It is not a secret that US President Joseph Biden began his presidency with cold relations with Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, he relegated the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the background, focusing instead on countering China and revitalising the nuclear deal with Iran.
However, in a bid to reduce oil prices following the war in Ukraine, he visited Saudi Arabia in July 2022 where he exchanged a fist bump with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
Nevertheless, his visit seems to have achieved limited success.
In October 2022, Saudi Arabia reduced its daily oil production by 2 million barrels in coordination with OPEC+ to maintain the barrel price above $90, prompting Biden to declare that he would “re-evaluate” America’s entire relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Adding to this, Riyadh hosted the Chinese President in December 2022 where a comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries was cemented. By March 2023, China had brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, leading to the resumption of diplomatic relations.
Fearing that the loss of Saudi Arabia's support could undermine the US strategy to counter both China and Russia, senior US officials have stepped up their visits to Riyadh and Jeddah in order to establish common ground on issues that have strained their strategic relations.
Leaks from mainstream US media outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post suggest negotiations are underway for a comprehensive agreement between the two parties.
This purported agreement includes NATO-like security assurances for Saudi Arabia, granting the Saudis access to sophisticated US defence systems, and facilitating the establishment of a peaceful nuclear plant capable of uranium enrichment within the kingdom.
In exchange, the leaks suggest that the US is requesting Saudi Arabia to normalise its relations with Israel, abstain from advancing its relations with China and Russia, and end its involvement in Yemen’s conflict.
Saudi officials have refrained from commenting on these leaks, leaving both media and political analysts room to speculate about their stance. But a careful review of what is now called the “Grand Deal” shows that the kingdom is in a strong position to achieve its objectives without necessarily acceding to all of the concessions that the media reports are highlighting.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia aspires to construct nuclear power plants capable of uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes. Back in 2010, Saudi Arabia tasked the King Abdullah City for Nuclear and Renewable Energy with formulating plans to reduce dependency on oil and gas for electricity production. Consequently, the city established nuclear cooperation agreements with several States, including the US, France, Russia, China, South Korea, and Argentina.
However, the Kingdom's objective extends beyond mere construction of peaceful nuclear facilities — it also seeks to ensure its capacity to produce enriched uranium to fuel these plants. While the UAE relinquished this right when establishing its nuclear power infrastructure in 2009, Saudi Arabia, motivated by national security concerns, aims to retain this prerogative.
This right finds its assurance in Article IV of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which grants signatory states the right to enrich uranium for peaceful applications. The article states: “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.”
Saudi Arabia would not be trailblazing in this endeavour.
According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), several non-nuclear weapon states, including Germany, Japan, Brazil, and Argentina, operate uranium enrichment facilities for peaceful ends. Consequently, Saudi Arabia neither infringes upon NPT provisions nor establishes a precedent by expressing its intent to operate a nuclear plant capable of uranium enrichment, all under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Notably, during a press conference with Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, on 8 June 2023, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Farhan emphasised, “We are advancing our domestic nuclear programme, and both Washington and other nations have expressed interest in contributing to its development.”
Saudi Arabia's preference to collaborate with the United States in constructing these nuclear facilities underscores its commitment to demonstrating the peaceful nature of its nuclear programme to Western countries. However, this stance does not preclude cooperation with other nations should the US decline to offer uranium enrichment technology to the Kingdom.
A NATO-like defence pact
Equally well-known is Saudi Arabia's pursuit of a NATO-like defence pact with the US, coupled with its ambition to acquire the world's most advanced defence systems. For an extended period, Saudi Arabia operated under the belief that the presence of numerous US military bases in the Gulf region, along with its longstanding special relationship with the US dating back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's era, would suffice for its protection.
However, this outlook was challenged when the Kingdom fell victim to missile and drone attacks on its eastern oil facilities in 2019, causing a nearly month-long reduction in oil production. Furthermore, its infrastructure has continually been targeted by Houthi assaults, including an attack on Aramco's Jeddah oil depot in 2022.
Washington’s inability to effectively shield Saudi Arabia from these attacks has underscored the necessity for the Kingdom to formalise its defence ties with the US given Saudi Arabia's critical role in the global economy — contributing 12.2% of the world's crude oil production in 2021 and possessing 17% of the world's proven reserves — it is imperative for the world's stability that the Kingdom is empowered to safeguard itself.
Contrary to claims that the US lacks NATO-like agreements with dissimilar regimes, historical precedent counters this notion; the US maintained a NATO-like defence treaty with South Korea since 1953, well before the country's democratic transition.
In summary, it is Saudi Arabia's right to develop a peaceful nuclear programme with the capacity for uranium enrichment, and it is in the interest of global economic stability to bolster Saudi Arabia's security measures. Washington’s shortfall in addressing these two critical matters may compel Saudi Arabia to explore alternate avenues to fulfil them.
Notably, these issues are completely separate from the question of normalisation with Israel, or Saudi Arabia's relations with China and Russia. Washington’s apparent attempt to conflate these issues likely stems from a strategic approach aimed at eliciting concessions from Saudi Arabia that align with its own interests. The extent to which Saudi Arabia will accommodate Washington's interests, however, remains to be seen.