The drone spree, sent as a previously unreported show of armed force, was the latest illustration of the strength and importance of a partnership the administration said it was now reevaluating.
“There will be some consequences for what they did,” President Biden said after the Saudis agreed last month, at a meeting of the OPEC Plus energy cartel they chair, to cut production by 2 million barrels a day.
The cuts only serve to raise prices, the White House argued, and would benefit the Russian cartel at the very moment when the United States and its allies tried to choke Moscow’s oil revenues to reduce its war in Ukraine.
In the angry days that followed, the Saudis publicly claimed that the administration had sought to delay the cuts for a month, indirectly suggesting that Biden wanted to avoid raising prices at the gas pump before the upcoming US midterm elections. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby released to reporters that the Saudis had tried to spin” US concerns about Ukraine and global energy stability into a domestic political ploy, and deflect criticism of installing a fence on Russia’s war.
Many lawmakers, some of whom have long advocated cutting ties with the Saudis, reacted with even greater fury, calling for the immediate withdrawal of thousands of American troops stationed in the kingdom and an end to all arms sales, among other punitive measures.
But the White House, as it ponders how to make good on Biden’s “consequences” promise and despite his lingering anger, has grown uneasy about the backlash his sharp response has provoked in the House. Instead of moving quickly to respond, it is playing for time, looking for ways to get the Saudis back in line while maintaining strong bilateral security ties.
“Are we breaking up the relationship? No,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity about what has become a sensitive political and diplomatic situation. “We had a fundamental disagreement about the state of the oil market and the global economy, and we are looking into what happened.”
“But we have important interests at stake in this relationship,” the official said.
Oil, and the influence of Saudi Arabia on the world market, is second only to the strategic interests of the United States in the Persian Gulf, where the kingdom has a central role, not least in the fight against Iranian aggression. The White House, which approved a report in the Wall Street Journal about the latest Iranian threat and on high alert, refused to comment on the launch of American fighter jets.
“CENTCOM is committed to our long-standing strategic military partnership with Saudi Arabia,” said command spokesman Joe Buccio. “We will not discuss operational details.” The US maintains significant air assets in the region, including F-22 fighter jets in Saudi Arabia, although the location from which they were driven was unclear.
Only about 6 percent of U.S. oil imports now come from Saudi Arabia. China is the kingdom’s largest trading partner, and trade ties with Russia have expanded. But security and intelligence ties are the linchpin of U.S.-Saudi relations, and security officials in Washington are not calm about what the current upheaval means.
Major US deployments there ended after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and there have been recurring bilateral tensions in recent years, including human rights concerns over the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and the murder by Saudi agents of journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. , a resident of the USA and a columnist in the “Washington Post”.
There are now about 2,500 American troops in Saudi Arabia, many of them involved in high-tech intelligence work and training. The United States is the supplier of nearly three-quarters of all weapons systems used by the Saudi military, including parts, repairs and upgrades that are constantly needed.
Military sales to the kingdom have been the subject of repeated controversy in recent years, as many in Congress have opposed them. While President Donald Trump, who has boasted of potential U.S. sales to the Saudis, has vetoed attempts by Congress to stop certain deals, Biden banned the kingdom’s purchase of offensive U.S. weapons shortly after taking office.
Since then, two major Saudi purchases have been made, of air-to-air missiles and replacement missiles for the Patriot air defense batteries. Another order for 300 Patriot missiles – in the amount of more than $3 million per unit – was approved by the State Department in August, after Biden visited the kingdom, where he was believed to have established an agreement with the crown prince not to cut oil output.
Although Congress did not formally object to the new sale within the allotted 30-day window, there was no public indication that the next step in the deal—a signed contract with the Defense Department—was done. The Pentagon has “nothing to announce at this time” about the sale, Logan spokesman Lt. Gen. Cesar Santiago said Friday.
Reflecting the current level of outrage in Congress, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said last month that all arms sales to Saudi Arabia should be halted, and that all Patriot systems there should be removed and sent to Ukraine. “If Saudi Arabia is not willing to take the side of Ukraine and the US over Russia, why should we keep these patriots in Saudi Arabia when Ukraine and our NATO allies need them? Murphy wrote on Twitter.
While two US-controlled Patriot systems remain in Saudi Arabia to protect US personnel from missile attacks by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and apparently from Iran, most of the systems in use there were purchased years ago by the Saudis and belong to the kingdom.
Biden has said he wants to consult with lawmakers about the promised “consequences,” and while strong statements from lawmakers support his threat, the current congressional recess also gives the administration some breathing room.
The strongest objections to business as usual with the kingdom came from the Democrats. Rep. Roe Hanna (Calif.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Continuum) introduced a bill last month to freeze all US arms sales to Saudi Arabia until they reconsider cuts in oil production. “The Saudis need to come to their senses,” Blumenthal said in announcing the move. “The only apparent purpose of this cut in oil supply is to help the Russians and hurt the Americans.” A separate bill by a trio of House Democrats, led by Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ), would require the removal of US troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Senator Robert Menendez (DN.J.), the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement last month saying that “the United States must immediately freeze all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia,” and promised that “no Give the green light for any cooperation with Riyadh until the kingdom reevaluates its position regarding the war in Ukraine.”
Most Republicans who took a position on the issue said Biden should use the opportunity of the cuts to increase domestic oil production, even though the United States is already pumping about a million barrels a day more than when Biden took office.
So far, the administration has offered no hints about what, if any, punitive measures it might consider during its review of the relationship, and appears in no rush to decide. “We don’t need to rush,” Kirby said last week. Meanwhile, officials highlighted the steps they say the Saudis have taken to assuage US anger and demonstrate they are not leaning in Russia’s direction.
“Our dissatisfaction has already been clearly stated and has already had an effect,” the official said. “We saw the Saudis reacting in constructive ways.”
In addition to the Saudi vote in favor of a UN General Assembly resolution last month condemning Russia’s illegal annexation of four regions of Ukraine, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, called President Volodymyr Zelensky to tell him that Saudi Arabia would contribute $400 million. humanitarian to Ukraine, far more than its previous single donation of $10 million in April.
The Saudis actively supported the recent truce in Yemen championed by the Biden administration. And after years of U.S. efforts to persuade Gulf states to adopt a regional missile defense system against Iran, which the Saudis have long opposed, the administration believes it is finally making progress.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken pointed out that this is still not enough. Speaking to Bloomberg News last week, he called the UN vote and Ukraine’s contribution “positive developments,” though “they do not compensate [for] The decision made by OPEC Plus on production”.
But the longer time passes, the greater the chances for Saudi Arabia to patch things up and moderate any American response. One key indicator is expected to come next month, when the European Union imposed a ban on Russian crude oil imports by sea – followed by a ban on all Russian oil products two months later – and the US advanced plans to impose a price cap on Russian oil.
Officials believe that any market shortfall these measures might create could be offset by increased Saudi Arabian production. Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salama said last week in his remarks to an investor conference in Riyadh that this was his country’s plan all along.
The Saudis have repeatedly insisted that their only interest is in the stability of the world market. Reduced production now, the minister said, would create spare capacity to compensate for the upcoming sanctions on Russia without creating major global shortfalls.
“You have to make sure you build a situation where if things [get] Worse, you have the ability” to respond, he said. “We will be the providers of those who want us to provide.”
The Saudis, Abdulaziz said, “decided to be the more mature guys,” as opposed to those who “dilute their emergency stocks… as a mechanism to manipulate markets.” Biden has withdrawn about a third of the US strategic oil reserve this year, in an effort to keep gas prices within reach of Americans already struggling with inflation and high interest rates.