UK-supplied Typhoons led Saudi bombing campaign against Yemen

Opening up yet another front

Saudi Arabia and the US are looking to repair their strained relationship with a strategic deal which could easily lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, says Daniel Lazare

With the Ukrainian offensive increasingly bogged down now that the autumn rains are setting in, the US is opening up yet another front in its ongoing struggle with Russia, China and Iran.

The location is the Persian Gulf, which has been oddly quiet in recent years. One reason is that the main protagonists have been preoccupied with internal affairs: Iran with the anti-hijab protests, Saudi Arabia with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic liberalisation campaign and Israel with the turmoil over Binyamin Netanyahu’s judicial ‘reforms’.

But another reason is that America has been allowing its attention to drift. With one war going badly and another conflict brewing in the western Pacific (that is potentially even more dangerous), it has not had time for what was once billed as an ‘American lake’. Much has changed as a consequence. Straying farther and farther from the fold, the Saudis are forging closer ties with China, seeking to join Brics, the international alliance formed by Russia, China and India, and re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iran. The kingdom has also embarked on a rapprochement with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad - the target of US regime-change operations for more than a decade. But now Assad is back in the Arab family’s good graces, courtesy of the Saudis, but much to the dismay of both Israel and the US.

The result is a major setback in a part of the world that America once thought of as its own. To that end, the Biden administration has come up with a ‘grand strategy’ aimed at taking back lost ground by shutting out Beijing, boxing in Iran and locking Israel and the Saudis in a long-term embrace - all in one fell swoop. The plan, disclosed last week in a front-page story in The New York Times, calls for a Middle East version of Aukus1 that will soothe Jerusalem and return Riyadh to the pro-US camp, so that Washington can once again take control.2

But the proposal has a touch of panic about it due to Joe Biden’s growing political woes. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll had devastating news for the president. It showed him trailing Donald Trump by 42% to 51% and found that just 37% of Americans think he is doing a ‘good job’ - versus 56% who do not - and that 74% see him as too old for another term. It also found that 44% say their finances have deteriorated since he took office - the highest such number in more than 25 years.3

What is even more devastating is that 40% of respondents say they would blame Biden if the federal government shuts down due to a deepening gridlock on Capitol Hill (versus only 33% who would blame the Republicans). Even though it is rightwing crazies like Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene who are plainly driving the shutdown, a plurality of Americans believes the liberal centre is responsible, with all its hypocrisy, warmongering and sleaze.

The foundering Ukrainian offensive is compounding the damage. “More people will die, more buildings will burn, and the surrounding farmlands will be seeded with land mines and unexploded shells that probably will take decades to clear,” The New York Times grimly noted about the struggle over a tiny village known as Robotyne.4 The Washington Post recently conceded that the war will not end this year or next, but “may well drag into 2025 or even longer”.5

For a White House that originally counted on a quick victory over a dilapidated Russian military, this is as bad as it gets. The result is a new diplomatic drive aimed at shoring up the Persian Gulf, where, until recently, Washington maintained maximum control. But it is a last-ditch effort that does not look like it will work out any better than the rest.

Ultra-right Israel

The details show a government that is deeply out of touch. Desperate to keep the 1995 Oslo Accords alive - accords that never offered Palestinians anything more than Bantustan-like status to begin with - the plan calls on Israel to commit to no further annexations and no new settlements and to return certain Palestinian population centres to Palestinian control.6

This is a mantra that the US has been repeating for decades, yet the chances of it happening are now less than zero. Instead of cutting back, for instance, Bezalel Smotrich, Netanyahu’s ultra-right finance minister, has called for doubling the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank from 500,000 to a million.7 Where the proposal calls on Israel to put a stop to unauthorised hilltop settlement, national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir is urging settlers to “run for the hilltops” in order to establish more. While visiting one outpost in early June, he said:

There needs to be a full settlement here. Not just here, but on all the hilltops around us. We have to settle the land of Israel and at the same time need to launch a military campaign, blow up buildings, assassinate terrorists. Not one, or two, but dozens, hundreds or, if needed, thousands.

Needless to say, a fascist like Ben-Gvir is not going to change course, no matter how nicely the United States asks. As for all those supporters of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement who think that the US merely has to apply a bit of economic pressure for Israel to snap to attention, the fact is that US leverage has been steadily diminishing for years. American military aid is now two-thirds less relative to Israeli GDP than it was in 1999, while the Jewish state has carved a foreign policy for itself that is completely independent of anything Washington has to say. When ethno-nationalists (from Geert Wilders of the Netherlands to Narendra Modi of India) seek inspiration, they do not look to the United States. Rather, they look to Israel - the most successful ethno-state of all.8

This is what makes America’s latest appeal so abject. All it shows is that an over-extended US needs Israel at this point more than Israel needs the US.

The plan’s Saudi proposals are just as batty. In return for normalising relations with Israel, the United States is offering a mutual defence pact plus US aid in developing a civilian nuclear programme. The first is certainly appealing from a Saudi point of view. But it would draw the US even more deeply into the kingdom’s war with Yemen, which, despite a ceasefire in effect since mid-2022, could reignite at any moment. It would also draw the US into a military conflict with Iran, if the Saudis attack the Islamic republic or if they provoke an attack in return. America would be under pressure to respond, as things now stand, but it would be under even more pressure if the plan goes through. It is a recipe for additional military adventures on the part of an empire that already has its hands full.

Weapons grade

The effect is to raise US foreign policy to a new level of incoherence. After all, Saudi Arabia is the country that Biden vowed to treat as a “pariah” due to Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. (The CIA concluded that MBS ordered the murder personally.)

As Biden put it in a Democratic debate a year after the killing, “I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them. We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.” Biden added that he found “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia” and said with regard to the Yemen war that he would “end the sale of material to the Saudis where they’re going in and murdering children”.9

But that was the last decade. Now Biden wants to turn the Saudis into the closest of allies, while selling them even more. As for a civilian nuclear programme, the proposal follows on the heels of the US abandonment of the 2015 Iranian nuclear accords, which the Obama administration - including then-vice president Biden - said would prevent Iran from using its civilian reactors to manufacture weapons-grade uranium. This is the deal that Trump repudiated in May 2018, but which Biden promised to restore in 2020 - only to then sabotage negotiations by insisting that Iran cut back on its missile development programme as well (an area that the original agreement was never meant to cover).

With more oil than it knows what to do with, Saudi Arabia has no more need for nuclear energy than it does for wind power or hydro. The only conceivable use for such a programme would be to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels. Where the 2015 accord was supposed to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Persian Gulf, the new strategy would rev one up.

But stoking conflict is the only way the US knows, when it comes to reasserting control. The US and Saudi Arabia are locked in a dysfunctional marriage straight out of Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? There is little doubt, for instance, that Saudi intelligence and diplomatic officials played a key role in 9/11. (For the gruesome details, see the long-suppressed 28-page chapter of the joint congressional report on 9/11, which Barack Obama released in 2016 under intense public pressure.10) Yet, rather than investigate, George W Bush preferred to save the relationship by invading Iraq.

Two weeks after Saudi Arabia began its war against Yemen in March 2015, then deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken flew to Riyadh to assure the kingdom: “We have expedited weapons deliveries, we have increased our intelligence sharing, and we have established a joint coordination planning cell in the Saudi operation centre,” he said about a war that would result in one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history.11 A few days after that, an Obama administration official told The Washington Post that it did not object to al Qa’eda using hundreds of US-made TOW missiles - which the Saudis were happy to supply - to take control of Syria’s northern province of Idlib, which al Qa’eda (now known as the ‘Al-Nusra Front’) holds to this day.12

The US repeatedly sought to protect Saudi Arabia and allow it to have its way because it needed it in order to hold onto nearly half the world’s known oil reserves. It saw the gulf as key to the global energy supply and hence to world economic domination. It would therefore stop at nothing to keep it under US control. Jimmy Carter declared in January 1980 in a statement written by his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski:

An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.

The Strait of Hormuz is still the world’s most important energy checkpoint, as the US Energy Information Agency noted in 2019, and the fact that most of the oil now goes to India and China makes it more important from a US point of view rather than less.13

Reasserting control is therefore a top priority. In militarising the gulf, the US has created a complex security structure stretching from Israel to Saudi Arabia, with gulf monarchies like Bahrain and Qatar - home, respectively, to the Fifth Fleet and the vast Al Udeid airbase - playing supporting (but nonetheless vital) roles.

It is a structure that the US neglected following the Khashoggi murder, but which it now wants to restore in all its glory. But, even though it threatens to raise tensions in a region that has already seen more than its fair share of war, it is necessary in order to claw back control. To quote Madeleine Albright: “We think the price is worth it.”

  1. Australia-UK-US ‘security pact’.↩︎

  2. www.nytimes.com/2023/09/19/us/politics/biden-saudi-defense-treaty.html.↩︎

  3. abcnews.go.com/Politics/video/abcnews-poll-trump-edges-biden-head-head-103466232.↩︎

  4. www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/09/20/world/europe/ukraine-war-counteroffensive-robotyne.html.↩︎

  5. www.washingtonpost.com/business/2023/09/22/ukraine-us-will-have-to-risk-escalation-in-long-war-with-russia/76839f78-58ff-11ee-bf64-cd88fe7adc71_story.html.↩︎

  6. www.nytimes.com/2023/07/27/opinion/israel-saudi-arabia-biden.html.↩︎

  7. www.972mag.com/settlements-roads-infrastructure-smotrich.↩︎

  8. jacobin.com/2021/09/germany-afd-zionism-antisemitism-israel-nationalism.↩︎

  9. theintercept.com/2019/11/21/democratic-debate-joe-biden-saudi-arabia.↩︎

  10. web.archive.org/web/20160715183528/http://intelligence.house.gov/sites/intelligence.house.gov/files/documents/declasspart4.pdf.↩︎

  11. www.cnn.com/2015/04/08/politics/yemen-u-s-assistance-saudi-coalition/index.html.↩︎

  12. www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-allies-in-middle-east-ramping-up-support-for-rebel-forces-in-syria/2015/04/29/07b1d82c-edc8-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html.↩︎

  13. www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=39932.↩︎