The strikes, which were sent as a show of force and were previously unannounced, were the latest example of the strength and importance of a partnership that the administration is now reconsidering.
After the Saudis agreed last month to cut production by 2 million barrels per day at a meeting of the OPEC Plus energy cartel, which they chair, President Biden said: “There will be some consequences for what they do.”
The White House says the cuts will only serve to raise prices and benefit cartel member Russia as the U.S. and its allies try to strangle Moscow’s oil revenues to end the war in Ukraine.
In the bitter days that followed, the Saudis publicly protested that the administration had asked to delay the cuts by a month, implying that Biden wanted to prevent gas pump prices from rising before the upcoming U.S. midterm elections. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the Saudis are trying to “turn” US concerns about Ukraine and global energy stability into a domestic political game and deflect criticism of Russia’s war deterrence.
Many lawmakers, some of them advocating cutting ties with the Saudis, were even more outraged, calling for the immediate withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the kingdom and an end to all arms sales, among other punitive measures.
But as the White House grapples with how to deliver on Biden’s “results” promise, and despite his anger, his sharp response has been concerned by the backlash at home. Instead of reacting quickly, he is biding his time, looking for ways to bring the Saudis back into line while maintaining bilateral security ties.
“Are we ruining the relationship? No, said a high-ranking administration representative, who did not want to be named, in what has become a political and diplomatic crisis. “We had a fundamental disagreement about the state of the oil market and the global economy, and we’re looking at what happened.”
“But we have important interests in this relationship,” the official said.
Oil and Saudi Arabia’s influence on global markets are second only to US strategic interests in the Persian Gulf, where the kingdom plays a key role in countering Iranian aggression. The White House, which confirmed a Wall Street Journal report about the latest Iranian threat and high-level warning, declined to comment on the launch of the US warplanes.
“Centcom is committed to our long-term military strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia,” said command spokesman Joe Buccio. “We don’t discuss operational details.” The United States maintains important air assets in the region, including F-22 fighter jets in Saudi Arabia, but it is not clear where they are deployed.
About 6 percent of US 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 a cornerstone of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and defense officials in Washington are at a loss to understand what the current turmoil means.
Major U.S. deployments there ended after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and bilateral tensions have recurred in recent years over human rights concerns over Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and the 2018 killing of journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. , a resident of the United States and a columnist for The Washington Post.
There are currently about 2,500 US troops in Saudi Arabia, many of whom are involved in high-tech intelligence and training. The United States supplies nearly three-quarters of all weapons systems used by Saudi Arabia, including consumable parts, repairs, and upgrades.
Military sales to the kingdom have repeatedly been the subject of controversy in recent years, with many in Congress opposing them. While President Donald Trump, who has boasted of billions in potential US sales to the Saudis, has vetoed congressional efforts to halt some of the transactions, Biden banned the kingdom from buying American offensive weapons shortly after taking office.
Since then, Saudi Arabia has made two major purchases of air-to-air missiles and replacement missiles for Patriot air defense batteries. Another order for 300 Patriot missiles — worth more than $3 million apiece — was placed by the State Department after Biden’s visit to the kingdom in August, which he believed cemented a deal with the crown prince not to cut oil production.
Although Congress has not formally objected to the new sale within the 30-day window, there has been no public indication that the next step in the deal — a signed contract with the Defense Department — has been approved. The Pentagon has “nothing to announce at this time” about the sale, spokesman Lt. Col. Cesar Santiago said Friday.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), echoing the current level of Congress, 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 doesn’t want to side with Ukraine and the US over Russia, why should we keep these Patriots in Saudi Arabia when we need Ukraine and our NATO allies?” Murphy tweeted.
While two US-controlled Patriot systems remain in Saudi Arabia to protect American personnel from missile attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen, most of the systems used there were purchased by the Saudis years ago and are owned by the kingdom.
Biden has said he wants to consult with lawmakers about the promised “consequences,” and while tough statements from lawmakers have bolstered his fears, the current congressional recess will give the administration some breathing room.
The strongest opposition to business as usual with royalty came from Democrats. Last month, President Roh Hanna (Calif.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) introduced a bill to freeze all U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia until they reconsider oil production cuts. “The Saudis need to come to their senses,” Blumenthal said in announcing the measure. “The only clear purpose of cutting oil supply is to help the Russians and hurt the Americans.” A separate bill by a trio of Democratic House members led by Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ) would require the withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Sen. Robert Menendez (DN.J.), the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement last month that “the United States must immediately end all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia,” and he vowed: “Until the kingdom reconsiders its position on the war in Ukraine, It does not give the green light to any cooperation with Riyadh.
Most Republicans who have taken a stand on the issue have said Biden should use the cuts to increase domestic oil production, but the United States is pumping about a million barrels a day more than when Biden took office.
So far, the administration has not released any information on what sanctions may be considered during the review of the relationship, and is not rushing to make a decision. “We don’t need to rush,” Kirby said last week. Meanwhile, officials emphasized that the Saudis have taken steps to calm the anger of the US and prove that they are not leaning towards Russia.
“Our grievances have already been made public and have already had an impact,” a senior official said. “We have seen a constructive reaction from the Saudis.”
Adding to Saudi Arabia’s vote in support of a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s illegal annexation of four Ukrainian territories last month, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, called President Volodymyr Zelensky and said Saudi Arabia would provide $400 million. It is providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine, which is much more than the $10 million it gave in April.
The Saudis have actively supported the recently signed truce in Yemen, backed by the Biden administration. And after a long-standing U.S. push to persuade the Gulf states to adopt a regional missile defense system against Iran, the administration believes the Saudis are finally moving.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this was not enough yet. Speaking to Bloomberg News last week, he called the UN vote and Ukraine’s donation a “positive step” but “they don’t provide compensation.” [for] decision made by OPEC plus on production.
But the longer time passes, the more likely it is that Saudi Arabia will mend the situation and soften any US response. One key indicator could come next month, when the European Union plans to ban the shipping of Russian crude oil by sea, followed two months later by a ban on all Russian oil products and a proposed U.S. price cap. Russian oil.
Officials say the market shortfall that these measures could create could be covered by increased Saudi production. Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salma said this was his country’s plan in a speech at an investor conference in Riyadh last week.
The Saudis have repeatedly emphasized that their only interest is the stability of the world market. According to the minister, the reduction in production now creates additional opportunities to compensate for the upcoming sanctions against Russia, rather than creating large global shortages.
“You have to make sure you create a situation [get] Even worse, you have the ability,” he said. “We’re going to be a supplier to those who want to deliver.”
The Saudis, according to Abdulaziz, have decided to be “mature boys” as opposed to “depleting their special reserves” as a mechanism to control the markets. Biden withdrew a third of the US strategic oil reserve this year in an effort to keep gas prices down for Americans struggling with high inflation and interest rates.