Four years after Joe Biden promised to turn Saudi Arabia into a pariah state if he became the president of the United States of America, his administration appears to be bending over backwards to tighten its relationship with Riyadh. Reports suggest that the US is trying to seal a mutual defence agreement with Saudi Arabia along the lines of pacts it has with South Korea and Japan, while also pushing the kingdom into a normalisation deal with Israel. These moves form a part of a larger, fast-paced shift that is underway in the Middle East, with multiple countries re-evaluating old friendships and enmities and seeking new alliances and friends. Yet the speed and context of these steps threaten to further destabilise an already volatile region. Saudi Arabia has reportedly sought the US’s permission to be allowed to enrich uranium for a civil nuclear programme as an element of a normalisation pact with Israel. But many experts have warned that this could move Riyadh closer to having the capability to develop nuclear weapons. Even the prospect of such a situation could set off a new nuclear race in the Middle East, since other nations, including Iran, would not accept a fundamental change in the regional balance of power.
Indeed, one of the key reasons for the West’s opposition to an Iranian civil nuclear programme has been the fear of a nuclear competition in the Middle East. If the US were to accept Saudi Arabia’s request on uranium enrichment, it would also expose — once again — Washington’s hypocrisy in international relations. Riyadh’s human rights record, the key factor behind Biden’s bombastic comments against it in 2019, remains a matter of concern: just a few weeks ago, a man was sentenced to death for tweets the government did not like. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, himself has acknowledged the country’s problematic laws. A normalisation deal with Saudi Arabia would also be a reward for the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history which has accelerated the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands. It is hard to ignore the sense that all of this is tied to the intensifying global battle for influence between the US and China, which earlier this year brokered a normalisation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yet, nations in the Middle East and beyond must resist getting pulled into a competition between superpowers. They must heed the lessons of the last Cold War to survive the new one taking shape.