The decision by OPEC+ countries to cut oil production is a black eye in President Biden’s foreign policy after his July visit to Saudi Arabia. It’s also prompting congressional Democrats to rethink the Washington-Riyadh alliance, including on arms and defense technology sales.
Human rights advocates have long criticized what is at times a rocky relationship between the US and Saudi royal families, particularly after the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
When Biden met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in July, it was seen by many as a necessary evil that could potentially lead to increased OPEC production and lower gas prices. Since Wednesday’s announcement, however, a number of Democratic lawmakers have called on the United States to respond by ending arms sales and military assistance to the kingdom.
“From unanswered questions about 9/11 and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, to the conspiracy with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to punish the United States with higher oil prices, the Saudi royal family has never been a trustworthy ally of our nation. It’s time for our foreign policy to imagine a world without their alliance,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the number two Democrat in the Senate, tweeted Thursday.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), meanwhile, called the reduction “a blatant attempt to raise gas prices at the pump” and called for an end to military assistance to Saudi Arabia.
On the House side, Reps. Tom Malinowski (DN.J.), Sean Casten (D-Ill.), and Susan Wild (D-Pa.) introduced legislation to withdraw U.S. troops from the kingdom, calling the reduction of “turning point”. key moment in our relationship with our Gulf partners.
Another vocal Saudi critic in the House, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California), also called for the nation to be treated “toughly” and for an end to arms sales.
“The Saudis need us more for weapons than we need them. President Biden should make it clear that we will cut the guns if OPEC+ does not reverse the decision to make drastic production cuts,” Khanna said in a statement to The Hill. “In Congress, we should also explore ways to curb OPEC+ control over global energy prices.”
So far, the calls seem unlikely to win bipartisan support.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a vocal critic of Biden’s energy policies, told The Hill that critics of the Saudi government are “upset because we being consciously made dependent on them, they don’t bend. at our will” despite Biden taking office “promising an adversarial relationship.”
Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the nonprofit Democracy for the Arab World Now, was skeptical the cuts would lead to a lasting schism in the relationship. In an interview with The Hill, Whitson said much of the public anger at Saudi Arabia was likely “performative”, but added that “some of it is real because publicly it’s so humiliating. for Biden.”
Ahead of Biden’s Saudi trip this summer, the White House was careful to portray the president as not meeting bin Salman directly, whom the intelligence community determined to endorse Khashoggi’s murder in Istanbul in 2018. But upon arriving in Jeddah in July, Biden was greeted by bin Salman outside the royal palace where the two men bumped their fists, a flippant gesture that critics see as elevating Salman to the world stage despite the promise Biden’s campaign to make the kingdom an outcast.
US military support for Saudi Arabia dates back to World War II, when President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz struck a deal under which the US would provide security support in return for access to Saudi oil. In 2015, the Saudis led a coalition to intervene in Yemen’s civil war against Houthi rebels backed by Iran. Over the next four years, US arms sales to the Saudis increased by 130%, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Biden has been a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia during the election campaign and early in his presidency, pledging to end US support for the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen. However, in August, his administration authorized the sale of more than $5 billion in arms to the two OPEC countries. The administration has also drawn ire from Saudi critics by failing to call for an end to its blockade of Yemen.
In the meantime, Whitson said, despite calls to sever trade ties with the Saudis, the U.S. defense industry is likely to strongly resist any attempt to untie it. In the meantime, she said, the Saudis would likely find other sellers to replace much of the arms sales lost to the United States.
Ending arms sales “is not just a punishment for Saudi Arabia. This is punishment for a very powerful defense industry that has extremely close ties to the Biden administration,” she said. “So I think there will be countervailing pressures to take the actions that are threatened.”
“The painful reality we see over and over again is that our policy makers … are not actually able to make the decisions that are in the best interest of the American people because they are beholden to so many interests” , she said. said.