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A New Middle East? The future of the Saudi-American alliance

A New Middle East? The future of the Saudi-American alliance

This guest post is by Atilla Can Ekici. Atilla completed his master's degree at Birkbeck, University of London in 2020. He continues his doctoral education at the University of Plymouth, which he started in 2021 under the guidance of Dr Patrick Holden. His main areas of work are Saudi Arabia, Iran, foreign aid, and the Middle East.

“Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad! Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sissi. But Gulf states are pro-Sissi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood. Iran is pro-Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood! Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the US! Gulf states are pro-US. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro-Muslim Brotherhood against General Sissi. And General Sissi is being backed by the Gulf states! Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.”

K. N. Al-Sabah, Financial Times, 26 August 2013

In the region mentioned in the paragraph above, namely in the Middle East, alliances and balances vary. This change has increased especially after the Arab Spring. An alliance that has not changed for decades in such a complex geography is the Saudi Arabian-US alliance. But recent developments show that black clouds are hovering over this alliance. Especially the statements of the American President Biden during the candidacy process and his actions after he was appointed to the oval office have strained the relations between the two countries.

In his first major foreign policy speech on February 4, 2021, Biden announced the end of US military support for the Saudi and UAE intervention in Yemen and said Washington would end sales of offensive weapons that could be used to run its operations in Yemen (Julian Borger 2021). But he did not specify which systems would be blocked. If US President Joe Biden's administration continues to cancel arms shipments to Arabian Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will likely seek alternative arms suppliers. These suppliers include countries with longstanding defense relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, such as the United Kingdom and France, as well as Russia and China.

On top of these developments, last month, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia refused to answer the calls of the American president, after which the prince had a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping instead, in which the two statesmen discussed Saudi Arabia's great "Vision 2030" national development project and China's worldwide Belt and Road Initiative, including coordinating Saudi Chinese cooperation (Dion Nissenbaum 2022; Narayanan 2022).

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Considering that the things that China and Saudi Arabia need are in each other, it can be thought that there would be nothing more natural for these two countries to form an alliance. The oil that the Chinese industry will need for many years is available in Saudi Arabia, and the military and technical materials that Saudi Arabia needs are abundantly available in China.

Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, former editor-in-chief of Al-Arabiya English, is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, who sees the future of Saudi Arabia in the United States, not in China. We will consider his article published in The National Interest.

Alyahya sees the key to the liberalization of Saudi society and its oil-free economy, and the future of the NEOM project, which is one of the biggest projects for the urban green energy concept with its huge budget of 500 billion dollars, not in China, but in the United States (Alyahya 2022). According to author, the USA's stepping back in nuclear weapons production with Iran, Saudi Arabia's most important rival in the region, leaving Syria and Crimea to Russia, and removing the Houthis in Yemen from the list of terrorist organizations, made Saudi Arabia lonely in the region (ibid.).

According to Alyahya, it is difficult to understand this attitude of the United States, especially when it tries to reward a country like Iran, which has caused decades of terrorism, war and destruction in Iraq and Lebanon, with its capacity to produce nuclear weapons (ibid.). According to the author, a country like Saudi Arabia that has long-standing relations with the United States, spending tens of billions of dollars for the United States, providing well-paid jobs for thousands of Americans, and fueling American manufacturing and innovation, is being overlooked by the United States. Alyahya says this is a pyromaniac behavior that both countries will lose (ibid.).

Despite the author's explanations, the developments experienced, the fact that a country that works almost entirely with American systems has become dependent on America and that a life without America is unthinkable is a situation that should be discussed. Moreover, America's attitude towards Iran, against Russia and against the Houthis in the Middle East seems to leave Saudi Arabia in a difficult situation and alone in the region. Perhaps it is time to seek another alliance.

As part of Plymouth’s MA International Relations: Security and Development, you’ll study modules such as Economic Diplomacy and Development and Strategy and Security and have the opportunity to discuss issues such as Saudi’s role in a changing Middle East. Find out more:

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Alyahya, Mohammed Khalid. 2022. "What Saudi Arabia Wants From America." The National Interest.

Dion Nissenbaum, Stephen Kalin, David S. Cloud. 2022. "Saudi, Emirati Leaders Decline Calls With Biden During Ukraine Crisis." The Wall Street Journal.

Julian Borger, Patrick Wintour, 2021, "Biden announces end to US support for Saudi-led offensive in Yemen," The Guardian.

Narayanan, Ayush. 2022. "Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, China’s President Xi Jinping discuss partnership growth." Al Arabiya English.

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