US, Saudi Arabia's longstanding military partnership set to deepen


Ongoing US military aid and training to Saudi Arabia highlight Washington's commitment to the Gulf nation's security and stability and their deepening ties over the last seven decades.

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A Royal Saudi Air Force officer can be seen during a briefing regarding the capabilities and features of a US Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter as part of the Red Sands 23.2 exercises on September 7. [US Army]
A Royal Saudi Air Force officer can be seen during a briefing regarding the capabilities and features of a US Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter as part of the Red Sands 23.2 exercises on September 7. [US Army]

The United States offers robust support for the Saudi military -- more than anywhere else in the world -- and is poised to deepen these ties in the coming years with new training partnerships and military agreements.

The ongoing military partnership comes as both nations navigate complex geopolitical dynamics and strive to address security concerns.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Saudi Arabia February 5 and met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as part of ongoing negotiations and commitment to the region.

"They discussed the importance of building a more integrated and prosperous region and reaffirmed the strategic partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said of the meeting.

A US Army Reserve soldier (center) gives guidance on self-defense techniques to two Saudi security force students at a training site in Saudi Arabia in June 2019. [US Army]
A US Army Reserve soldier (center) gives guidance on self-defense techniques to two Saudi security force students at a training site in Saudi Arabia in June 2019. [US Army]

US officials have pledged to support the kingdom's efforts to transform its security sector, defense ministry and military services.

Among other topics, the secretary and crown prince also discussed the urgent need to reduce regional tensions and defend freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, Miller said.

The United States launched the multinational coalition Operation Prosperity Guardian in December in an effort to protect ships in the Red Sea against attacks by Yemen's Iran-backed Houthis.

A growing partnership

The United States and Saudi Arabia have a long history of partnership, rooted in more than seven decades of cooperation. Following recognition in 1931, the two nations established full diplomatic relations in 1940.

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt solidified the relationship in 1945 when he met with King Abdulaziz aboard the USS Quincy in Egypt.

The United States has been Saudi Arabia's main security partner and source of arms since then.

US-Saudi relations could be poised to "deepen substantively" in the coming years, according to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

In the US Senate, lawmakers included language in their proposed 2024 National Defense Authorization Act that would identify Saudi Arabia as a "major security partner" and make Saudi foreign military sale (FMS) purchase orders eligible for priority production and delivery consideration.

Officials from the United States and Saudi Arabia also signed an "Agreement for Technical Cooperation" (ATC) last spring, as part of their ongoing pledge to work together to protect the infrastructure and people of Saudi Arabia and adapt to changing threats.

It was the latest iteration of an agreement first signed in 2008. The new ATC focuses on training and advising the Saudi government to enhance public security and protect critical infrastructure from evolving threats.

Saudi Arabia is the United States' largest FMS customer, according to the US State Department. It has a number of active FMS cases, including for fighter jets and missiles.

In August 2021, Saudi Arabia and Russia signed a defense cooperation agreement, but Russian military cooperation with Iran and the performance of the Russian military during the war in Ukraine could dissuade the Kingdom from deepening military ties, according to the CRS.

Training partnership poised to grow

Beyond equipment, the United States has worked alongside Saudi military forces and offered regular training over the years -- a relationship that is poised to grow as the Kingdom requests more military training.

The State Department in December approved a suite of military training programs for Saudi Arabia. Trainings would include light, technical and specialized training, as well as professional military education.

As of last June, nearly 2,700 US military personnel were deployed in the kingdom. Additionally, hundreds of US personnel are stationed there to support long-running US-Saudi security cooperation programs for military and internal security forces.

The US Military Training Mission to Saudi Arabia trains, advises and assists the Saudi armed forces.

The United States investment in training Saudi forces already includes special exercises like Native Fury, a biennial exercise that brings together US and Saudi troops to work together on strategic access and refined command and control.

The most recent exercise, in 2022, was hosted for the first time in Saudi Arabia and deployed a US forward force.

In addition to testing military capabilities, the exercise allowed US forces to work alongside Saudi counterparts, learn about Saudi culture from them and eat some traditional meals with them.

"This is a great opportunity for the US military to work with our partners in the Middle East, specifically with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Especially building the relationship, trust and confidence," US Marine Corps Capt. Jon TenBrock said at the conclusion of the event.

Native Fury is one of many training events the United States invites Saudi partners to join.

In a first-of-its-kind joint military exercise last March, Saudi Arabia and the United States completed a counter-drone training at the new Red Sands Integrated Experimentation Center in Riyadh.

The training focused on small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Participants conducted live-fire exercises, studied complex threats and identified weaknesses in other areas to counter drone activities.

The second iteration of the Red Sands exercise was held last September.

The exercises at Red Sands demonstrate US commitment to Saudi Arabia in a way that extends beyond traditional security assistance like FMS, Melissa Horvath, a non-resident senior fellow at Middle East Institute, told Al-Arabiya.

Last summer, air forces from Saudi Arabia and the United States also held a training and drill at the King Faisal Air Base in northwestern Saudi Arabia and the Eagle Resolve 23 joint military exercise with other Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

In November 2022, naval forces from the United States, United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia completed a week-long maritime exercise called Nautical Defender.

Partners focused on maritime security, vessel boarding procedures, explosive ordnance disposal and other training drills ashore in Saudi Arabia and at sea, US Central Command said.

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