“Do not overpromise and underdeliver” was the advice I was given early in my career. “It can only lead to disappointment and breach of trust.” U.S. President Joe Biden should keep these words in mind as he, like many American presidents before him, sets out to reshape the Middle East, this time through the mirage of a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal.
The scope and scale of what President Biden’s top diplomats are negotiating with Riyadh is extraordinary, particularly for an administration that took office promising to wind down America’s involvement in the region.
In return for this key Arab and Muslim nation normalizing relations with the Jewish state, U.S. officials are considering Saudi demands to commit the United States to the defense of their country, and to assisting them in becoming a nuclear power that aspires to enrich uranium for ostensibly civilian purposes. The latter project is being dubbed “a nuclear Aramco,” referencing the American-Saudi partnership that gave birth to the world’s leading oil company.
Biden downplayed the chances of a breakthrough just yesterday, but his recent appointment of former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro as the first ever senior advisor for regional integration, working with top administration officials Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein on Saudi Arabia, illustrates the added priority the White House is now assigning the matter.
Should it succeed, such a grand bargain would be a game changer for the Middle East and America’s role in it. It would turbocharge the nascent strategic alliance between Arabs and Israelis against the challenge posed by Iran. It would also cement Washington’s regional posture, fending off China’s growing encroachment into a region whose oil exports and maritime chokepoints remain vital for the global economy, and for any aspiring superpower to dominate.
Sounds too good to be true? That’s because it is.
The Saudi rationale is clear. Risky as normalizing relations with Israel could be for the Saudi leadership in terms of a public backlash, such a deal would be a boon for its efforts to modernize the country and cement its position as an ascendant middle power — on par with countries like Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, and others. It would enhance the kingdom’s long-term stability, a requirement for any ambitious economic vision, protected by an American security umbrella.
But prudent policies often perish at the hands of complex politics. One expects President Biden, whose secretary of state met the Saudi crown prince last month, to caution his interlocutors about the political headwinds such a bargain would face, both in the United States and Israel.
Saudi Arabia remains deeply unpopular among American lawmakers in the Senate due to concerns about human rights and the war in Yemen. Support by a two-thirds margin is required to ratify any defense treaty with the kingdom. And while support from evangelicals and Washington’s formidable pro-Israel lobby may help, it is unlikely to prove sufficient. Israel’s right-wing government itself is increasingly unpopular in Washington, particularly among Democrats whose votes the administration would need to sway.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is embroiled in an unprecedented constitutional crisis and beholden to a fragile governing coalition. He is incapable of making meaningful concessions toward the Palestinians, who are also in disarray, without risking government collapse.
Normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia is very alluring for an embattled prime minister looking to bolster his legacy, but the kingdom’s need for an Israeli gesture toward the Palestinians is a price Netanyahu cannot currently afford.
Voltaire, the French Enlightenment-era philosopher, famously observed that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Achieving full Saudi normalization with Israel in return for an American-Saudi defense treaty is a bridge too far for all parties. A more measured approach is more likely to yield tangible results.
On his visit to Saudi Arabia last year, President Biden succeeded in convincing it to open its airspace to Israeli civilian overflights, drastically shortening flight time for Israelis traveling to East Asia. He can now lay the groundwork for an eventual normalization deal by securing the lifting of restrictions on commerce, trade, and travel between the two countries.
And while a defense treaty or a formal alliance — which the U.S. does not even have with Israel — is implausible, President Biden can provide assurances that the United States would come to Saudi Arabia’s aid in the event of a major attack against it, one that threatens key American interests in maintaining regional stability and the free flow of oil. His administration can lobby Congress to approve pending arms sales, and it can designate the kingdom as a Major Defense Partner and a Major Non-NATO Ally.
But the one issue most worthy of President Biden’s attention is that of nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has already signed nuclear cooperation agreements with countries including China, Russia, South Korea, and France. Its decision to develop civilian nuclear energy to free up oil for export and to exploit its untapped uranium reserves has already been taken.
It is in the U.S. national interest, whether viewed from the prism of great power competition against China and Russia, safeguarding the non-proliferation regime, or promoting national industrial policies, that Saudi Arabia’s civilian nuclear program be signed and sealed as an American-Saudi joint venture.
Riyadh’s insistence on enriching its own uranium — as Iran was allowed to do under the nuclear deal signed by President Barack Obama — poses a political and legal challenge, but practical compromises have been proposed by leading American nonproliferation experts and should be a reference for creative solutions as discussions continue. It is doable.
President Biden’s personal relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been unsteady at best. A tempered version of what is being negotiated can put this important bilateral relationship on a stable footing and still reshape the Middle East. To succeed, President Biden must set achievable objectives, continue to manage expectations, and clearly communicate to the Saudis what is realistically possible.
The most valuable commodity in Arabia is trust, not oil. Do not overpromise and underdeliver.
Firas Maksad is a senior fellow and director of strategic outreach at the Middle East Institute. He is also an adjunct professor at George Washington University. He tweets @firasmaksad.
Photo by Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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