The jets’ scramble, sent as a previously unreported show of armed force, was the latest example of the strength and importance of a partnership the administration has said it is now reevaluating.
“There will be some consequences for what they have done,” President Biden said after the Saudis agreed last month, at a meeting of the OPEC Plus energy cartel they chair, to cutting production by 2 million barrels per day.
The cuts serve only to increase prices, the White House charged, and would benefit cartel member Russia at the very moment the US and its allies were trying to choke off Moscow’s oil revenues to undercut its war in the Ukraine.
In the angry days that followed, the Saudis publicly protested that the administration had asked for the cuts to be delayed by a month, indirectly suggesting that Biden wanted to avoid higher prices at the gas pump ahead of the US mid-term elections. to come National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the Saudis were trying to “spin” US concerns about Ukraine and world energy stability into a domestic political ploy, and to deflect criticism of fence-sitting on Russian war.
Many lawmakers, some of whom have long argued for cutting ties with the Saudis, responded with even more resistance, calling for the withdrawal of thousands of US troops stationed in the kingdom on once and put a stop to all arms sales, among other punitive measures.
But the White House, as it ponders how to make good on Biden’s “results” promise and despite his lingering anger, has grown uneasy about the reaction 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 with keeping strong bilateral security ties.
“Are we severing the relationship? No,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity about what has become a sensitive political and diplomatic situation. “We had a fundamental disagreement on the state of the oil market and the global economy, and we are reviewing what happened.”
“But we have important interests at stake in this relationship,” said the official.
Oil, and the influence of Saudi Arabia on the global market, is second only to the strategic interests of the United States in the Persian Gulf, where the kingdom plays a central role, above all in the fight against Iranian aggression. The White House, which confirmed a Wall Street Journal report on the recent Iranian threat and a high-level warning, declined to comment on the launch of 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 scrambled 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 commercial ties with Russia have expanded. But security and intelligence ties are the cornerstone of US-Saudi relations, and defense officials in Washington are troubled by 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 a 2018 assassination by Saudi agents. of journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi, a resident of the United States and a columnist for The Washington Post.
About 2,500 US forces are now 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 been the subject of frequent controversy in recent years, as many in Congress have opposed them. While President Donald Trump, who had boasted of billions in potential US sales to the Saudis, vetoed congressional efforts to stop certain transactions, Biden banned the kingdom from buying US offensive weapons soon on after taking office.
Since then, there have been two major Saudi purchases, air-to-air missiles, and new 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’s visit to the kingdom, where he is said to have believed he had sealed a deal with the crown prince to not cutting oil production.
Although Congress did not formally object to the new sale within an allotted 30-day window, there has been no public indication that the next step in the transaction – a signed contract with the Department of Defense – has been taken. The Pentagon has “nothing to announce at this time” regarding the sale, said spokesman Lt. Col. Cesar Santiago on Friday.
In a reflection of the current level of congressional angst, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said last month that all arms sales to Saudi Arabia should be halted, and that any Patriot systems there should be removed and sent to the Ukraine. “If Saudi Arabia is not willing to take the side of Ukraine and the United States 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 US-controlled Patriot systems remain in Saudi Arabia to protect US personnel from missile attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and presumably from Iran, the majority of the systems in use there were purchased years ago by the Saudis and they belong to the kingdom.
Biden has said he wants to consult with lawmakers about the promised “results,” 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 have come from the Democrats. Last month, Representatives Ro Khanna (Calif.) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) introduced a bill to freeze all US arms sales to Saudi Arabia until they reconsider the cuts in oil production. “The Saudis need to come to their senses,” Blumenthal said in announcing the bill. “The only apparent purpose of this cut in oil supplies is to help the Russians and hurt Americans.” A separate bill by a trio of Democratic House members, led by Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ), would require the removal of US troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Last month Sen. Robert Menendez (D.N.J.), the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement saying “the United States must immediately freeze all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia,” and promised that ” not give the green light to any cooperation with Riyadh until the kingdom reassesses its position regarding the war in Ukraine.”
Most Republicans who have taken a stand on the issue have said that Biden should use the opportunity of the cuts to increase domestic oil production, even though the United States is already pumping about a million barrels a day more than when Biden came in his job.
So far, the administration has offered no clues about what, if any, punitive measures it might consider during its review of the relationship, and it appears in no rush to decide. “We don’t need to be in a hurry,” Kirby said last week. Meanwhile, officials have emphasized the steps they say the Saudis have taken to ease US anger and prove they are not leaning towards Russia.
“Our displeasure has already been clearly stated and has already had an impact,” said the senior official. “We’ve seen the Saudis respond in constructive ways.”
In addition to the Saudi vote in favor 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 contribute $400 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, far more than its previous single donation of $10 million in April.
The Saudis have been very supportive of a recent ceasefire in Yemen that the Biden administration has promoted. And after years of US efforts to persuade Persian Gulf countries to adopt a regional missile defense system against Iran, which the Saudis have long resisted, the administration believes it is finally making progress. .
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has indicated that that is still not enough. Speaking to Bloomberg News last week, he called the UN vote and the Ukraine donation “positive developments,” although “they do not make up for [for] the decision made by OPEC Plus on production.”
But the more time that passes, the greater the chance that Saudi Arabia will have to get things right and temper any response from the United States. One key indicator is likely to come next month, when the European Union has scheduled a ban on imports of Russian crude oil by sea – followed by a ban on all Russian petroleum products two months later – and plans promoted by the United States to set a price cap on Russian oil.
Any market shortages those measures might create could be made up by increased production from Saudi Arabia, officials believe. Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salma said last week in remarks to an investor conference in Riyadh 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 compensate for the upcoming sanctions on Russia without creating large global deficits.
“You need to make sure you build a situation where things are [get] however you have the ability to respond, he said. “Those who want us to supply will not be a supplier.”
The Saudis, Abdulaziz said, had “decided to be the mature men,” rather than those who were “depleting their emergency stocks… as a mechanism to manipulate markets.” Biden has withdrawn about a third of the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve this year, in an effort to keep gas prices within reach for Americans already struggling with high inflation and interest rates.