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Should the United States Provide Saudi Arabia a Security Guarantee?

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Saudi Arabia is seeking a US security guarantee in exchange for normalization with Israel. The US only has two such agreements with countries outside NATO. If Biden commits, he faces serious questions about when American intervention may become necessary.

In a remarkable shift in its foreign policy, Saudi Arabia is reportedly demanding a formal security guarantee from the United States in return for normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel. This demand marks a striking about-face in its attitude since the kingdom has long sought to keep its dependence on the United States for its own security as unnoticed and informal as possible.

The US has been the kingdom’s main security partner and source of arms ever since World War II, providing it with $140 billion in military assistance. Yet, the two nations have never had a defense treaty nor has the United States ever offered it any kind of security guarantee.

Shifting ground

How the kingdom hopes to portray itself, both nonaligned and formally tied to the United States by a security agreement, is not immediately clear. Nor is it clear what such an agreement would cover in terms of triggering a US military response to what the Saudis themselves declare a foreign attack. Also unknown is whether the kingdom would in turn allow a long-sought permanent US military presence, which it previously forbade.

The kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), is seeking a security guarantee even as he expands Saudi economic and political relations with both Russia and China.

The kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), is seeking a security guarantee even as he expands Saudi economic and political relations with both Russia and China. He is also maintaining the Kingdom’s neutrality over the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the face of President Biden’s entreaties for Saudi support for the Ukrainian cause. Meanwhile, he is mulling an invitation to join the so-called BRIC alliance founded by Brazil, Russia, India, and China that strives to oppose US dominance of the world economy.

Even more striking, there seems less need for such a guarantee than at any time in recent Middle East history. Another Arab-Israeli war appears out of the question and four Arab countries—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan—have formally recognized Israel since 2020. Egypt and Jordan did so long ago.

Saudi Arabia has even reopened diplomatic relations with Iran, its arch enemy and competitor for regional primacy, after seven years of constant conflict and bloodshed between the two nations. The Saudis cut off diplomatic relations in 2016 after its embassy in Tehran was sacked in retaliation for the Saudi execution of one of its Shiite clerics. In March, the two decided to normalize their relations and learn to “share the neighborhood” in former President Obama’s own admonition.

Flickering security ties

The United States has never offered a security guarantee to another country outside NATO’s 30 members beside South Korea and Japan—not even to Israel, its closest Middle East ally. Now it is reported the kingdom is asking for a formal mutual defense treaty which would require Senate ratification, a questionable undertaking.

The Saudis have long coveted a US security umbrella but wanted it “over the horizon,” meaning not visible but also on call to defend the ruling Saudi family from outside aggression. 

For decades, the Saudis have fended off US efforts to establish a military base or permanent military presence in the kingdom, fearing a backlash from the powerful ultra-conservative Wahhabi religious establishment. The Saudis have long coveted a US security umbrella but wanted it “over the horizon,” meaning not visible but also on call to defend the ruling Saudi family from outside aggression. 

The 1990-91 Gulf War demonstrated the lengths to which the Saudis were willing to go to avoid any formal defense agreement with the United States. When the Bush administration dispatched 500,000 American troops to defend the kingdom and oust Iraqi troops from neighboring Kuwait, there was no formal agreement other than a one paragraph letter of just three sentences committing Washington to withdraw them whenever the Saudi government asked (Ottaway, 2008).

That happened after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 when the Saudis kicked the last American troops out. They also closed down a highly sophisticated military facility the Pentagon had built at Prince Sultan Air Base at al-Kharj, 50 miles southeast of Riyadh. It had been built to house a regional US base of operations. Instead, next door Qatar became host to US Central Command regional headquarters. 

The previous Saudi distaste for any close formal military connection to the United States was also reflected in its total disinterest in becoming a “major non-NATO ally,” which three of its own Arab Gulf allies—Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar—are so designated in addition to Egypt, Morocco, and Israel. The designation, according to the State Department, offers “military and economic privileges” but “no security commitment” by the United States.

Nor has Saudi Arabia ever signed a defense cooperation agreement with the United States although all six of its Arab allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council have done so—and its armed forces depend principally on American weaponry. Efforts by past American presidents, including Donald Trump, to create a NATO-like alliance of America’s Middle East partners never found support in Riyadh. 

Why now?

The question arises: Why has the Saudi attitude changed now? The answer seems to lie partly in its inability to transform itself into a stand-alone military power capable of dealing with Iran. The Saudi invasion of Yemen in 2015 to combat the takeover by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels has ended in failure and a permanent threat from Iranian missiles and drones provided to Tehran’s new ally there. The Houthis fired hundreds of them on targets that included Saudi oil facilities and even the capital, Riyadh, on several occasions.

The main shocker to Saudi security thinking came with Iran’s missile and drone attack in September 2019 on two key oil facilities that knocked out half of its production. Not only did US anti-missile systems fail to intercept them, but President Trump also dismissed the need for US retaliation because, he said, it was an attack on Saudi Arabia and “wasn’t an attack on us.”

Saudi rulers are acutely fearful of a changing geopolitical landscape where the focus of the White House and Pentagon has shifted to countering Russia in Europe and China in Asia. 

Finally, Saudi rulers are acutely fearful of a changing geopolitical landscape where the focus of the White House and Pentagon has shifted to countering Russia in Europe and China in Asia. MBS likely sees an American security commitment as the last best hope for keeping even a leaky US security umbrella in place and engaged in containing its archrival, Iran. 

It is far from clear what any US security guarantee would cover in face of an Iranian attack. Tehran has long since learned how to use its friends and allies in various Arab countries to do its bidding to elude direct responsibility. This pattern has become particularly obvious in Yemen where Iranian-provided missiles and drones to the Houthis now constitute a major threat to the kingdom.

So, would another Houthi missile or drone attack require a US military response in Yemen? Would Washington have to respond to an attack on the kingdom by one of Iran’s militia allies in Iraq? These are questions that, at the very least, need answering as part of any US security guarantee.

Whether any such agreement finally sees the light of day remains to be seen. But the fact MBS is using the demand as one of his bargaining chips for establishing relations with Israel suggests the high degree of Saudi anxiety over the kingdom’s future security without US backing and MBS’ deep-seated fear of American abandonment.

Works Cited

David B. Ottaway, The King’s Messfgenger: Prince Bandar bin Sultan and America’s Tangled Relationship with Saudi Arabia((Walker Publishing Company, New York, 2008) p 95.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center. 

About the Author

David Ottaway image

David Ottaway

Middle East Fellow;
Former Washington Post Middle East Correspondent
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more