Today, U.S. influence on Saudi Arabia (KSA) is greatly diminished. This could change, however, if the United States were to formally extend its military umbrella to protect the Kingdom against external threats to its security. A tangible guarantee of U.S. military intent will deter adversaries, play well with Saudi public opinion and thus encourage Saudi Arabia to consider closer, even transformative, ties with other U.S. allies in the region.
While respectful of U.S. global power and influence, Saudi leaders today see the world as becoming increasingly multipolar, with a war-fatigued United States no longer interested in deploying its military power to uphold the traditional U.S.-led order in the Middle East; consequently, the KSA feels it must develop stronger relations with rising powers, such as China, that can also help maintain regional security and stability, albeit very differently from the way the U.S. has accomplished this.
Saudi-U.S. relations have long enjoyed a solid foundation, underpinned by more than seventy-five years of economic and cultural interaction, with more than a million Saudis educated in the United States. The United States has played an important role in Saudi history; it was the Americans who discovered Saudi oil, developed the capability to extract the oil, and contributed to Saudi human development through their early ownership and management of the Saudi national oil company (known originally as the Arabian American Oil Company). The effect of all this has been hugely positive. Today, most top executives in Saudi Arabia, in the public and private sectors alike, are U.S. educated or trained. Intermarriage and other cultural interactions, combined with the influence of the U.S. media and entertainment industry, means that the United States is the foreign country to which Saudi Arabians are most attached to in this world, irrespective of the current sentiments the Saudi public may have toward U.S. foreign policies.
The political relationship, although somewhat tumultuous over the decades through the Arab oil embargo of 1973, the attacks of 9/11, the Khashoggi tragedy, and other disruptions, has remained strong, with the fundamental strategic relationship between the military establishment and the security establishment of both the United States and the KSA remaining remarkably stable and resilient.
Saudi Arabia, however, has changed dramatically over the years, from its infancy before the Second World War to a more self-confident G-20 country secure in its place in the world today. It has transformed from being governed by rulers who were born in the era before the discovery of oil to being led by someone today, namely, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who was born after the first oil boom (1973) and hence grew up in a different, wealthier Kingdom, one more influential on the world scene. Simply put, MBS sees the world and the KSA’s position within it differently than his predecessors.
A complicating factor here is the oft-mentioned U.S. “fatigue” with wars in the Middle East, which has contributed to reports of the American public’s aversion to any further military involvement in the region. This fatigue actually confuses the historical U.S. role of upholding regional security with the more recent misfortunes the U.S. has inflicted upon itself. Americans today, unfortunately, don’t differentiate between the security umbrella the United States has historically deployed in the Persian Gulf, which has been minimally costly to the U.S. in terms of men and treasure, and the recent costly, painful wars the U.S. has engaged in (against the explicit advice of KSA), such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The U.S.-KSA alliance was once valuable to both parties. Historically, Saudi Arabia has worked with the United States very effectively to stabilize oil markets whenever a global crisis arose and has supported the U.S. dollar as the currency of choice for oil trading and hence as the global reserve currency for trade in general. The KSA has also invested extensively in the United States and has purchased trillions of dollars’ worth of U.S. goods and services. At the same time, U.S. deterrence, reaffirmed by the Carter Doctrine, upheld the security of the KSA through the Cold War, through the Iraq–Iran War, and during and after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. This was a relationship with tangible material benefits for both sides.
Recently, however, the U.S. security umbrella has been weakened as far as Saudi Arabia is concerned. This began with America’s publicly stated strategy of pivoting away from the region and was then driven home by two key developments: first, the lack of an appropriate U.S. response against Iran after the devastating 2019 Iranian attacks on Saudi oil installations, and second, the slowdown and cutoff of arms and ammunition shipments to Saudi Arabia during its war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi forces. These events convinced Saudi leaders that they had to look elsewhere to guarantee their security. Having realized that an equivalent alternative to the United States that can project military power across the Persian Gulf does not exist, they looked to establish security through diplomacy with Chinese guarantees. That is how China—and its influence on Iran—came into the picture.
China is a natural partner for the KSA given its status as the largest importer of Saudi oil and as the kingdom’s largest trading partner. China is also making inroads into the Saudi defense sector by supplying ballistic missiles, drones, and other equipment that the U.S. is unwilling to sell to the Saudi military. China also stands ready to supply the KSA with nuclear technology and provide support for a civilian Saudi nuclear industry with fewer constraints than America wants to impose. China also has a unique relationship with Iran as its most important foreign interlocutor and thus wields great influence over the Islamic Republic, an influence that was brought to bear when China sponsored and cosigned the agreement to re-establish diplomatic ties between the KSA and Iran. Note that this Saudi-China relationship is not one that is necessarily inimical to U.S. interests: the United States and the global economy benefit from stability in the Gulf as much as the Chinese do.
If the United States wants to fully leverage with Saudi Arabia its own capacity to project military power into the region, then it needs to reintroduce deterrence by making such power projection tangible and reliable. This alone will reassure Saudi Arabia that it has the full support of the U.S. if it is attacked. For this to happen, a formal structure or agreement will be needed, one that would be perceived by adversaries as obligating the United States to come to the defense of the KSA (in one form or another) if the latter is threatened. Only then would a U.S.-Saudi alliance have real weight. In turn, the United States could expect a much closer and more influential relationship with Saudi Arabia, with all that such an alliance would entail. Absent such a tangible commitment, the U.S. is just another powerful player in the region, one that may be seen as an occasional security partner, but not as an ally to be counted on.
Saudi Arabia would probably not have gone to war in Yemen, for example, had it been confident that the United States would have offered its protection were Iran and its proxies to threaten Saudi borders.
Today only a substantive security commitment by the United States would be perceived by regional adversaries as a deterrent to their ambitions to topple the U.S.-led regional order of which Saudi Arabia is the anchor. In recent years, adversaries have tested U.S. resilience in the Middle East and have found it wanting, from Obama’s failed redline ultimatum in Syria to Trump’s failure to retaliate after Iran shot down a U.S. drone in 2021—never mind America’s failure to either inhibit or retaliate against direct attacks on its friends in the Gulf.
America, after all, has the military power already in place in the Gulf to establish deterrence, but its lack of will to exercise that power recently has resulted in its being seen as a paper tiger by adversaries. Only an ironclad commitment by the United States to come to the aid of Saudi Arabia should the latter be attacked will encourage Saudi Arabia to resume its position under the American umbrella.