Would the Saudis unleash jihadists in Syria? There is precedent from Afghanistan in the 1980s. But the Saudis are themselves as much at risk as we are from that scourge, and since the attacks in 2005, they know it and have stepped up their domestic efforts against radical Islamists. More likely is a misperception by the Saudis that they can control rebels in Syria, an eventuality that would cause problems for the United States — but the country is likely to incur those problems whether or not Saudi succor is the instigation.
The Saudis might discontinue or curtail intelligence and anti-terrorism cooperation. That is a serious threat to American security. But again, the Saudis are at risk and need U.S. intelligence as much as the United States needs theirs. Moreover, recent cooperation is the exception; more frequent has been limited cooperation while the Saudis fund activity we feel threatened by.
On Palestine and a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East, the Americans and the Saudis have long worked to different ends. The Saudi plan for Palestine has foundered because of Palestinian choices, not lack of American support; it is difficult to see a path to progress on either their or America’s preferred policy. It’s easy to see why the Saudis support a nuclear-free Middle East, since it would remove Israel’s deterrent as well as Iran’s program, but difficult to see why it would now get traction even with major investments on their part.
The Saudi equivalent of a nuclear option is the price of oil, something the Saudis have been very helpful with in recent years. As Meghan O’Sullivan convincingly argues, their ability to do so is declining, and any sudden moves to impose costs will benefit Iran and stimulate non-OPEC suppliers, including the United States itself.