Biden’s “consequences” for Saudi Arabia are reaping quiet results

Opinion

Despite Saudi Arabia’s angry response to last month’s decision to cut oil production in response to global shortages and threats of retaliation, the Biden administration is looking for signs that the tight, decades-long security relationship between Washington and Riyadh can be salvaged.

Those relationships and its commitment to defending its strategic allies—especially Iran—are an integral part of America’s defenses in the Middle East. The U.S. Central Command, based in the Persian Gulf region, has sent warplanes to Iran, putting the U.S. and Saudi military forces on high alert after recent intelligence reports warned that Iranian ballistic missiles and drones could hit targets in Saudi Arabia.

The jets’ skirmish, which was sent as an armed force and previously unreported, is the latest demonstration of the strength and importance of a partnership the administration is now evaluating.

President Biden said after the Saudis agreed to cut production by 2 million barrels a day at last month’s meeting of the OPEC+ energy cartel, which he chairs, “there may be some consequences for what they have done.”

The price cut will only serve to raise prices, cost the White House, and benefit cartel member Russia at a time when America and its allies are trying to suppress Moscow’s oil revenues to ease the war in Ukraine.

In the days of fury that followed, the Saudis hinted at the administration’s request to delay the cuts by a month, suggesting Biden wanted to avoid a price hike at the gas pump ahead of the upcoming US midterm elections. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the Saudis were trying to “spin” U.S. concerns over Ukraine and global energy stability into an internal political conspiracy and to play down criticism that they were sitting on the fence about war with Russia.

Many lawmakers, many of whom have argued for cutting ties with Saudi Arabia, have called for an immediate withdrawal of the thousands of US troops stationed in the kingdom and an end to arms sales, among other punitive measures.

But as the White House ponders how to make good on Biden’s “results” promise, and despite his continued anger, the sharp response has sparked confusion at home. Instead of moving quickly to respond, it is playing for time, looking for ways to bring the Saudis back into line while maintaining a strong bilateral security relationship.

“Are we breaking the relationship? No,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the escalating political and diplomatic situation.

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“However, we have important interests in this relationship,” the official said.

Oil and Saudi Arabia’s influence on the global market are second only to US strategic interests in the Persian Gulf, where the kingdom plays a central role in deterring Iranian aggression. The White House, which confirmed the Wall Street Journal’s report on Iran’s recent threat and high alert, declined to comment on the grounding 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 a significant air base in the region, including F-22 fighter jets based in Saudi Arabia, although their location is unclear.

Only about 6 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil imports into the United States. China is the state’s largest trading partner and trade relations with Russia are expanding. But security and intelligence ties are key to the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and defense officials in Washington aren’t digesting what the current upheaval could mean.

In the year U.S. wars ended following 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 2018 killing of Saudi envoys by journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist.

There are now about 2,500 US military personnel in Saudi Arabia, many of them engaged in high-tech intelligence work and training. The United States is the supplier of nearly three-quarters of the weapons systems used by the Saudi military, including spare parts, repairs, and upgrades.

Military sales to the government have become a recurring controversy in recent years, with many in Congress opposing them. While President Donald Trump, who boasts of billions in sales to the Saudis, has rebuffed attempts by Congress to halt certain transactions, Biden has suspended the kingdom’s purchase of offensive US weapons shortly after taking office.

Since then, there have been two major Saudi purchases, air-to-air missiles and replacement missiles for Patriot air defense batteries. Another order for 300 Patriot missiles — more than $3 million per unit — was approved by the State Department in August, after Biden visited the kingdom, which reportedly cemented an agreement with the crown prince not to cut oil production.

Although Congress has not officially vetoed the new sale within the allotted 30-day window, there has been no public indication that the next step in the transaction — a signed contract with the Defense Department — has been taken. “There is nothing to announce at this time,” spokesman Lt. Col. Cesar Santiago said Friday about the Pentagon sale.

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Reflecting the current furor in Congress, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said last month that all arms sales to Saudi Arabia should be halted and that anti-terrorist systems there should be removed and sent to Ukraine. “If Saudi Arabia refuses to stand by Ukraine and the US against Russia, why should we keep these veterans in Saudi Arabia when Ukraine and our NATO allies want them?” Murphy wrote on Twitter.

While two U.S.-controlled anti-aircraft systems remain in Saudi Arabia to protect American personnel from missile attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels and to defend against attacks from Iran, most of the systems used there were bought by the Saudis years ago and belong to the kingdom.

Biden has said he wants to consult with lawmakers on the promised “results,” and while strong statements from lawmakers have backed off the threat, the current congressional recess will give the administration some breathing room.

The strongest opposition to business as usual with the government came from Democrats. Rep. Ro Canna (Calif.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) introduced legislation last month that would freeze all U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia until it reconsiders oil production cuts. “The Saudis need to come to their senses,” Blumenthal said in announcing the measure. The only purpose of this oil supply cut 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.

Senator Robert Mendez (DNJ), the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement last month vowing that “the United States must immediately suspend all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia.” The kingdom will not greenlight any cooperation with Riyadh until it reviews 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. is producing about a million barrels a day more than when Biden took office.

So far, the administration has offered no indication of what punitive measures it might take as it reviews the relationship, and is in no rush to make a decision. “We’re in no rush,” Kirby said last week. Meanwhile, the officials emphasized steps they said the Saudis had taken to assuage U.S. anger and to ensure that they were not beholden to Russia.

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“Our grievances have already been made clear and have already had an impact,” the senior official said. We have seen the Saudis respond constructively.

Last month, the United Nations General Assembly voted for Saudi Arabia to condemn Russia’s illegal actions in four regions of Ukraine. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called President Volodymyr Zelensky and told him that Saudi Arabia would contribute $400 million. In humanitarian aid to Ukraine, it is far more than his single donation of $10 million last April.

Saudi Arabia has actively supported the recent peace deal in Yemen promoted by the Biden administration. And after years of U.S. efforts to persuade Persian Gulf states to adopt a regional missile defense system against Iran long opposed by the Saudis, the administration believes it is finally moving forward.

Foreign Secretary Anthony Blinken suggested that was not enough. Speaking to Bloomberg News last week, he called the UN vote and Ukraine’s donation “positive developments,” even though they “don’t pay compensation.” [for] OPEC Plus decision on production.

But the more time that passes, the greater the opportunity for Saudi Arabia to straighten things out and provoke a US response. A key indicator could come next month, when the European Union plans to ban imports of seaborne Russian crude – two months after a ban on all Russian oil imports – and plans to drop a US-imposed price cap. Russian oil.

Officials believe that any market shortfall that those measures could create could be made up by increased production in Saudi Arabia. As Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salma said at an investor conference in Riyadh last week, this is all part of his country’s plan.

The Saudis have repeatedly said that their only interest is in the stability of the international market. The current reduction in production will create surplus capacity to offset sanctions against Russia without creating major international shortages, the minister said.

“You have to make sure that things are built from the status quo [get] You can do worse,” he said. “We will be suppliers to those who want to supply us.”

The Saudis, Abdulaziz said, have “decided to be grown men” as opposed to those who “deplete their emergency reserves … as a means to control the markets.” Biden has sold about a third of the U.S. strategic petroleum reserves this year in an effort to keep gas prices affordable for Americans struggling with high inflation and interest rates.



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