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Saudis Resume US Defense Talks After Pause From Israel-Hamas War

(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Arabia has resumed talks with the US about forging closer defense ties after a pause following the start of the Israel-Hamas war in early October, according to people familiar with the discussions.

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Discussions took place in the town of Alula in northwestern Saudi Arabia between de-facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and US senators earlier this month, said the people, asking not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter. On the agenda was a revival of earlier negotiations about a defense pact that would also have included an historic tie-up between Saudi Arabia and Israel, they said.

MBS, as the 38-year-old leader is known, still sees opportunities for greater US cooperation despite anger across the Arab world over the continuing strikes by Israel, a key US ally, on Hamas, and the deaths of Palestinians in Gaza, said two people with knowledge of his thinking. The US is also at the heart of simmering regional tensions. Over the weekend, three American soldiers died in an attack on a base in Jordan, while US forces have launched several airstrikes on Yemen to counter ship attacks by Houthi militants.

Read More: White House Weighs Defense Treaties to Aid Israel-Saudi Pact

A major stumbling block to the talks is that Saudi Arabia has long said any deal with Israel would be conditional on steps toward the creation of an independent state for Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is firmly against that and its resolve has only strengthened since the outbreak of war with Hamas, a group Israel says needs to be completely destroyed.

Treading Carefully

Given the likely backlash among Arabs and Muslims to any Israel deal, Saudi Arabia must tread carefully.

The kingdom is sending what it hopes are the right signals to all parties concerned: assuring that any agreement is now conditional on a state for Palestinians, pushing for a cease-fire in Gaza and engaging the US on postwar scenarios.

The Saudi defense ministry referred questions to the government, whose center for international communications didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The US National Security Council declined to comment.

Critical Visitors

Prince Mohammed’s guests included erstwhile critics such as New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who previously signed a letter to his father King Salman expressing concern about “systematic human rights abuses” — including the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Another visitor was Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and also a Democrat, who in 2018 cited “careless bombings” by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

Of mutual interest between Saudi Arabia and the US is how to counter the Houthis in Yemen, who MBS has been trying to secure a peace deal with after a decade of fighting. The US airstrikes are in response to persistent attacks by the Iran-backed group on shipping in the Red Sea, roiling global trade.

Read More: Who Are the Houthis Being Hit With US, UK Airstrikes?: QuickTake

The US is also weighing a response to the attack in Jordan, which President Joe Biden has blamed on Tehran-backed militias. Iran has urged the US to use diplomacy to ease tensions, while denying involvement in the strike.

Before Oct. 7, when Hamas triggered the war with Israel by invading the south of the country, a US-Saudi defense pact and US assistance in launching a civil nuclear program were among the kingdom’s main preconditions for normalizing relations with Israel. There was talk of rolling everything into one deal that would ease Congressional approval and help Biden notch a big foreign policy gain in an election year.

Everything changed after that date, as it became less likely than ever that the issue of a Palestinian state could be sidelined.

But the way Iran was able to mobilize members of its so-called axis of resistance, including Hamas and the Houthis, in such a coordinated manner after Oct. 7 served as a stark reminder to the Saudi leadership of the serious threats posed by the Islamic Republic. That’s despite a China-brokered rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia last year and Riyadh’s efforts to build closer diplomatic and economic ties with its longtime rival.

Read More: The Israel-Iran Shadow War Reaches a Risky New Phase: QuickTake

Mark Kelly, a Democratic senator from Arizona and a former officer in the US Navy who was among those who met with MBS this month, said in a statement that he spoke to the crown prince about his time in the region during the 1990-91 Gulf War and “opportunities to strengthen their countries’ long military relationship to tackle shared threats like Iran.”

Defense Partnership

MBS himself is focused first and foremost on repairing and bolstering the defense relationship with Washington, said the people informed about his thinking. Demonstrating that Saudi Arabia is a safe place despite surrounding conflicts has become more urgent as the country tries to bring some of the world’s biggest corporations, investors and tourists to the country, all part of an ambitious plan to transform the Saudi economy and reduce its dependence on oil.

One immediate priority for the Saudi leadership is to persuade Biden to ease or lift a freeze on the sale of offensive weapons imposed on the kingdom three years ago, to replenish stockpiles of missiles, bombs and precision-guided munitions, said Bilal Saab, director of the defense and security program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

“They’re already tied to the hip with the US,” said Saab, referring to Washington’s role as Saudi Arabia’s top arms supplier.

No Alternatives

Despite Saudi Arabia’s growing ties with China, it believes strongly there are no viable alternatives to its defense and security relationship with Washington, said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.

Dubowitz, who is close to Israeli, Saudi and US officials involved in the normalization talks, said that given the need for a government in Israel willing to entertain a two-state solution with Palestinians, bolstering the US-Saudi defense relationship may be the only doable piece in the short-term.

He said the Saudi message now to all US officials is that “we need America and America needs us.”

--With assistance from Annmarie Hordern, Christine Burke, Fahad Abuljadayel, Fiona MacDonald and Gina Turner.

(Updates with reaction to attack on US base in Jordan.)

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