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Washington, Riyadh exploring mutual defence pact: New York Times

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AMERICAN and Saudi officials are discussing the terms of a mutual defence treaty that would resemble military pacts that the US has with allies such as Japan and South Korea — in a bid to get Saudi Arabia to normalise relations with Israel, the New York Times reported.

Under the agreement, both sides would pledge to provide military support if the other country is attacked, either in the region or on Saudi territory.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is also asking the Biden administration to help his country develop a civilian nuclear programme, which some US officials fear could be cover for a nuclear weapons program to counter Iran, according to an NYT report.

Any treaty with Saudi Arabia that is similar to the American pacts with other allies is sure to draw strong objections in Congress, since some lawmakers, including top Democrats, see the Saudi government as unreliable partners who care little about US interests or human rights.

Move part of Biden’s gambit to secure ‘normalisation’ of ties between Israel, S. Arabia

An agreement would also raise questions about whether President Biden is getting the United States more militarily entwined with the Middle East, and would contradict his administration’s stated goal of reorienting American military resources and fighting capabilities away from the area and towards China.

Discussions between the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel have mainly revolved around MBS’ demands, and that diplomacy is expected to come up on Wednesday, when Biden meets with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

During his speech at the UNGA on Tuesday, the US president mentioned the benefits of nations normalising ties with Israel.

The US military has bases and troops in both Japan and South Korea, but American officials say there are currently no serious discussions about having a large contingent stationed in Saudi Arabia under any new defence agreement.

The separate defence treaties that the United States has with Japan and South Korea were forged after devastating wars in the mid-20th century and as the Cold War was intensifying, compelling the United States to stitch together alliances around the world to counter a global Soviet presence.

The Pentagon has just under 2,700 American troops in the kingdom, according to a letter the White House sent to Congress in June.

The US president’s push for a Saudi-Israel deal is a gambit that, not long ago, would have been hard to imagine. He pledged during his 2020 presidential campaign to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah”.

But American officials have said a diplomatic agreement would be an important symbol in the defusing of Arab-Israeli tensions and could also have geopolitical significance for Washington. Bringing Saudi Arabia closer to the United States, they argue, could pull the kingdom farther from China’s orbit and blunt Beijing’s efforts to expand its influence in the Middle East.

In a public appearance last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel would be a “transformative event in the Middle East and well beyond.” But he said that getting the parties to an agreement “remains a difficult proposition” and that a deal was far from certain.

The State Department declined to comment on details of the discussions for this article, NYT said.

In recent months, White House officials have given briefings about the negotiations to influential Democratic lawmakers, whom the administration needs to persuade to approve the treaty.

A majority of Senate Democrats have voted on multiple occasions to restrict Washington’s arms sales and other security cooperation with Riyadh, objecting to the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen and the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, a murder that American spy agencies have judged was ordered by MBS, even though the crown prince has denied direct involvement.

The Saudi-led war in Yemen, which began in 2015, resulted in mass killings of civilians and what the United Nations called “the worst man-made humanitarian crisis in the world”.

Democratic lawmakers are also pressing the Biden administration on reports that Saudi border forces recently killed hundreds or thousands of African migrants who were trying to cross from Yemen. Human Rights Watch released a report in August on the atrocities. Saudi Arabia maintains the reports are “unfounded”.

Michael Green, a former director at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, told NYT the treaties with Japan and South Korea were “pretty ironclad” in terms of a US military commitment in the event of hostilities.

The arrangement with Japan is more straightforward — being a defeated and demilitarized nation from World War II when the treaty was signed, American officials at the time did not envision another country attacking Japan or vice versa, Mr Green said.

Because of the constant tensions in the Middle East — and the fact that Saudi Arabia is involved in a war in Yemen — getting a Japan-style treaty approved would probably involve clearing “a much higher political bar,” he added.

Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2023


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