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Biden aides, Saudis explore defence treaty modelled after Asian pacts

By News Desk
September 20, 2023

WASHINGTON: American and Saudi officials are discussing terms of a mutual defence treaty that would resemble the robust military pacts that the United States has with its close allies Japan and South Korea, a central component in President Biden’s high-stakes diplomacy to get Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel, according to US officials.

Under such an agreement, the United States and Saudi Arabia would generally pledge to provide military support if the other country is attacked in the region or on Saudi territory. The discussions to model the terms after the treaties in East Asia, considered among the strongest the United States has outside of its European pacts, have not been previously reported.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, regards a mutual defence agreement with the United States as the most important element in his talks with the Biden administration about Israel, current and former US officials said. Saudi officials say a strong defence agreement would help deter potential assaults by Iran or its armed partners even as the two regional rivals re-establish diplomatic ties.

Prince Mohammed is also asking the Biden administration to help his country develop a civilian nuclear program, which some US officials fear could be cover for a nuclear weapons program to counter Iran. Any treaty with Saudi Arabia that is similar to the American pacts with East Asian allies is sure to draw strong objections in Congress. Some senior US lawmakers, including top Democrats, see the Saudi government and Prince Mohammed as unreliable partners who care little about US interests or human rights.

An agreement would also raise questions about whether Biden is getting the United States more militarily entwined with the Middle East. And such a treaty would also contradict the Biden administration’s stated goal of reorienting American military resources and fighting capabilities away from the area and toward deterring China specifically in the Asia-Pacific region. The US discussions with Saudi Arabia and Israel have mainly revolved around Prince Mohammed’s demands of the Biden administration. That diplomacy is expected to come up on Wednesday, when Biden plans to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Biden mentioned the benefits of nations normalizing ties with Israel in a broad speech at the United Nations on Tuesday morning.

The US military has bases and troops in both Japan and South Korea, but American officials say there are currently no serious discussions about having a large contingent of American troops in Saudi Arabia under any new defense agreement. The Pentagon has just under 2,700 American troops in the kingdom, according to a letter the White House sent to Congress in June.

Biden’s push for a Saudi-Israel deal is a gambit that, not long ago, would have been hard to imagine. He pledged during his 2020 presidential campaign to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” And brokering a deal could be a political boon for Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government, which American officials have sharply criticized for its efforts to weaken Israel’s judiciary and its encouragement of settlement building in Palestinian areas.

But US officials have said a diplomatic pact would be an important symbolic defusing of Arab-Israeli tensions and could also have geopolitical significance for the United States. Bringing Saudi Arabia closer to the United States, they argue, could pull the kingdom farther from China’s orbit and blunt Beijing’s efforts to expand its influence in the Middle East. The State Department declined to comment on details of the discussions for this article.

In recent months, White House officials have given briefings about the negotiations to influential Democratic lawmakers, whom the administration would need to persuade to approve the treaty in order to obtain the 67 necessary votes in the Senate, or two-thirds of that chamber. A majority of Senate Democrats have voted on multiple occasions to restrict Washington’s arms sales and other security cooperation with Riyadh, objecting to the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, which has been aided by American weapons, and the killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, a murder that American spy agencies have judged was ordered by the prince. He has denied direct involvement.