US and Saudi officials are discussing the terms of a potential mutual defense treaty that would be similar to pacts the US has with South Korea and Japan, The New York Times reported on Tuesday.
The discussions are part of a US effort to broker a normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Riyadh’s main demands for normalization is for stronger security guarantees from the US and help in establishing a nuclear program.
Unnamed US officials told the Times that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman regards a mutual defense agreement with the US “as the most important element in his talks with the Biden administration about Israel.”
Such an agreement would likely involve the US and Saudi Arabia pledging to provide military support if the other is attacked on Saudi territory or elsewhere in the Middle East. The comparison to the US pacts in East Asia suggests it could lead to a more robust US military presence in Saudi Arabia, as there are tens of thousands of US troops stationed in Japan and South Korea.
However, US officials told the Times that there are no serious discussions about establishing a large contingent of American troops in Saudi Arabia under the potential deal. According to a notification to Congress in June, there are currently about 2,700 US troops in the Kingdom.
While the Saudis are making demands of the US as a condition for normalization with Israel, there are signs a deal likely won’t be reached anytime soon. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday said a Saudi-Israeli normalization remains a “difficult proposition.” Two days later, the Saudi newspaper Elaph recently reported that Riyadh had pulled out of the negotiations, but the claim was denied by both the US and Israel.
If the US does pursue a mutual defense treaty with Saudi Arabia, it would risk escalating the war in Yemen, where a de facto ceasefire between the Saudis and the Houthis has been held since April 2022. There have been no Saudi airstrikes in Yemen or Houthi attacks inside Saudi Arabia, but a lasting peace deal or political settlement has not been signed, meaning the war could reignite.
The US-backed Saudi-led war on Yemen had a devastating toll on civilians due to the targeting of civilians and infrastructure and the blockade on the country, which has not been fully lifted. News of the Biden administration discussing the East Asia model for a Saudi mutual defense pact comes after a Human Rights Watch report said Saudi border forces killed hundreds of Ethiopian migrants.