Despite its furious reaction to Saudi Arabia’s decision last month to cut oil production in the face of 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 ties, and a commitment to help protect its strategic partners — particularly against Iran — are an integral part of U.S. defenses in the Middle East. When recent intelligence reports warned of imminent Iranian ballistic missile and drone attacks on targets in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. Central Command launched warplanes based in the Persian Gulf region toward Iran as part of an overall elevated alert status of U.S. and Saudi forces.
The scrambling of the jets, dispatched as an armed show of force and not previously reported, was the latest illustration of the strength and importance of a partnership the administration has said it is now reevaluating.
“There’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve 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 a day.
The cuts serve only to increase prices, the White House charged, and would benefit cartel member Russia at precisely the moment the United States and its allies were trying to choke off Moscow’s oil revenue to undercut 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, indirectly suggesting that Biden wanted to avoid increased prices at the gas pump before the upcoming U.S. midterm elections. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby let loose to reporters that the Saudis were trying to “spin” the U.S. concerns over Ukraine and world energy stability into a domestic political ploy, and to deflect criticism of fence-sitting on Russia’s war.
Many lawmakers, some of whom have long advocated cutting ties with the Saudis, reacted with even greater umbrage, calling for the immediate withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the kingdom and a stop to all arms sales, among other punitive measures.
But the White House, as it considers how to make good on Biden’s “consequences” pledge and despite its ongoing anger, has become uneasy over the reaction its sharp response has provoked at home. Rather than moving quickly to respond, it is playing for time, looking for ways to bring the Saudis back in line while preserving strong bilateral security ties.
“Are we rupturing the relationship? No,” said a senior administration official, speaking on the 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 transpired.”
“But we have important interests at stake in this relationship,” the official said.
Oil, and Saudi Arabia’s influence on the global market, is second only to U.S. 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 on the recent Iranian threat and high-level alert, declined to comment on the launch of U.S. warplanes.
“Centcom is committed to our long-standing strategic military partnership with Saudi Arabia,” said command spokesman Joe Buccino. “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 U.S. oil imports now come from Saudi Arabia. China is the kingdom’s largest trading partner, and commercial ties with Russia have broadened. But security and intelligence ties are the linchpin of U.S.-Saudi relations, and defense officials in Washington are unsettled by what the current upheaval might mean.
Major U.S. deployments there ended after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and there have been repeated bilateral strains in recent years, including human rights concerns over the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and the 2018 murder by Saudi agents of journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and columnist for The Washington Post.
There are about 2,500 U.S. forces 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 constantly needed parts, repairs and upgrades.
Military sales to the kingdom have been the subject of repeated controversy in recent years, as many in Congress have objected to them. While President Donald Trump, who boasted of billions in potential U.S. sales to the Saudis, vetoed congressional attempts to stop particular transactions, Biden banned the kingdom’s purchase of offensive U.S. weapons shortly after taking office.
Since then, there have been two major Saudi purchases, of 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, after a Biden visit to the kingdom, where he reportedly believed he cemented an agreement with the crown prince not to cut oil production.
Although Congress did not formally object to the new sale within a 30-day allotted window, there has been no public indication that the next step in the transaction — a signed contract with the Defense Department — has been taken. The Pentagon has “nothing to announce at this time” regarding the sale, spokesman Lt. Col. Cesar Santiago said Friday.
In a reflection of the current level of congressional ire, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said last month that all weapons sales to Saudi Arabia should be stopped, and that any Patriot systems there should be removed and sent to Ukraine. “If Saudi Arabia isn’t willing to take the side of Ukraine and U.S. 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 from Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and presumably from Iran, the bulk 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 over the promised “consequences,” and while strong statements by lawmakers buttress 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 Democrats. Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) last month introduced a bill to halt all U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia until they reconsider the oil production cuts. “The Saudis need to come to their senses,” Blumenthal said in announcing the measure. “The only apparent purpose of this cut in oil supplies is to help the Russians and harm Americans.” A separate bill by a trio of Democratic House members, led by Rep. Tom Malinowski (N.J.), would require the removal of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, last month issued a statement saying that “the United States must immediately freeze all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia,” and vowed he would “not green-light any cooperation with Riyadh until the kingdom reassesses its position with respect to the war in Ukraine.”
Most Republicans who have taken a stand on the issue have said Biden should use the opportunity of the cuts to increase domestic oil production, although the United States is already pumping roughly one millions 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 might consider during its review of the relationship, and appears in no rush to decide. “We don’t need to be in a hurry,” Kirby said last week. In the meantime, officials have emphasized steps they say the Saudis have taken to assuage U.S. anger and prove they’re not leaning toward Russia.
“Our displeasure has already been clearly stated and has already had an impact,” the senior official said. “We’ve seen the Saudis react in ways that are constructive.”
In addition to a Saudi vote in favor of last month’s U.N. 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 Saudi Arabia would contribute $400 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, far more than its only previous donation of $10 million in April.
The Saudis have been actively supportive of a recent truce in Yemen that the Biden administration has championed. And after years of U.S. effort to persuade the Persian Gulf countries to adopt a regional missile defense system against Iran, long resisted by the Saudis, the administration believes it is finally making headway.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has indicated that’s not yet enough. Speaking last week to Bloomberg News, he called the U.N. vote and the Ukraine donation “positive developments,” although “they don’t compensate [for] the decision made by OPEC Plus on production.”
But the more time that elapses, the more chances Saudi Arabia will have to make things right and temper any U.S. response. One key indicator is likely to come next month, when the European Union has scheduled a ban on seaborne imports of Russian crude oil — followed by a prohibition against all Russian petroleum products two months later — and U.S.-promoted plans to impose a price cap on Russian oil.
Any market shortages those measures may create could be made up by increased production by 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 in global market stability. Reduced production now, the minister said, would create spare capacity to make up for upcoming sanctions on Russia without creating major global shortfalls.
“You need to make sure you build a situation where if things [get] worse you have the ability” to respond, he said. “We will be the supplier of those who want us to supply.”
The Saudis, Abdulaziz said, had “decided to be the maturer guys,” as opposed to those who were “depleting their emergency stocks … as a mechanism to manipulate markets.” Biden has withdrawn about a third of the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve this year, in an effort to keep gas prices within reach for Americans already struggling with high inflation and interest rates.
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the U.S. Central Command’s spokesman. He is Col. Joe Buccino. The article has been corrected.