in October for OPEC+ to cut oil production despite US objections. Rather than treat the matter as a serious but legitimate disagreement over the future of energy markets, Biden chose to cast it as an act of Saudi betrayal instead. He publicly threatened to impose consequences while his spokesman announced that Washington would re-evaluate the bilateral relationship.
WHEN JINSA’S delegation arrived five weeks later, the Saudis were still boiling over the humiliation of Biden’s chastisement. They couldn’t believe how quickly Biden had reverted to putting US-Saudi relations back on the chopping block. The fact that gasoline prices in America at that point were lower than they had been when OPEC+ announced its cut exacerbated the acute sense of grievance.
In a nutshell, the Saudis told us, “You say you’re re-evaluating relations with us. Well, Saudi Arabia is re-evaluating relations with you. We want America to continue being our main ally. But we’re reaching the conclusion that you’re tired of playing that role. If that’s the case, we’ll have to adjust. We can’t replace America. But your withdrawal will force us to compensate as best we can by making other arrangements to meet our security.”
Needing another way to stop Iran
The second point the Saudis made concerned their approach to Iran. They made clear that Iran is an existential threat. Their overwhelming preference is to rely on US military power to deter Iranian aggression, particularly its quest for nuclear weapons.
But, the Saudis warned, if the US no longer had the will to stop Iran, then the kingdom would have to pursue a much different course. In short, if they could no longer count on America, “[O]ur strategy will be to become Iran’s best friend.” They didn’t know exactly how they would do that, but the implication was unambiguous – diplomatic concessions, bribery, appeasement. “Whatever it takes, we’ll do.”
The most hair-raising assertion we heard in this respect was when referring to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, the regime’s arm for conducting external military operations, the Saudis reminded us that, “There’s a reason it’s called the Quds Force. Quds means Jerusalem. Their primary target is Israel. We’ll do what’s necessary to direct Iranian aggression away from Saudi Arabia.”
China’s economic leverage over Iran
The third point we heard that takes on added significance in hindsight concerned China. Just before our delegation arrived, the Iranians appeared on the verge of attacking Saudi Arabia over the kingdom’s financial backing of an Iranian-exile TV station that had aggressively covered Iran’s internal protest movement. To its credit, the Biden administration responded by sending military reinforcements to the region.
But the Saudis were especially impressed with Beijing’s reaction. They told us that China had promptly sent the Iranians a message that if they attacked Saudi Arabia, they should be under no illusion that China would support Iran. On the contrary, according to the Saudis, the Chinese had made clear that in terms of Beijing’s interests in the Middle East, Iran placed a distant third – tens of billions of dollars in annual trade behind both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In the Saudi telling, China had wielded its substantial economic leverage with Iran on the kingdom’s behalf and in a manner that helped convince Iran to back down.
A crisis of confidence that Washington still has the kingdom’s back, a readiness to accommodate Iran if deemed necessary and a new-found belief in China’s willingness to use its growing regional clout in support of Saudi security are precisely the ingredients that now seem to be at play in Riyadh’s recent diplomatic maneuverings. If that’s accurate, both Washington and Jerusalem should be concerned.
Whatever short-term benefits the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement may deliver in terms of regional de-escalation could be far outweighed by the long-term costs of the underlying geopolitical shifts that the kingdom’s new diplomacy appears to reflect.
John Hannah is Randi and Charles Wax Senior Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. He served as a national security adviser to US vice president Dick Cheney.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.