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

Suspension

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 it can salvage the decades-old close security relationship between Washington and Riyadh.

These relationships, and a commitment to help protect its strategic partners—particularly against Iran—are integral to the United States’ defenses in the Middle East. When recent intelligence reports warned of imminent Iranian ballistic missile and drone attacks on targets in Saudi Arabia, the US Central Command launched warplanes stationed in the Persian Gulf region toward Iran as part of the overall state of alert for US and Saudi forces.

The aircraft stampede, which was dispatched as an armed show of force and has not previously been reported, was the latest example of the strength and importance of the partnership that the administration said it is 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 energy union “OPEC Plus” they chair, to cut production by two million barrels per day.

The White House has dictated that cuts only increase prices, and would benefit cartel member Russia at a moment when the United States and its allies were trying to stifle Moscow’s oil revenues to undermine its war in Ukraine.

In the angry days that followed, the Saudis publicly responded that the administration had requested a month delay in the cuts, indirectly indicating that Biden wanted to avoid a price increase at the gas pump before the upcoming US midterm elections. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the Saudis were trying to “turn” US concerns about Ukraine and global energy stability into an internal political ploy, deflecting criticism of the Russian war.

Several lawmakers, some of whom have long advocated severing ties with the Saudis, responded with greater displeasure, 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, as it contemplates how to make good on the Biden “consequences” pledge and despite its continued anger, has become uncomfortable about the backlash provoked by the backlash at home. Rather than moving quickly to respond, it is playing with time, looking for ways to bring the Saudis back in line while maintaining strong bilateral security ties.

“Should we break off the relationship? What has become a sensitive political and diplomatic situation?” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “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 at stake in this relationship,” the official said.

Oil and Saudi Arabia’s influence on the global market are second only to the strategic interests of the United States in the Persian Gulf, with the kingdom playing a central role, not least in the face of Iranian aggression. The White House, which confirmed the Wall Street Journal’s report on the latest Iranian threat and the high-level alert, declined to comment on the launch of the US warplanes.

“Central Command is committed to our long-term strategic military partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” said command spokesman Joe Puccio. 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 it was unclear where they flew from.

Only about 6 percent of US oil imports now come from Saudi Arabia. China is the kingdom’s largest trading partner, and trade relations with Russia have expanded. But security and intelligence relations are the backbone of US-Saudi relations, and defense officials in Washington are uneasy about what the current turmoil might mean.

Major US deployments there ended after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and there have been recurring bilateral tensions in recent years, including human rights concerns about the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the 2018 murder by Saudi agents of journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi. , US resident and columnist for The Washington Post.

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

Military sales to the kingdom have been the subject of frequent controversy in recent years, with many in Congress contesting them. While President Donald Trump, who has boasted of billions in potential US sales to the Saudis, vetoed congressional attempts to block certain transactions, Biden banned the kingdom’s purchase of offensive US weapons shortly after taking office.

Since then, there have been two major Saudi purchases, air-to-air, and replacement missiles for Patriot air defense batteries. The State Department approved another order to buy 300 Patriot missiles – at more than $3 million per unit – in August, after Biden’s visit to the kingdom, where he is believed to have cemented an agreement with the crown prince not to cut oil production.

Although Congress did not formally object to the new sale within an allotted 30-day window, there was no indication that the next step in the deal — a signed contract with the Department of Defense — had been taken. “The Pentagon has nothing to announce at this time” regarding the deal, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Cesar Santiago said Friday.

Reflecting the current level of Congressional anger, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said last week that all arms sales to Saudi Arabia should be halted, and that any Patriot systems there should be removed and sent to Ukraine. “If Saudi Arabia is not willing to side with Ukraine and the United States against Russia, why are we keeping 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 from Houthi rebels in Yemen, presumably presumably from Iran, the bulk of the systems used there years ago were purchased by the Saudis and belong to the kingdom.

Biden said he wants to consult with lawmakers about the promised “consequences,” and while strong statements by lawmakers support his threat, the current recess of Congress also gives the administration some breathing space.

The strongest objections to doing business as usual with the kingdom came from Democrats. Rep. Ro Khanna (CA) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut) last month introduced a bill to halt all US 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 clear objective of this cut in oil supplies is to help the Russians and harm the Americans. A separate bill by three House Democrats led by Representative Tom Malinowski (New Jersey) would require the withdrawal of US forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Senator Robert Menendez (DN.J.), the powerful chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, last month issued a statement saying “the United States must immediately freeze all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia,” and vowed that he would “not give the green light to any He cooperated with Riyadh so that the Kingdom reassess its position regarding the war in Ukraine.”

Most Republicans who have taken a stand on the issue said Biden should take advantage of the cuts to increase domestic oil production, even though the United States is already pumping nearly a million barrels more per day than it did when Biden took office.

So far, management has not provided any clues as to what punitive measures, if any, they might consider during their review of the relationship, and they don’t appear to be in a hurry to make a decision on them. “We don’t need to be in a hurry,” Kirby said last week. Meanwhile, officials stressed the steps they say the Saudis have taken to quell American anger and prove they are not leaning toward Russia.

“Our dissatisfaction has already been clearly expressed and has already had an impact,” the senior official said. “We’ve seen the Saudis react in constructive ways.”

In addition to Saudi Arabia’s vote in favor of a United Nations 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, much more than its previous single donation of $10 million in April.

The Saudis were actively supporting the recent truce in Yemen that the Biden administration had defended. And after years of American efforts to persuade Arab Gulf states 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 Anthony Blinken noted that this is not enough yet. Speaking last week to Bloomberg News, he called the UN vote and the Ukrainian donation “positive developments,” even though they “do not make up for it.” [for] The decision taken by OPEC Plus on production.”

But the more time passes, the more chances Saudi Arabia has to make things right and temper any American reaction. A major indication is likely to come next month, when the European Union decided to impose a ban on seaborne imports of Russian crude – followed by a ban on all Russian petroleum products two months later – and plans promoted by the US to impose a price cap. Russian oil.

Officials believe that any market shortages these measures may create can be offset by increased production by Saudi Arabia. Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salma said last week in remarks to an investor conference in Riyadh that this has been his country’s plan all along.

The Saudis have repeatedly insisted that their only interest is the stability of the global market. The minister said that cutting production now would create spare capacity to compensate for upcoming sanctions on Russia without creating a large global deficit.

“You need to make sure you build a situation where if things are [get] Worse, he said, you have the ability “to respond. We will be the supplier for those who want us to supply.”

Abdulaziz said the Saudis “decided to be the mature,” as opposed to those who were “depleting emergency stocks… as a mechanism to manipulate the markets.” Biden has withdrawn about a third of the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve this year, in an effort to keep gas prices affordable for Americans already struggling with high inflation and interest rates.

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