The Biden administration is working overtime to consolidate what is arguably Washington’s most significant advantage over its great power rivals, especially China. That advantage lies in the Middle East.
More specifically, the United States has been pushing hard to forge a deal in which Washington would give formal security guarantees to Saudi Arabia and, in return, the Saudis would establish diplomatic ties with Israel, with Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. At the Group of 20 gathering in New Delhi, President Joe Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia exchanged a warm handshake. Last week, a high-level U.S. delegation visited Riyadh to pursue the potential agreement, following two separate trips this summer by the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Credit…Pool photo b Evelyn Hockstein
It’s easy to see what the Saudis and Israelis, facing security threats in the region, particularly from Iran, would gain. Saudi Arabia would win reliable American protection, among other potential benefits. For Israel, establishing formal ties with Saudi Arabia would bolster its position against Iran. It could also be Israel’s greatest diplomatic breakthrough since its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, and would give other Sunni Muslim-majority states incentive to follow suit.
Yet neither Saudi Arabia nor Israel appears to be showing much urgency in getting the deal done, while the Biden administration has made it a clear priority. So, beyond a diplomatic victory, what’s in it for Washington?
The main advantage the triangular deal offers the United States is a tightened grip over three vitally important waterways around the Arabian Peninsula: the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Those arteries are critical links for China, a focus of American concern.
The Strait of Hormuz, which links the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea and more widely the Indian Ocean, is arguably the most important maritime choke point in the world. About one-third of seaborne petroleum, and a slightly lower percentage of liquid natural gas, passes through it each year. The overwhelming majority of this energy goes to Asia, including over 45 percent of China’s annual oil imports.
The Suez Canal, which links the Red and Mediterranean Seas and connects Asia, Africa and Europe, is just as significant. Approximately 12 percent of global trade passes through it annually, and China is its biggest user. Chinese ships account for 10 percent of those passing through the canal. Those ships carry, for example, over 60 percent of the goods China sends to Europe.
At the other end of the Red Sea, a third key passageway, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, controls the entrance into the Red Sea leading to the Suez Canal and is similarly significant to global trade. It’s no accident that the only overseas Chinese military base is in Djibouti, just 68 miles from Bab el-Mandeb, or that Beijing invested billions of dollars in that country.
As part of a more aggressive effort to expand its presence along its trade and resource routes, China has attempted to woo both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to gain a strategic foothold in the Persian Gulf, and has been constructing a relatively modest port facility near Abu Dhabi that Washington has warned could serve military purposes.
For now, China doesn’t have much room to maneuver. The United States and its partners dominate the three o waterways surrounding the Arabian Peninsula. A deal with Israel and Saudi Arabia could secure that advantage for decades to come. It would bring the two main U.S. military partners in the Middle East together in open cooperation, and effectively create an interlocking regional chain consisting of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Israel, Egypt and Jordan, all longstanding friends of Washington, nearly encircling the Arabian Peninsula.
Moreover, U.S. security guarantees for Riyadh would undoubtedly ensure that Saudi Arabia’s increasing flirtation with China never leads to a significant strategic foothold for Beijing in the kingdom, a line the Saudis have thus far carefully avoided crossing.
If this reinforced network of waterway control were to come to pass, it could allow the United States to finally realize its longstanding goal of reducing some of its huge military bases in the Gulf region, including Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, that are effectively remnants of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Smaller bases, with the probable exception of the one in Bahrain, which is home to Naval Forces Central Command and the Fifth Fleet, could be reconfigured for rapid responses to local threats in coordination with regional partners.
The Biden administration has been energetically pursuing this triangular deal because it would secure an invaluable global competitive advantage. What remains unclear is whether Washington has sufficient leverage over the Israeli government, which appears allergic to the concessions toward the Palestinians that Saudi Arabia reportedly seeks, or whether there is enough time before the president’s re-election bid to hammer out such a complex arrangement.
It seems that Washington and Riyadh might be ready to overcome their bilateral differences. But without Israeli participation and Saudi-Israeli normalization, a simpler bilateral agreement won’t give Washington what it needs: a potent network of friendly states based on a rapprochement between the United States’ two key strategic partners in the Middle East.
The triangular nature of this initiative makes it particularly difficult to achieve. But the vast potential strategic benefits readily explain why the administration is taking on this huge task now, with potentially enough time before the election and the seeming receptiveness by the Saudis.Both Israel and Saudi Arabia would benefit in important and obvious ways, but the United States would be the biggest winner.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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