Giving the Saudis a Blank Check will End Badly
As the shocking images from Israel and the Gaza Strip inundate the media following Hamas’ attack on October 7—where brutal acts of violence have claimed over a thousand Israeli lives and Israeli countermeasures have devastated civilian areas in Gaza—it’s worth reflecting on another kind of aerial devastation that has befallen the children of the Middle East.
Yemen, for instance, has been suffering under the world’s worst humanitarian crisis; nearly 20,000 civilians have been killed or maimed in a years-long bombing campaign led by Saudi Arabia, fueled by U.S.-supplied weapons. In this volatile landscape, the United States aims to be a force for regional peace. And that aim should steer America’s approach to its arms deals, particularly with Saudi Arabia.
For 80 years, the United States has considered Saudi Arabia a “strategic partner,” yet this relationship increasingly imperils key American objectives: stability in the Middle East, energy security, and the promotion of global democracy. Far from acting as an ally, Saudi Arabia has cut oil production to fund Russia’s military efforts in Ukraine and criticized the U.S.-brokered deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
We find ourselves at a pivotal moment.
Throughout 2023, American diplomats have been laboring over a defense pact, potentially offering mutual security guarantees, in exchange for Saudi recognition of Israel. While the current conflict has temporarily derailed these negotiations, the pause provides an opportunity for reflection. Promising to defend the kingdom in the event of an attack may lead it to act more unpredictably, dragging the United States further into the regional quagmire. Simply put, Saudi Arabia already garners more benefits from this bilateral relationship than does the United States. Once the fog of war lifts, America ought not to make additional concessions.
Instead, the U.S. should capitalize on this hiatus to recalibrate its strategy. American law, including the Foreign Assistance Act and the Leahy Law, prohibits weapons sales to countries guilty of gross human rights violations. Yet, the current focus is too narrow centered merely on preventing weapons from falling into the wrong hands rather than ensuring they are used appropriately. Washington must condition future arms sales on stringent end-use monitoring, reserving the right to halt transfers or reclaim misused armaments. This will ensure that American-made weapons do not facilitate Saudi transgressions.
The United States requires defense partnerships that align with its strategic objectives. Forgoing a mutual defense pact with Saudi Arabia would free up resources that could be redirected toward military reform and modernization. This adjusted focus would enable the kingdom to better protect itself while collaborating on shared counterterrorism goals. In essence, the relationship would mirror America’s strategic defense partnerships with countries like Austria and Vietnam, with whom it lacks mutual defense treaties.
Under the Biden administration, U.S. foreign policy has made strides in bolstering democracy, countering authoritarian regimes, and championing human rights. Yet, when it comes to Saudi Arabia, there is a glaring inconsistency in these policy objectives. The kingdom should not enjoy special privileges owing to historical ties or geographical considerations. By refusing a defense pact, the U.S. would lend credibility to its pro-democracy initiatives globally, Ukraine included.
Critics who fear that a recalibration might estrange one of America’s few friends in the region miss a crucial point: Conditioning arms sales and declining a mutual defense pact would, in fact, better serve American interests. By setting firm conditions for cooperation, the United States will prove itself a valuable and committed partner. This allows America to continue deterring Iran, supporting Saudi economic growth, and safeguarding its interests without relying solely on Saudi Arabia to secure them.
In an environment where Saudi Arabia repeatedly flouts international human rights law, the United States has stood by, tacitly complicit. Now is the time to rise above this troubling status quo—condemning when necessary, collaborating, when possible, but always upholding American values.