The scrambling of the jets, launched as a show of armed force and previously unreported, was the latest demonstration of the strength and importance of the partnership that the administration said it is now reassessing.
“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 cut production by 2 million barrels per day.
The cuts will only raise prices, the White House charged, and would benefit cartel member Russia at precisely the time the United States and its allies are trying to choke off Moscow’s oil revenues to reduce its war in 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 was trying to avoid increased prices at the gas pump ahead of the midterm elections. upcoming USA. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the Saudis were trying to “spin” US concerns about Ukraine and world energy stability into their domestic politics, while avoiding their criticism of the war in Russia. .
Many lawmakers, some of whom have long advocated cutting ties with the Saudis, responded with even greater umbrage, calling for the immediate withdrawal of thousands of US troops stationed in the kingdom and a halt to all arms sales. , among other punitive measures.
But the White House, wondering how Biden’s pledge of “consequences” will pay off and despite his continued anger, has grown uneasy with the reaction to his sharp response at home. Rather than moving quickly to respond, he is playing for time, looking for ways to bring the Saudis back into line while preserving strong bilateral security ties.
“Are we severing the relationship? No,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity about what is 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 reviewing what happened.”
“But we have important interests in this relationship,” the official said.
Oil, and the influence of Saudi Arabia on the world market, is second to the strategic interests of the United States in the Persian Gulf, where the kingdom plays a central role, especially in the face of Iranian aggression. The White House, which confirmed the Wall Street Journal report on the recent Iranian threat and high-level alert, refused to comment on the launch of US warplanes.
“Centcom is committed to our long-standing strategic military partnership with Saudi Arabia,” said chief 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 increased. But security and intelligence ties are the bedrock of the US-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 murder Saudi agents journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. , 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 parts, repairs and upgrades that are constantly needed.
Military sales to the kingdom have repeatedly been the subject of controversy in recent years, as many in Congress have opposed them. While President Donald Trump, who has billions in potential US sales to the Saudis, vetoed congressional efforts to stop certain transactions, Biden banned the purchase of US offensive weapons in the kingdom shortly after take office.
Since then, two major purchases have been made from Saudi Arabia, air-to-air missiles, and replacement missiles for Patriot air defense batteries. The State Department approved another order for 300 Patriot missiles – at more than $3 million per unit – in August, following Biden’s visit to the kingdom, where he is believed to have secured an agreement with the Crown Prince not to produce cut oil.
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.
As an indication of the current level of congress, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said last month that all arms sales to Saudi Arabia should be stopped, and that any Patriot system should be removed and sent to the Ukraine. “If Saudi Arabia is not willing to take the side of 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 US-controlled Patriot systems remain in Saudi Arabia to protect US personnel from missile attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen, and likely from Iran, the Saudis bought most of the systems in use there years ago and remove with the kingdom.
Biden has said he wants to consult with lawmakers about the promised “consequences,” and while strong statements from lawmakers counter his threat, the current congressional backlash also gives the administration some breathing room.
The strongest objections to business as usual with the kingdom came from the Democrats. Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) last month introduced a bill to halt all US arms sales to Saudi Arabia until it reconsiders the oil production cuts . “The Saudis need to come to their senses,” Blumenthal said in announcing the move. “The only apparent purpose of this reduction in oil supplies is to help destroy the Russians and the Americans.” A separate bill from three Democratic House members, led by Representative Tom Malinowski (NJ), would require the withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Senator 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 promised that he would “not cooperate with Riyadh until the kingdom reevaluates its position regarding the war in Ukraine.”
Most Republicans who have taken a position 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 that Biden took office.
So far, the administration has offered no clues as to what, if any, punitive measures it might consider during its review of the relationship, and they appear to be in no rush to make a decision. “We don’t need to rush,” Kirby said last week. Meanwhile, officials have emphasized steps they say the Saudis have taken to calm US anger and prove they are not leaning toward Russia.
“Our displeasure has already been made clear and it has already had an impact,” the senior official said. “We have seen Saudi Arabia react in constructive ways.”
In addition to the Saudi vote in favor of the United Nations General Assembly resolution last month condemning Russia’s illegal annexation of four regions of Ukraine, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, called on President Volodymyr Zelensky told him that Saudi Arabia would provide $400 million. in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, far exceeding his previous only donation of $10 million in April.
The Saudis actively supported a recent ceasefire in Yemen promoted by the Biden administration. And after years of US efforts to convince Persian Gulf countries to adopt a regional missile defense system against Iran, which the Saudis have long resisted, the administration believes progress is being made he finally did.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated that this is still not enough. Speaking to Bloomberg News last week, he called the UN vote and the Ukraine grant “positive developments,” though “they do not compensate [for] the production decision made by OPEC Plus.”
But the more time that passes, the more likely Saudi Arabia will be to get things right and mitigate any US response. One key indicator is likely to come next month, when the European Union has scheduled a ban on seaborne imports of Russian crude – followed by a ban on all Russian petroleum products two months later – and plans to decided by the US to impose a price cap on. Russian oil.
Any market shortages created by those measures could be made up of increased production from Saudi Arabia, according to officials. Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salma said last week in comments at an investor conference in Riyadh that this had been his country’s plan for some time.
The Saudis have repeatedly argued that their only interest is the stability of the world market. Reduced production now, the minister said, would create spare capacity to compensate for the upcoming sanctions on Russia without creating any major global deficits.
“You have to make sure you create a situation where things are [get] you have the potential for worse” he said. “We will be a supplier to those who want us to supply.”
The Saudis, Abdulaziz, said that they had “decided to be the mature people,” 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.