The jet skirmish, which was sent as an armed show of force and was previously unreported, was the latest example of the strength and importance of a partnership that the administration said it was now reassessing.
“They’re going to have some consequences for what they’ve done,” President Biden said after the Saudis agreed last month at a meeting of the OPEC Plus energy cartel, which they lead, to cut output by 2 million barrels a day.
The cuts only serve to raise prices, the White House argued, and would benefit cartel member Russia just as the United States and its allies have sought to choke Moscow’s oil revenues to reduce its war in Ukraine.
In the angry days that followed, the Saudis publicly countered that the administration had asked to delay the cuts by a month, implicitly suggesting that Biden wanted to avoid raising gas pump prices before the upcoming U.S. midterm elections. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby suggested to reporters that Saudi Arabia is trying to “turn” US concerns about Ukraine and global energy stability into domestic political ploys and deflect criticism of Russia’s war-mongering.
Many lawmakers, some of whom have long advocated cutting ties with Saudi Arabia, reacted with even greater outrage, calling for the immediate withdrawal of thousands of US troops stationed in the kingdom and an end to arms sales, among other punitive measures.
But the White House, as it ponders how to deliver on Biden’s promise of “consequences” and despite its continued anger, has grown uneasy about the backlash his sharp response has provoked at home. Instead of moving quickly to react, it is playing for time, looking for ways to bring the Saudis back into line while maintaining strong bilateral security ties.
“Are we breaking up? No,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity about what has become a sensitive political and diplomatic situation. “We had fundamental disagreements about the oil market and the state of the global economy, and we are reviewing what happened.”
“But we have important interests at stake in this relationship,” the official said.
Saudi Arabia’s oil and influence in the world market is second only to US strategic interests in the Persian Gulf, where the kingdom plays a central role, especially in countering Iranian aggression. The White House, which confirmed a Wall Street Journal report about the latest Iranian threat and a high-level alert, declined to comment on the launch of US warplanes.
“Centcom is committed to our long-term strategic military partnership with Saudi Arabia,” said command spokesman Joe Buccio. “We will not discuss operational details.” The United States maintains significant air assets in the region, including F-22 fighter jets in Saudi Arabia, although the location from which they were shot down is unclear.
Now only about 6 percent of US oil imports 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 at the heart of the US-Saudi relationship, and defense officials in Washington are uneasy about what the current upheaval could mean.
The main US deployment there ended after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and there have been repeated bilateral tensions in recent years, including human rights concerns over the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the 2018 killing of journalist and regime critic Jamal by Saudi agents. The assassination of Khashoggi. US resident and columnist for The Washington Post.
There are now about 2,500 US forces 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 repeatedly been the subject of controversy in recent years, as many in Congress have spoken out against them. While President Donald Trump, who has boasted of billions in potential U.S. sales to the Saudis, vetoed attempts by Congress to stop certain deals, Biden banned the kingdom’s purchase of U.S. offensive weapons shortly after taking office.
Since then, Saudi Arabia has made two major purchases: air-to-air missiles and replacement missiles for Patriot air defense batteries. Another order for 300 Patriot missiles, worth more than $3 million per unit, was approved by the State Department in August after Biden’s visit to the kingdom, where he believed he had cemented an agreement with the crown prince not to cut oil production.
Although Congress did not formally oppose the new sale within the 30-day period, there was no public indication that the next step in the deal, a contract with the Department of Defense, had been completed. The Pentagon has “nothing to announce at this time” about the sale, Lt. Col. Cesar Santiago said Friday.
Addressing the current level of anger in Congress, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said last week that all arms sales to Saudi Arabia should be halted and that the Patriot systems there should be removed and sent to Ukraine. “If Saudi Arabia is not willing to side with Ukraine and the US on Russia, why should we keep these Patriots in Saudi Arabia when Ukraine and our NATO allies need them,” Murphy tweeted.
While two U.S.-controlled Patriot systems remain in Saudi Arabia to protect U.S. personnel from missile attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels and, presumably, Iran, most of the systems used there were bought by the Saudis years ago and are owned by the kingdom.
Biden has said he wants to consult with lawmakers on the promised “consequences,” and while strong statements from lawmakers back up his threat, the current congressional recess also gives the administration some breathing room.
The strongest objections to business as usual with the kingdom come from Democrats. Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) introduced a bill last month to freeze all U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia until they review oil production cuts. “The Saudis need to come to their senses,” Blumenthal said in announcing the measure. “The only apparent purpose of this oil supply cut 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 withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Sen. Robert Menendez (DN.J.), the influential chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement last month saying “the United States must immediately freeze all aspects of our engagement with Saudi Arabia” and vowing that he would ” Do not give the green light to any cooperation with Riyadh until the kingdom reconsiders its position on the war in Ukraine.”
Most Republicans who have taken a stand on the issue say Biden should use the cuts to boost domestic oil production, even though the U.S. already produces roughly a million barrels a day more than it did when Biden was in office.
So far, the administration has given no indication of what punitive measures it might consider as it reviews the relationship, and is in no rush to decide. “We don’t need to rush,” Kirby said last week. Meanwhile, officials highlighted steps they say the Saudis have taken to assuage U.S. anger and prove they are not leaning toward Russia.
“Our displeasure has already been clearly stated and has already had its effect,” said a high-ranking official. “We’ve seen the Saudis respond in constructive ways.”
In addition to Saudi Arabia’s support 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 pay $400 million will invest dollars. To provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine, which is much more than the donation of $10 million in April of last year.
The Saudis have been actively supporting a recent ceasefire in Yemen championed by the Biden administration. And after years of US efforts to get Gulf states to adopt a regional missile defense system against Iran, the administration believes it is finally making progress.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken noted that this is still not enough. Speaking to Bloomberg News last week, he called the UN vote and Ukraine’s donation “positive developments,” though “they don’t compensate.” [for] The decision made by OPEC Plus on production.
But the more time that passes, the more opportunities Saudi Arabia will have to patch things up and mitigate any US backlash. One key indicator is likely to come next month, when the European Union plans to ban seaborne imports of Russian crude, followed two months later by a ban on all Russian oil products, and US-backed plans to cap prices. Russian oil.
Officials believe any market shortfall the measures may create could be filled by increased production from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman told an investor conference in Riyadh last week that this had been his country’s plan all along.
The Saudis have repeatedly claimed that their only interest is the stability of the world market. Cutting production now, the minister said, would create free capacity to offset the upcoming sanctions against Russia without creating a large global deficit.
“You have to make sure you create a situation where if things happen [get] worse, you have a chance to react, he said. “We will be the supplier of those who want us to supply.”
The Saudis, Abdulaziz said, “decided to be more mature guys” as opposed to those who were depleting their emergency reserves … as a mechanism to manipulate the markets. Biden has drawn down about a third of the U.S. strategic oil reserves this year in an effort to keep gas prices affordable for Americans already struggling with high inflation and interest rates.