The Biden administration has catered to the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for the last year with more weapons sales and deployments of US forces, but this has only encouraged them to demand even more support and to complain that the US has not indulged their whims enough. Now there are reports that the two despotic clients want the US to offer them additional protection through a formal defense treaty. At the same time, these governments and their cheerleaders in Washington are broadcasting their unhappiness with Biden because he has not been as sycophantic as they believe an American president should be. Despite all this, Biden seems to be determined to make the same error that Obama made in his desire to "reassure" governments that cannot be placated.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have proven to be increasing liabilities, and the US should be seeking to disentangle itself from these governments and to cut off all assistance to them as soon as possible. The war on Yemen is the most important reason to halt military assistance, but even if the war ended tomorrow it has already shown how US weapons and support have given these states the means to wage aggressive wars against other countries. When the US rushes to the defense of these despots, it does not lead to greater cooperation and serves only to implicate the US further in the war on Yemen that these states have been waging with Washington’s support for seven years. The Saudi and Emirati governments will never be satisfied with any level of US backing. Trying to maintain these relationships keeps the US bogged down in Middle Eastern affairs and involves the US in unnecessary conflicts. Extricating the US from the region isn’t compatible with keeping the Saudis and Emiratis happy, so the US should stop making any effort to do the latter.
Making these states formal treaty allies should be unthinkable. The US has no compelling reason to make new security commitments anywhere, much less in the Middle East, and of all the countries in the world these two are among the last that the US should ever pledge to defend. While these states are routinely referred to as "allies" in official statements and media reports, it is important to remember that the US has no obligations to come to their defense, and that should never change. The last thing that the US needs is more formal commitments to defend free-riding security dependents, especially when their reckless behavior makes it likely that they would drag the US into new wars beyond Yemen.
To appreciate how unwise making these additional commitments would be, we just need to think back to 2019 when Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq came under attack. Whether the attack was carried out by Iran or the Houthis doesn’t matter here. If the US had a formal commitment to come to the defense of Saudi Arabia then, there would have been tremendous pressure on the US to retaliate on their behalf by launching attacks on Iran or Yemen or both. As it was, there was considerable pressure on Trump to order military action against Iran, and if there had been a treaty alliance in place the US might have quickly found itself in a larger war. Treaties with the Saudis and the UAE would likely pave the way for many more wars that the US could otherwise avoid. US indulgence has already enabled a lot of aggressive behavior in Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere. If these governments believed that the US would be obliged to bail them out, they would become even more aggressive.
The Saudis and Emiratis have their usual laundry list of complaints about US policies, and this mostly boils down to whining that the US isn’t being as hostile to Iran as they would like. The US ran the experiment of giving Saudi Arabia and the UAE pretty much everything they wanted, including US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, and it led to an intensification of the war on Yemen and brought the US and Iran to the brink of war. Even closer ties with these states would produce even worse results.
The Biden administration should disregard advice on how to repair ties with these states. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are likely to try waiting Biden out on the assumption that they will be able to work with a more accommodating Republican administration in a few years, so any efforts that Biden makes to please them would be wasted. Obama’s experience proved that showering these states with weapons and support gains the president nothing in return. The main reason why Biden shouldn’t bother trying to repair these ties is that the relationships are not worth preserving. No doubt these client states would like the US to fight their wars for them, and that is exactly why the US needs to be rid of them.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.