In this Edition:
Change Edition

Could Defense Cooperation with Saudi Arabia Be a Good Thing?

Photo: Victor Jiang /

It isn’t always easy to put a price on the value of a partnership between two countries. But with some $350 billion in foreign military sales slated for approval to Saudi Arabia over the next ten years—and the Trump administration’s recent attempt to reset bilateral relations with the country—it wouldn’t be rash to think that this value is significant.

The US-Saudi reset comes at a time when the Saudi-led coalition war in Yemen against Iranian-backed militants enters its second year, and as Iran grows bolder in expanding its presence throughout the region. The United States has, to date, nearly $100 billion in active foreign military sales cases with Saudi Arabia, making it the largest international customer for US military hardware. The expanding scope of military cooperation with the Saudi-led Arab Coalition also coincides with US military strikes against Iranian-backed militias in Syria that have posed a threat to US Special Forces operators and the Sunni Arab rebels they trained.

That President Donald Trump has made Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, his first stop on his international tour speaks volumes. A major impetus for this decision seems to have been the March visit to Washington by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince (and son of the king) Mohammad bin Salman. Many insiders have viewed the trip as a success; the comparatively pragmatic future king discussed not only enhancing counterterrorism and defense cooperation with the United States, but also significantly increasing Saudi investment in the United States, as well as paving the way for more American companies to do business in the kingdom.

All of this speaks to an important question: Could increasing defense cooperation with Saudi Arabia actually be a good thing for security in the region?

While in Riyadh, Trump participated in a 50-nation summit involving majority-Muslim countries. Topics like countering extremism and Iranian malign interference in regional affairs took crowning positions in the conversation. This in itself was a positive step, and it went a long way to counter the toxic narrative that the United States is engaged in an ostensible war against the world’s one billion-plus Muslim population. The commitment by the Arab and Muslim states at the Riyadh Summit to establish a counter extremism center and a reserve force of over 30,000 soldiers to combat extremists could—if matched with real resources—serve as a way to share the burden in the fluid, asymmetric fight against a variety of sub-state extremist groups.

This convergence of national security interests between the United States and Saudi Arabia was spelled out by National Security Advisor Lt. Gen McMaster a couple of weeks ago. He said that a main thrust for Trump’s visit was to “encourage our Arab and Muslim partners to take bold, new steps to promote peace and to confront those, from ISIS to al Qaeda to Iran to the Assad regime, who perpetuate chaos and violence that has inflicted so much suffering throughout the Muslim world and beyond.” Here, the subtext was that the United States and the Muslim world share common adversaries and threats to their security. Also interesting was his declaration that Iran and the Assad regime are destabilizing forces on par with al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

If there’s ever been a clearer break from the Obama-era foreign policy around the Middle East—which almost exclusively invested in the Iranian nuclear deal and viewed Saudi Arabia with cordial yet cold detachment—this was it.

Much of the munitions that the United States is selling to Saudi Arabia will likely be used in the battle field in Yemen, a country of considerable geopolitical importance. American interests in Yemen have so far been limited to drone warfare and the occasional special forces raid against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But the recent increase of extremist activity in Yemen offers a new policy dimension that requires closer US coordination with Saudi Arabia.

The domestic economic benefits are notable. Some 800,000 jobs associated with the United States’ domestic defense industry are heavily dependent on foreign military sales; by some estimates, 10 percent of US manufacturing demand is linked to major defense conglomerates.

Some US lawmakers have voiced opposition to what they fear will become American entanglement in Yemen’s complex political environment. Indeed, a political solution to the Yemen conflict was rejected by the Iranian-backed militias on two separate occasions, and reports of famine in some cities and the countryside are increasing. However, typically, the only major factor in Congressional approval for massive military sales to a foreign country centers on whether exported weapon systems would threaten Israel’s qualitative military edge. To that point, the Israelis have voiced no objections to Saudi weapon sales—and in fact may be encouraging them, given the increased convergence of security worries posed by Iran. Military sales also include a package deal of maintenance, spare parts, and due diligence, and the military sales agreement commits the Saudi government to ensuring that military equipment is utilized solely by the Saudi military—and not repackaged or resold to other states or destabilizing groups.

The United States will likely be inextricably linked to Saudi Arabia for the foreseeable future on both the economic and security fronts. As the fight against the Islamic State progresses, and as al Qaeda loses ground, it’d be unwise, and unsafe, for the United States to ignore the rising threat posed by Iranian-backed militant groups—especially when empowering Saudi Arabia with the necessary tools to confront mounting political threats could well be a net benefit all around.


Oubai Shahbandar is a fellow in New America's International Security program. He is a former defense intelligence officer and Department of Defense foreign affairs specialist with over a decade of experience.