A Defense Pact Will Not Upgrade U.S.-Saudi Security Relations


Political resets between adversaries or friends who have drifted apart require political will and viable strategies on both sides. After years of strain, both U.S. and Saudi leaders have now stated that they want stronger relations. Washington and Riyadh also seem to have identified a path forward: If Saudi Arabia normalizes its ties with Israel, the United States would upgrade its military relations with the kingdom and consider Riyadh’s request for a formal U.S.-Saudi defense pact and support for a Saudi civilian nuclear program. The Biden administration reportedly will push for this deal, or parts of it, in the next six to seven months before things get incredibly busy with the presidential election campaign.

This would be a serious mistake. A treaty alliance with Saudi Arabia is neither politically realistic nor strategically wise for the United States.

First and foremost, it would be difficult for any president, Democrat or Republican, to convince his own administration, not to mention Congress and the American people, to enter into an alliance with Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy for which Americans feel little affinity. In becoming a treaty ally, it would also be leapfrogging over critical partners like Taiwan, which are both democratic and more strategically important. 



Beyond all this, a defense pact with the United States is not something Riyadh can afford, nor is it something it really needs. It is also not what the U.S.-Saudi security relationship requires to become stronger. Instead, more effective security cooperation between the two sides is what is really needed, one that is undergirded by a new and more centralized U.S. military posture in the kingdom that includes a security cooperation office and a base operating support-integrator. 

The Best Defense Isn’t Always a Defense Pact

It is not difficult to see why Saudi Arabia is drawn to the idea of a treaty alliance with the United States. Who would not be? This is an exclusive and powerful club, and the allure of a defense pact with the most militarily capable country in the world, which would be a core ingredient of the alliance, is perfectly understandable. But there is no evidence that Saudi leaders have fully weighed the obligations that would accompany a defense pact with Washington. Defense pacts come with serious, mutual obligations. At their core, the parties that enter into such deals agree that they will come to the defense of each other in the event of an armed attack against either. There is also no evidence that Saudi Arabia is prepared to fight with the United States in the event of a war with Iran. 

But this is not just about combat responsibilities. Saudi Arabia would also have to commit to effective, transparent, and consistent consultation and information-sharing with Washington on various security policies and issues that affect U.S. interests. That includes military relations with China and/or Russia, which would cross an American red line and jeopardize the potential alliance. But Saudi Arabia and other regional partners have made it very clear that they do not want, and cannot afford, to choose between China and the United States.

Nevertheless, let us assume for a moment that Washington achieves political consensus on a treaty alliance with Saudi Arabia, and that Riyadh is willing to accept all the conditions that come with such an alliance. A defense pact without more effective security cooperation between the two sides will not realize Saudi Arabia’s central objective of establishing stronger defenses against renewed drone and missile attacks by Iran. Indeed, a solely top-down approach to a more strategic U.S.-Saudi defense arrangement could simply serve as an excuse to delay or evade the hard but necessary defense reforms that both sides should make to genuinely elevate the security relationship. 

The central difference between treaty allies and international partners of the United States is that Washington has been able to collectively achieve higher levels and closer forms of security cooperation with the former because it built everything with them from the bottom up and from top to bottom. Washington regularized and institutionalized this cooperation over many years, thus enabling it to ultimately become a full-fledged alliance. The defense pacts that the United States enjoys with NATO members and other treaty allies such as South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Japan are a natural byproduct of enduring strategic convergence and collective action.

The tragic part is that the United States has had close and almost exclusive security ties with Saudi Arabia for almost eight decades, yet both sides have never been able to truly upgrade their defense cooperation. One could point to the lack of shared democratic values — a foundational element of NATO, for example — as a reason for this outcome. But a lack of political will and strategic urgency also allowed gaps in security relations to persist. As a result, there is plenty of room for enhanced security cooperation with Saudi Arabia that does not require common values.

A Better Partnership

What both Riyadh and Washington need is a more coordinated approach to security, which can be built by working together on elements of the kingdom’s ongoing defense restructuring project, conducting joint U.S.-Saudi contingency planning, and investing in all the institutional requirements of a competent defense apparatus that go beyond military equipment. All of this requires Saudi commitment to implementing defense reform and an effective U.S. posture in the kingdom to support that commitment. 



What will it take for Washington to reorganize its footprint in the kingdom to improve security cooperation with the Saudi Ministry of Defense and Saudi armed forces? To help Saudi Arabia generate credible and sustainable combat power from its healthy defense budget, and respond effectively, alone or as part of a coalition, to various military contingencies, the United States should build a new advisory infrastructure in the kingdom. As I argued in a recent report, this infrastructure would require two main elements, neither of which currently exists: a base operating support-integrator, and a security cooperation office. 

A base operating support-integrator would serve as a “garrison command,” coordinating with all parts of the U.S. security cooperation posture in the host nation. In doing so they would provide for the efficient use of mission support resources for all U.S. forces operating on host-nation soil.

The security cooperation office would coordinate across Saudi national security agencies — not just the Ministry of Defense but also the Ministry of National Guard and the Ministry of Interior — and the U.S. security-cooperation enterprise. It would also oversee the programs that would provide locally informed advice that is tailored to Saudi Arabia, as opposed to concepts and processes borrowed or copied from the American system.

Following civilian guidance from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and military input from U.S. Central Command, the security cooperation office would execute a country security cooperation plan that would take applicable phase zero, or peacetime, activities or requirements and overlay them on the Saudi defense transformation effort. Like all other security cooperation offices worldwide, it would be fully funded by the U.S. government, though sharing costs with Riyadh under the right set of laws, rules, and procedures could be an option, too. There are more than enough foreign military sales-case administration billets in the existing U.S. military organizations in the kingdom to create the security cooperation office without having to expend additional U.S. human and financial resources.

As of now, the United States has an enormous posture in the kingdom, which includes the U.S. Military Training Mission, the Office of the Program Manager-Saudi Arabian National Guard, the U.S. Army Military Assistance Group (which used to be the Ministry of Interior-Military Assistance Group), and a hodgepodge of roughly 40 smaller U.S. organizations pursuing security cooperation-like activities with the Saudi Ministry of Defense and Saudi Arabian National Guard. But each of these parts functions almost autonomously, and this lack of integration undermines their effectiveness. If Saudi Arabia is to receive better advice from the United States on defense reform and modernization, which is a prerequisite for more effective security cooperation, this whole U.S. advisory infrastructure should be centralized, streamlined, and explicitly tied to Riyadh’s own defense transformation plan, which was launched by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman in 2016. 

The Road to Revamping

These recommendations should not be difficult to achieve. There is reason for optimism on both the U.S. and Saudi side. On the U.S. side, Michael Ratney, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of minister-counselor, was sworn in as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia on March 21, 2023. This is a significant step in the right direction because it ends the U.S. diplomatic absence in Riyadh (the last time there was a chief of mission in Saudi Arabia was in January 2021) and it sends the right message to the Saudi leadership. Ratney has critical roles to play: He can and should help to coordinate this U.S. security cooperation overhaul in the kingdom. This will require, among other things, negotiating with the Saudi government, as the United States cannot undergo a full reorganization of its presence in Saudi Arabia without the their approval. 

The advantages of security cooperation reform are immense for both Washington and Riyadh. The Saudi leadership is eager to see a revised U.S. posture more closely tied to the Saudi defense transformation plan. Saudi Defense Minister Khaled bin Salman (the brother of the crown prince) discussed this very issue with U.S. officials in the most recent U.S.-Saudi Strategic Joint Planning Committee in May of last year. And the better that Saudi Arabia can deter and defend against Iranian aggression, the less the United States would contribute to these missions, giving Washington the opportunity to transfer more resources from the region to the Indo-Pacific and/or Europe. 

Assisting Riyadh requires a fundamentally new look at U.S. security cooperation and a restructuring of the military assistance and training program in the kingdom. Arming Saudi forces and training them on how to shoot is important, but it is nowhere near sufficient. The United States should help Riyadh pay much closer attention to and invest in defense governance or institutional capacity building.

None of the above suggests that a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal has no merit or should not be pursued for its own sake. Far from it. But it should not be predicated on a U.S.-Saudi defense pact that is unlikely to effectively upgrade U.S.-Saudi security ties. There are other, better ways to put the relationship on a more solid footing.



Bilal Y. Saab is a senior fellow and the director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute. He is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program and a former senior advisor for security cooperation in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Isaiah Campbel