The scrambling of the jets, broadcast as an armed display of force and previously unrecorded, was the latest illustration of the strength and importance of a partnership that the government says it is now re-evaluating.
“There will be some consequences for what they’ve done,” President Biden said after the Saudis agreed to cut production by 2 million barrels per day at a meeting of the OPEC Plus energy cartel they chair last month.
The cuts serve only to raise prices, the White House said, and would benefit cartel member Russia as the United States and its allies tried to choke off Moscow’s oil revenues to undermine the war in Ukraine.
In the angry days that followed, the Saudis publicly protested that the government had asked for austerity to be delayed by a month, indirectly suggesting Biden wanted to avoid higher prices at the gas pump before the upcoming US midterm elections. 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 avert criticism of the Russian war.
Many lawmakers, some of whom have long advocated severing ties with the Saudis, reacted with even more suspicion, calling for the immediate withdrawal of thousands of US troops stationed in the kingdom and an end to all arms sales, among others. punitive measures.
But the White House, reflecting on how to deliver on Biden’s “consequence” promise, and despite his lingering anger, has become apprehensive about the backlash his sharp response has provoked at home. Rather than reacting quickly, it plays for time, looking for ways to bring the Saudis back into line while preserving strong bilateral security ties.
“Do we end the relationship? No,” said a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity about what has become a sensitive political and diplomatic situation. “We had a fundamental disagreement about the state of the oil market and the global economy, and we’re looking at what happened.”
“But we have important interests in this relationship,” the official said.
Oil, and Saudi Arabia’s influence on the global market, is secondary 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 on the recent high-level Iranian threat and warning, declined to comment on the launch of US warplanes.
“Centcom is committed to our long-term strategic military partnership with Saudi Arabia,” said commander Joe Buccio. “We will not discuss operational details.” The United States has significant air forces 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 broadened. But security and intelligence ties are at the heart of US-Saudi relations, and defense officials in Washington are alarmed at what the current upheaval could mean.
Major US deployment there ended after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and bilateral tensions have been repeated in recent years, including human rights concerns over the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and the 2018 killing by Saudi agents of a journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi, a US native and columnist for The Washington Post.
There are now about 2,500 US troops 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 weapon 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. While President Donald Trump, who boasted of billions in potential US sales to the Saudis, vetoed attempts by Congress to shut down 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 of air-to-air missiles and replacement missiles for Patriot air defense batteries. Another order for 300 Patriot missiles — for more than $3 million per unit — was approved by the State Department in August, following Biden’s visit to the kingdom, where he reportedly believed he had reached an agreement with the Crown Prince. had closed so as not to reduce oil production.
While Congress has not formally objected to the new sale within 30 days, there is 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, spokesman Lt. Col. Cesar Santiago said Friday.
Reflecting the current level of congressional anger, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said last month that all arms sales to Saudi Arabia should be halted and all Patriot systems there should be removed and sent to Ukraine. “If Saudi Arabia is not willing to side with Ukraine and the US over Russia, why 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 strikes by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and presumably from Iran, most of the systems in use there have been destroyed years ago. bought 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 support his threat, the current congressional recess is also giving the administration some breathing room.
The strongest objections to business as usual with the kingdom come from the Democrats. Rep. Ro Khanna (California) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) filed a bill last month to halt all US arms sales to Saudi Arabia until they reconsider cuts to oil production. “The Saudis need to come to their senses,” Blumenthal said when announcing the measure. “The only clear purpose of this reduction in oil supplies is to help the Russians and harm the Americans.” A separate bill from a trio of members of the Democratic House led by Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ), 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 that “the United States must immediately freeze all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia,” vowing that he would “not have a green light for cooperation with Riyadh until the kingdom reconsiders its position regarding the war in Ukraine.”
Most Republicans who have taken a stance on the issue have said Biden should use the austerity opportunity to boost domestic oil production, even though the United States is already pumping about a million barrels a day more than when Biden took office.
So far, the government has not given any indication of any punitive measures it might consider during its assessment of the relationship, and appears to be in no rush to make a decision. “We don’t need to be in a hurry,” Kirby said last week. In the meantime, officials have highlighted steps the Saudis say they are taking to assuage US anger and prove they are not leaning towards Russia.
“Our displeasure has already been clearly expressed and is already having an impact,” said the senior official. “We have seen the Saudis respond constructively.”
In addition to a Saudi vote for last month’s UN General Assembly resolution 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 to to say that Saudi Arabia would contribute $400 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, far more than the only previous donation of $10 million in April.
The Saudis have actively supported a recent ceasefire in Yemen that the Biden administration has defended. And after years of US efforts to convince the Persian Gulf countries to introduce a regional missile defense system against Iran, which the Saudis have long resisted, the government believes it is finally making progress.
State Secretary Antony Blinken has indicated that that is not enough. Speaking to Bloomberg News last week, he called the UN vote and the donation to Ukraine “positive developments”, although “they do not compensate [for] OPEC Plus’ decision on production.”
But the more time that passes, the more chance Saudi Arabia will have to set things straight and temper any response from the US. A key indicator is likely to come next month, when the European Union has planned a ban on Russian crude imports by sea — followed by a ban on all Russian petroleum products two months later — and US-promoted plans to put a price cap to impose on Russian oil.
Any market shortages these measures could cause could be offset by increased production by Saudi Arabia, officials believe. Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salma said in remarks at an investor conference in Riyadh last week that this has always been his country’s plan.
The Saudis have repeatedly insisted that their only interest lies in the stability of the global market. Reduced production now, the minister said, would create spare capacity to offset the upcoming sanctions against Russia without creating major global deficits.
“You have to make sure you build a situation where if things… [get] worse you have the option” to respond, he said. “We will be the supplier of those who want us to deliver.”
The Saudis, Abdulaziz said, had “decided to be the more mature guys” as opposed to those who were “depleting their emergency supplies … 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.