Saudis push for ‘plan B’ that excludes Israel from key deal with US

<span>Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, in Riyadh on Monday.</span><span>Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, in Riyadh on Monday.Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/AFP/Getty Images

The US and Saudi Arabia have drafted a set of agreements on security and technology-sharing which were intended to be linked to a broader Middle East settlement involving Israel and the Palestinians.

However, in the absence of a ceasefire in Gaza and in the face of adamant resistance from Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government to the creation of a Palestinian state – and its apparent determination to launch an offensive on Rafah – the Saudis are pushing for a more modest plan B, which excludes the Israelis.

Under that option, the US and Saudi Arabia would sign agreements on a bilateral defence pact, US help in the building of a Saudi civil nuclear energy industry, and high-level sharing in the field of artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.

An offer would be made to Israel of normalisation of diplomatic relations with Riyadh in return for Israeli acceptance of the two-state solution to the 76-year Israeli-Arab conflict. But under Riyadh’s plan B proposal, completion of the US-Saudi deals would not be made dependent on agreement from the Netanyahu government.

Related: Netanyahu vows to raid Rafah ‘with or without’ hostage deal

“There should be room for a less-for-less model, so the relationship with the US need not be held hostage to the whims of Israeli politics or Benjamin Netanyahu,” said Firas Maksad, senior director for strategic outreach at the Middle East Institute.

The Biden administration would not land the historic regional settlement it has been seeking in the wreckage of the Gaza war, at least not immediately, but it would cement a strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia that would keep encroaching Chinese and Russian influence at bay.

It is far from clear whether the administration – let alone Congress – would accept such a less-for-less outcome.

In remarks in Riyadh on Monday, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, continued to link a US-Saudi deal to Saudi-Israeli normalisation and progress towards a Palestinian state.

“The work that Saudi Arabia, the United States have been doing together in terms of our own agreements, I think, is potentially very close to completion,” Blinken told the World Economic Forum in the Saudi capital. “But then in order to move forward with normalisation, two things will be required: calm in Gaza and a credible pathway to a Palestinian state.”

However, there are signs of wavering in the Biden camp. US officials who were adamant last week that US-Saudi agreements were inextricably linked to Saudi-Israel normalisation and the two-state solution have become non-committal on the subject in recent days.

One of the goals of Blinken’s trip to Riyadh was to finalise the US-Saudi agreements, which administration officials describe as almost complete. However, they made clear there was no final breakthrough.

“We’re close, but they haven’t made the kind of progress that would put us past the finish line, which the Saudis had been hoping for when Blinken was due to come through,” said Maksad, who was in Riyadh last week.

Initially at least, the US-Saudi deal would be agreed independently of developments in Israel and the occupied territories, but a formal offer would be extended to Israel, exchanging Saudi normalisation – a key Israeli foreign policy goal – for “irrevocable” moves towards the creation of a Palestinian state on the territory of Gaza and the West Bank.

The US hope was such an offer would become an issue in Israeli politics, particularly in elections which would follow the collapse of the Netanyahu government.

According to informed sources, the nuclear part of the US-Saudi deal could allow Riyadh a conversion plant for turning refined uranium powder into a gas, but Saudi Arabia would not initially be allowed to enrich uranium gas on its own territory, a key constraint on the capacity to make a nuclear bomb. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has raised proliferation fears in the past by declaring that Riyadh would pursue nuclear weapons if Iran developed its own.

A separate US-Saudi text would establish a defence pact between the two countries.

“At a minimum, what is required from the Saudi side is something similar to what the US shares with South Korea – short of an article 5 [the Nato mutual defence clause] – but a more stringent, formal commitment to the territorial defence of the kingdom,” Maksad said.

The third part of the deal would involve a loosening of US export controls to Saudi Arabia of computer chips used in AI development tools, a key element in Saudi aspirations to become the hi-tech hub for the region.

All three parts of the draft deal involve the US giving vital strategic assistance to Saudi security. In place of progress towards Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Saudi monarchy is presenting a purely bilateral deal as a US win in its efforts to contain Iranian expansionism and in Washington’s “great-power competition”, particularly with China.

Riyadh has been steadily ramping up the amount of arms it has been buying from China as it has hedged its strategic bets in recent years. The Biden administration was taken by surprise in March last year when Saudi Arabia and Iran announced they had agreed a Chinese-brokered deal to restore relations.

Out of fear of losing its dominant great power role in the Middle East, Biden abandoned his attempt to cold-shoulder Prince Mohammed over abuses like the 2018 murder of the Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was a Washington Post columnist. The US rapprochement culminated in a much-criticised fist bump between Biden and the crown prince during a presidential visit to Jeddah in 2022.

Kirsten Fontenrose, a former senior director for the Gulf in the US national security council, described the nuclear, defence and AI deals as the “deliverables from Biden’s fist-bump trip to the kingdom”.

“The deal was drafted with the assumption that the Saudis would bring normalisation with Israel to the table,” Fontenrose said. “But the Israeli government is currently placing higher value on blocking the formation of a Palestinian state than on normalising with Saudi. So the deal now being discussed is bilateral.”

The White House, however, is reluctant to give so much away in the absence of a normalisation deal that has the power to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Opposition would be even stronger in Congress, which is more focused on the kingdom’s poor human rights record, including Khashoggi’s murder.

It was revealed on Tuesday that a young Saudi women’s rights activist, Manahel al-Otaibi, had been secretly sentenced to 11 years in prison by an anti-terrorism court after being arrested for “her choice of clothing and support for women’s rights”.

“If the deal does not include commitments from Saudi on China and Iran, for example, in exchange for a security guarantee, Congress will be asking, ‘What’s in it for the US?’” Fontenrose said.

Maksad suggested, however, that the “great-power competition” argument for signing a deal with the Saudis should be enough for the Biden administration.

“If you can bind Saudi Arabia to the United States in a strategic alliance, in a way that marginalises Russia and China in this part of the world, that’s a significant win for this administration,” he said. “That is something that consolidates the Middle East for the foreseeable future as being within the American realm.”

Even if this were enough for the White House, it almost certainly not be enough for the US Senate – and without Senate approval, any US security guarantees and promises of technological help are likely to be short-lived.

“Without Senate approval, this is a non-starter, and without the Israel piece of this, a Senate approval is non-starter,” said Matt Duss, a former foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders now the executive vice-president at the Center for International Policy.

“I remain confounded by how obsessed this administration seems with this deal, given all the obvious downsides and given the fact that we’re not making a deal with Saudi Arabia – we’re making a deal with one guy, a corrupt psychopath.