- News Releases
As President Joe Biden prepares for his mid-July trip to Saudi Arabia, “the time has come for the United States and Saudi Arabia to secure the future of their relationship by attempting to achieve a new strategic compact for the twenty-first century,” write Steven A. Cook, CFR Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies, and CFR Distinguished Fellow Martin S. Indyk in a new Council Special Report, The Case for a New U.S.-Saudi Strategic Compact.
Since the end of World War II, the United States and Saudi Arabia have maintained a close but increasingly precarious relationship “built upon the cornerstones of Saudi Arabian oil and American security guarantees,” the authors explain. This oil-for-security pact has held for over seventy-five years but has become frayed in recent decades given “significant differences between the Western world’s leading democracy and the Muslim world’s leading autocracy.”
A structural shift now threatens the future of this relationship: the United States is working to move away from its dependence on Saudi oil, even as sanctions against Russia have affected the market, and oil and gas prices have risen. In addition, Saudi Arabia has a new, young leader, Mohammed bin Salman, who has been challenging the tenets of the partnership.
Without urgent action to forge a new strategic compact, “the process of separation that is already under way is likely to accelerate, damaging the interests of both sides,” warn Cook and Indyk. It is therefore “timely to consider a more fundamental reconceptualization of the original U.S.-Saudi understanding,” which would include agreements on energy, human rights, normalization with Israel, and enhanced security cooperation.
The last of these is important for regional security because “for the United States, Iran remains the principal source of instability in the Middle East,” due in part to “its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, [and] its support for subversive forces across the region.” Similarly, the authors note, “for Saudi Arabia, Iran, too, represents the principal threat to its interests, particularly the defense of its homeland, the protection of its oil interests, and the internal stability of its wards and friends in the Sunni Arab world.”
Cook and Indyk put forward a package of reciprocal steps that the United States and Saudi Arabia can take to build a new strategic agreement for the twenty-first century.
The United States, for its part, should provide renewed security assurances to Saudi Arabia, reemphasizing “the Carter Doctrine’s general pledge to prevent any attempt by [an external] hostile power to gain control of the Gulf region” and subsequent American policy aimed at protecting the region from internal threats. This would mean committing to “enhance bilateral defense and security cooperation to deal with common threats and promote regional peace and stability.”
Such a security guarantee would be a significant strategic commitment, especially at a time when the United States is seeking to be less involved in the Middle East.
To make such assurances palatable to the U.S. government and public, “bin Salman would need to undertake several reciprocal steps over time that would demonstrate his willingness to play the role of a reliable partner,” including making a “more formal open-ended commitment to use its excess oil production to stabilize oil prices at reasonable levels,” ending the war in Yemen, and taking “further steps toward normalizing Saudi Arabia’s relations with Israel.”
Bin Salman would also “have to make clear that he takes responsibility for the [Jamal] Khashoggi murder, will bring all those directly responsible to justice, and will ensure that such travesties are not repeated.”
Cook and Indyk caution that such a reconceptualization of U.S.-Saudi relations will not be easily achieved, requiring both countries “to swallow their pride and adjust their policies in essential ways.”
“Nevertheless, to manage the multiple crises of this era in the Middle East and beyond, the United States needs a responsible Saudi partner, and Saudi Arabia needs a reliable U.S. one. Seventy-seven years after the United States and Saudi Arabia first established relations, the time has come for these two countries to negotiate “a reciprocal process of strategic rapprochement” and forge a new strategic compact to guide their relations in the twenty-first century, the report concludes.
To interview the authors, please contact CFR Communications at 212.434.9888 or [email protected].