The plane crash, sent as an armed show of force and previously unknown, 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 served to drive up prices, the White House charged, and would benefit cartel member Russia just as the United States and its allies were trying to choke off Moscow’s oil revenues to undermine its war in Ukraine.
In the angry days that followed, the Saudis publicly countered that the administration had asked for the cuts to be delayed by a month, implying that Biden wanted to avoid higher gas station prices ahead of the upcoming U.S. midterm elections. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told 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 hedging.
Many lawmakers, some of whom have long advocated cutting ties with the Saudis, reacted with even more outrage, calling for the immediate withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the kingdom and a freeze on all 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 lingering anger, is uneasy about the backlash his sharp response has provoked at home. Instead of moving quickly to respond, he is playing for time, looking for ways to bring the Saudis back in line while maintaining strong bilateral security ties.
“Are we breaking the bond? 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 state of the oil market and the global economy, and we are reviewing what happened.”
“But we have important interests at stake in these relationships,” the official said.
Saudi Arabia’s oil and global influence 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 a Wall Street Journal report about the recent Iranian threat and high-level alarm, declined to comment on the launch of US warplanes.
“Centcom is committed to our long-standing 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 deployed is unclear.
Now only about 6% 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 U.S.-Saudi relationship, and defense officials in Washington are worried about what the current turmoil could mean.
Major US deployments 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 by Saudi agents of the journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi, US resident and columnist for The Washington Post.
There are now about 2,500 US military personnel in Saudi Arabia, many of whom are 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 repeated controversy in recent years, as many in Congress have objected to 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’s purchase of U.S. offensive weapons shortly after taking office.
Since then, there have been two major purchases by Saudi Arabia – of air-to-air missiles and backup 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, where he reportedly confirmed an agreement with the crown prince not to cut oil production.
Although Congress did not formally object to the new sale within the 30-day period, there is no public indication that the next step in the deal — a signed contract with the Department of Defense — has 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 unwilling 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 wrote on Twitter.
While two U.S.-controlled Patriot systems remain in Saudi Arabia to protect American 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 come from Democrats. Congressman Ro Hanna (Calif.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) introduced a bill last month 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 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 (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 pledged , that he would “not give the green light to any cooperation with Riyadh until the kingdom reassesses its position on the war in Ukraine.
Most Republicans who took a position 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 clues as to what, if any, punitive measures it may consider during its review of the relationship, and appears in no rush to make a decision. “We don’t have to rush,” Kirby said last week. Meanwhile, officials highlighted steps they say the Saudis have taken to assuage U.S. anger and demonstrate they are not leaning toward Russia.
“Our displeasure has already been made clear and has already had an impact,” the senior official said. “We’ve seen the Saudis respond in ways that are constructive.”
In addition to Saudi Arabia’s vote in support of 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 tell him that Saudi Arabia would contribute $400 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, far more than a single previous donation of $10 million in April.
The Saudis are actively supporting the recent ceasefire in Yemen, which the Biden administration supports. And after years of U.S. efforts to persuade Gulf states to adopt a regional missile defense system against Iran that the Saudis have long resisted, the administration believes it is finally making progress.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken indicated that this was still not enough. Speaking last week to Bloomberg News, he called the UN vote and the donation to Ukraine “a positive development,” although “they don’t make up for [for] the decision taken by OPEC Plus on production.”
But the more time passes, the more chances Saudi Arabia will have to straighten things out and temper any US response. One key indicator is likely to come next month, when the European Union plans a ban on seaborne imports of Russian crude — followed by a ban on all Russian oil products two months later — and US-promoted plans to impose a price cap on Russian petrol.
Any market shortfall these measures may create could be offset by increased production from Saudi Arabia, officials said. Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salma told an investor conference in Riyadh last week that this had been his country’s plan all along.
The Saudis have repeatedly insisted that their only interest is the stability of the world market. Reduced production now, the minister said, would create spare capacity to offset the upcoming sanctions against Russia without creating large global deficits.
“You have to make sure you create a situation where things [get] it’s worse that you have the ability to respond, he said. “We will be the supplier to those who want us to supply.”
The Saudis, Abdulaziz said, had “decided to be the more mature guys”, as opposed to those “depleting their contingency reserves … as a mechanism to manipulate the markets”. Biden has withdrawn about a third of the US strategic oil reserve this year in an effort to keep gas prices affordable for Americans already struggling with high inflation and interest rates.