The Biden administration has said it is ready to consider tough new measures against Saudi Arabia after its decision last week to side with Vladimir Putin and cut oil production.
Observers said the move signaled a dramatic abandonment of the US president’s recent attempts to seek a rapprochement with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and casts doubt over the future of the US-Saudi security relationship.
“The president believes that we should review the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia and take a look to see if that relationship is where it needs to be and that it is serving our national security interests,” John Kirby, the national security council spokesperson, said , adding that the re-evaluation was “in light of the recent decision by Opec, and Saudi Arabia’s leadership”.
Among other options, Kirby suggested Biden would speak to senior Democrats on Capitol Hill who have been calling for the US to curtail its cooperation with the kingdom in light of what was seen as Prince Mohammed’s decision to side with Russian interests over the US. The move to cut oil production comes just weeks before a critical midterm election that could hinge on how much American consumers are paying at the pump.
Kirby said that conversations with Congress on Saudi policy would begin when it returns from recess after the November elections.
The congressional backlash against Saudi Arabia escalated sharply this week after Robert Menendez, the powerful Democratic chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, threatened to freeze weapons sales and security cooperation with the kingdom, saying Prince Mohammed was helping to “underwrite Putin’s war through the Opec+ cartel”.
Menendez said there was “simply no room to play both sides of this conflict”.
“I will not green-light any cooperation with Riyadh until the kingdom reassesses its position with respect to the war in Ukraine. “Enough is enough,” he said.
Former CIA analyst and Saudi expert Bruce Riedel said the White House’s remarks represented a “dramatic reversal”.
“We went from engaging [Prince Mohammed] to back to him being a pariah,” Riedel said, referring to a campaign promise Biden made – but later abandoned – to isolate the prince because of his alleged role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The move by the Opec+ group of the oil cartel and its allies to cut oil production over the objections of the White House, was a double blow to Biden, undermining his attempt to cut Russian revenues by lowering the oil price, and threatening a spike in domestic petrol prices weeks before congressional elections. It was all the more stinging as it followed a reconciliatory trip to Jeddah by Biden in July, when he was photographed fist-bumping with the crown prince.
“I think the pressure from within the Democratic party is enormous. The administration will have to take some steps like reducing American forces. The media, and constituencies that matter to Democrats are all demanding steps,” Riedel said.
The Saudis apparent decision to turn their backs on their US allies in favor of Russia comes despite the kingdom’s dependence on the US for its security.
In some quarters, it was seen as more evidence of rash decision-making by Prince Mohammed.
Seth Binder – director of advocacy of Pomed, a group that supports democracy in the Middle East – said he believed Kirby’s remarks demonstrated a genuine sense of frustration from within the administration at Saudi Arabia’s Opec+ decision.
“This could become a watershed moment – barring a change in Saudi policy – similar to [Prince Mohammed allegedly ordering] the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, particularly for Congress, that forces a shift in the US relationship towards Saudi Arabia,” Binder said.
A Democratic senator, Richard Blumenthal, and a Democratic member of Congress, Ro Khanna – expressed similar sentiments in an opinion piece for Politico that also accused Saudi Arabia of undermining US efforts and helping to boost Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The Saudi decision was a pointed blow to the US, but the US also has a way to respond: it can promptly pause the massive transfer of American warfare technology into the eager hands of the Saudis,” they wrote.
“Simply put, America shouldn’t be providing such unlimited control of strategic defense systems to an apparent ally of our greatest enemy – nuclear bomb extortionist Vladimir Putin.”
In his statement, Menendez suggested he did not support an outright ban on all support, saying he would block all arms sales and security cooperation “beyond what is absolutely necessary to defend US personnel and interests”.
Kirby suggested that current US cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies to improve the region’s air defenses was unlikely to be affected by a policy review.
“Nothing has changed about our belief that integrated air and missile defense network structure architecture in the Middle East is helpful, not just for our national security interests – there’s 70,000 Americans living in Saudi Arabia right now, not to mention all the other troops we have throughout the region,” he said. “So it’s not only in our interests that missile defense in the region becomes more integrated and cooperative. It’s in the interest of our allies and partners in that part of the world as well.”
William Hartung, senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute, commended Menendez’s statement but said that to have “maximum impact”, the cut-off ought to cover “all weapons transfers, spare parts, and maintenance to the Saudi military”.
“In addition, a suspension should be tied not just to Saudi Arabia’s ties with Russia or stance on the Ukraine war, but also to pressuring the Saudis to refrain from airstrikes on Yemen and to fully lift its blockade on that nation as a step towards good faith negotiations to end the conflict,” he said.
Khalid Aljabri, whose father, Saad, is an exiled senior Saudi intelligence official, said the “weaponisation” of oil was likely to have a broader impact on the US-Saudi relationship, as ordinary Americans would probably begin feeling the effects of Opec+’s decision at the gas pump.
Aljabri said it was not clear whether congressional anger seemed more potent than the Biden administration’s own stance because Democrats had more to lose ahead of November’s critical midterm elections, or whether the White House and Congress were playing a game of “good cop, bad cop” in attempts to influence the kingdom’s policies.
“Either way, they tried appeasement and fist bumps and it didn’t work. [Prince Mohammed] only understands the language of power. It is high time the Biden administration acts like the senior partner in this relationship,” he said.