Over half of American oppose defence pact with Saudi Arabia: Poll

More than half of American voters oppose a defence pact with Saudi Arabia that would commit Washington to send forces to defend the kingdom in the event it is attacked, a survey shows.

In a poll conducted between 29-31 August by Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, 55 percent of Republicans and Democrats said they were against such an agreement.

“The American people have consistently opposed deepening America’s military presence in the Middle East. They certainly have opposed new wars, and in this specific case, the war would be started not by the US itself, but as a result of a pact with Saudi Arabia,” Trita Parsi, vice president of the Quincy Institute, said during a virtual media briefing on the US-Saudi defence pact.

The poll comes amid reports that US and Saudi officials are discussing the details of a mutual defence pact as part of Washington’s push for the Saudi kingdom to normalise relations with Israel.

The agreement would see the US and Saudi Arabia pledge to provide military support to the other if the country is attacked in the region or within Saudi territory, according to reports.

The US has a broad spectrum of defence commitments. Article 5 of NATO, which states that an attack on any member country is an attack on them all, is considered the strongest. The alliance only invoked Article 5 once in history, after the 9/11 attacks. The US has looser, but still tough defence agreements with Japan and South Korea.

Earlier this month, the US signed a defence agreement with Bahrain – an ally of Saudi Arabia – that committed the two countries to “confront any external aggression”, though it fell short of an official treaty that needs to be ratified by the US Congress.

Parsi stated that a defence agreement with Saudi Arabia “would be the furthest the US has ever committed itself to defending regional states, and it won’t end there”, adding that other US allies in the region like the UAE and Qatar would likely seek similar assurances from Washington.

While an agreement like that offered to Bahrain wouldn’t need congressional approval, a treaty with stronger mutual defence commitments would need support from two-thirds of the US Senate. This would be a tough sell for the Joe Biden administration, with some US lawmakers already voicing wariness of deeper entanglements with Riyadh.

The briefing on Tuesday hosted by civil society and human rights groups cautioned the US about entering into a security agreement with Riyadh as part of normalisation.

“If and when a US and Saudi Arabian defence pact will be announced, the piece of the agreement that military families in our network will be paying closest attention to will be the nature of the mutual defence obligation,” Sarah Streyder, executive director of the Secure Families Initiative, a non-profit focused on military families, said.

“Does this agreement increase the obligation that US service members would be deployed to Saudi Arabia in the case of an attack? If so, that would give us a lot of concern.”

The US already has around 3,000 troops stationed throughout Saudi Arabia, which is home to the world’s largest crude oil reserves. While defence ties between the US and Saudi Arabia go back to WWII, they have come under pressure in recent years.

Saudi Arabia was jolted when the US ruled out responding to a attack on its oil facilities in 2019 under former President Donald Trump.

Two years later, the Biden administration pulled Patriot missile batteries out of the kingdom amid an uptick in drone and missile attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in a deadly war.

Fighting in Yemen has generally halted amid a fragile ceasefire.

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, noted “any increase in assurance of military backing (from the US) could embolden Saudi Arabia to act more aggressively against its neighbours”.

A defence agreement, however, is just one part of Saudi Arabia’s demands. In exchange for normalising ties with Israel, Riyadh is also asking for expedited US arms and help with its civilian nuclear programme.

In a sign that Saudi Arabia may be inching closer to a deal with the US, on Monday the UN atomic watchdog said Riyadh had agreed to greater oversight of its nuclear activities, a step that would likely be necessary if it were to start enriching uranium.

Saudi Arabia insists its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, but on Tuesday analysts warned that giving Saudi Arabia enrichment capabilities could spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in a recent Fox News interview, ‘If Iran gets nuclear weapons, we get one.”

Tehran has repeatedly declared that its nuclear program remains purely peaceful as always and that the Islamic Republic had no intention of developing nuclear weapons as a matter of an Islamic and state principal.

Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei issued an official fatwa (religious decree) clearly establishing that any form of acquisition, development, and use of nuclear weapons violate Islamic principles and are therefore forbidden.

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, stated on Tuesday that pledges from the Biden administration saying that any deal with Saudi Arabia would meet nonproliferation standards was “hardly reassuring, given Saudi Arabia’s stated intentions”.

“It’s important that the US seek a legally binding Saudi commitment not to pursue or acquire uranium enrichment, or spent-fuel reprocessing technology which is not necessary for Saudi Arabia to pursue its peaceful civilian nuclear ambitions,” he added.

“MBS is the last person you would want to hand a nuclear weapon to,” Matt Duss, executive vice president of the Center for International Policy, said, adding, “This deal would be devastating.”

The panel on Tuesday also warned that the Biden administration’s pursuit of a normalisation agreement was ignoring the Palestinians stated aim of an independent state.

Saudi Arabia has said it is seeking concessions for the Palestinians. On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Jordan, Nayef al-Sudairi, said that the kingdom is “working towards establishing a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital” during a rare visit to the occupied West Bank.

However, former senior US officials tell MEE they believe Saudi Arabia would settle for much less on the Palestinian file, if its demands from the US are met.

Meanwhile, experts say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which is made up of far-right lawmakers, is unlikely to cede any territory in the occupied West Bank to the Palestinians.

Duss stressed if Saudi Arabia were to normalise now, it would “hand a huge victory to the Israeli far right”.

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