The dispersal of the planes, sent as an armed show of force and previously unreported, was the latest illustration of the strength and importance of a partnership that the administration said it was now reassessing.
“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 drive up prices, the White House charged, and will benefit cartel member Russia just as the United States and its allies are trying 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 for a one-month delay in the cuts, indirectly suggesting that Biden wanted to avoid rising gas pump prices ahead of the upcoming U.S. midterm elections. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby admitted to reporters that the Saudis are trying to “spin” US concerns about Ukraine and global energy stability into a domestic political ploy and deflect criticism of Russia’s war-mongering.
Many lawmakers, some of whom have long advocated cutting ties with the Saudis, reacted with even more anger, calling for the immediate withdrawal of the thousands of US troops stationed in the kingdom and a halt to all arms sales, among other punitive measures.
But the White House, as it ponders how to follow through on Biden’s promise of “consequences” despite continued anger, has grown uneasy about the backlash her sharp response has provoked at home. Instead of reacting quickly, it is playing for time, looking for ways to bring the Saudis back into line while preserving strong bilateral security ties.
“Are we breaking up?” No,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity in 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.
Saudi Arabia’s oil and influence on the global market are second only to US strategic interests in the Persian Gulf, where the kingdom plays a central role, not least in countering Iranian aggression. The White House, which confirmed the Wall Street Journal’s report on the recent Iranian threat and high-level alert, declined to comment on the launch of the US warplanes.
“Centcom is committed to our longstanding 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 jumped was not clear.
Only 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 the bedrock of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and defense officials in Washington are unsettled by what the current reversal could mean.
Major US deployments there ended after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and there have been multiple bilateral issues in recent years, including human rights concerns over the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the killing of journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi. by Saudi agents in 2018. , a 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 constantly needed parts, repairs and upgrades.
The kingdom’s military sales have been the subject of ongoing controversy in recent years, as many in Congress have opposed them. While President Donald Trump, who has boasted of billions in potential U.S. sales to the Saudis, has vetoed attempts by Congress to halt certain transactions, Biden banned the kingdom from buying offensive U.S. weapons soon after taking office.
Since then, there have been two major purchases from Saudi Arabia, air-to-air missiles and replacement missiles for Patriot air defense batteries. Another order for 300 Patriot missiles — at more than $3 million per unit — was approved by the State Department in August, following Biden’s visit to the kingdom, where he reportedly believed he had cemented a deal with the crown prince not to cut oil production. .
Although Congress did not formally object to the new sale within 30 days, there was no public indication that the next step in the transaction – a signed contract with the Department of Defense – had been taken. The Pentagon has “nothing to announce at this time” about the sale, spokesman Lt. Col. Cesar Santiago said Friday.
Reflecting the current level of anger 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 ready 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 U.S.-controlled Patriot systems remain in Saudi Arabia to protect U.S. personnel from missile attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels and possibly 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 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 came from Democrats. Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) last month 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 apparent purpose of this reduction in oil supplies is to help the Russians and hurt the Americans.” A separate bill by a trio of House Democrats, led by Rep. Tom Malinowski (N-J.), would require the removal 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 saying “the United States must immediately freeze all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia” and vowed to ” “There is no green light for any cooperation with Riyadh until the kingdom reconsiders its position on the war in Ukraine.”
Most Republicans who took a stand on the issue said Biden should use the cuts to boost domestic oil production, even though the United States is already pumping roughly one million barrels a day more than when Biden took office.
So far, the administration has offered no indication of what, if any, punitive measures it might consider in 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 steps they say the Saudis have taken to assuage U.S. anger and prove they are not siding with Russia.
“Our displeasure has already been made clear and it has already had an impact,” the senior official said. “We’ve seen the Saudis respond in ways that are constructive.”
In addition to a vote in Saudi Arabia on last month’s UN General Assembly resolution 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 say Saudi Arabia will contribute $400 million. humanitarian aid to Ukraine, far more than its single previous donation of $10 million in April.
The Saudis are actively supporting 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 long opposed by the Saudis, the administration believes it is finally making progress.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated that this is still not enough. Speaking last week to Bloomberg News, he called the UN vote and the Ukraine 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 likely Saudi Arabia will be to straighten things out and moderate any US response. One key indicator is likely to come next month, when the European Union plans to ban seaborne imports of Russian crude — followed by a ban on all Russian oil products two months later — and plans promoted by the United States to cap the price of Russian oil.
Any market shortfall those measures may create could be offset by increased production from Saudi Arabia, officials believe. Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salma said in remarks at an investor conference in Riyadh last week that this was his country’s plan all along.
The Saudis have repeatedly insisted that their only interest is the stability of the global market. Reduced production now, the minister said, would create spare capacity to offset the upcoming sanctions on Russia without creating major global shortfalls.
“You have to make sure you build a situation where you’re working [get] even worse you have the ability’ to answer, he said. “We will be a supplier to those who want to supply.”
The Saudis, Abdulaziz said, “have decided to be more mature guys,” as opposed to those who are “depleting their emergency reserves … as a mechanism to manipulate the markets.” Biden has withdrawn about a third of America’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve this year in an effort to keep gas prices affordable for Americans already struggling with high inflation and interest rates.