OPEC+ cuts prompt calls to reevaluate US-Saudi ties

FILE – In this photo released by the Saudi Royal Palace, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes U.S. President Joe Biden to Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. At a diplomatic summit in Saudi, Biden sought to repair ties strained over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP, File)

The decision by OPEC+ nations to reduce oil production is a foreign policy black eye for President Biden after his July visit to Saudi Arabia. It’s also prompting calls from congressional Democrats to rethink the Washington-Riyadh alliance, particularly on the subject of weapons and defense technology sales.  

Human rights advocates have long criticized what is sometimes a rocky relationship between the U.S. and Saudi royals, particularly after the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. 

When Biden met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in July, it was viewed by many as a necessary evil that could potentially lead to increased OPEC output and lower gas prices. Since Wednesday’s announcement, however, a number of Democratic lawmakers have called for the U.S. to respond by ending arms sales and military assistance to the kingdom.

“From unanswered questions about 9/11 & the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, to conspiring w/ [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to punish the US w/ higher oil prices, the royal Saudi family has never been a trustworthy ally of our nation. It’s time for our foreign policy to imagine a world without their alliance,”  Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the number two Democrat in the Senate, tweeted Thursday.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), meanwhile, called the cutback “a blatant attempt to increase gas prices at the pump” and called for an end to military assistance to Saudi Arabia. 

On the House side, Reps. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), Sean Casten (D-Ill.) and Susan Wild (D-Pa.) have introduced legislation to withdraw U.S. troops from the kingdom, calling the cutback “a turning point in our relationship with our Gulf partners.” 

Another vocal House critic of the Saudis, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif,), has also called for the nation to be dealt with “harshly” and for an end to weapons sales. 

“The Saudis need us more for weapons than we need them. President Biden should make it clear that we will cut off weapons if OPEC+ doesn’t reverse the decision to make drastic cuts in production,” Khanna said in a statement to The Hill. “In Congress, we should also explore ways to rein in OPEC+’s control over energy prices worldwide.” 

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 having consciously made ourselves dependent upon them, they’re not bending to 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 that 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, this is so humiliating to Biden.”  

Ahead of Biden’s Saudi trip over the summer, the White House was careful to portray the president as not meeting directly with bin Salman, who the intelligence community determined approved Khashoggi’s killing in Istanbul in 2018. But upon arrival in Jeddah in July, Biden was met by bin Salman outside the royal palace where the two men fist-bumped, a casual gesture critics viewed as elevating Salman on the world stage despite Biden’s campaign pledge to make the kingdom a pariah.

American military support for Saudi Arabia dates back to World War II, when President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz reached an agreement under which the U.S. would provide security backing in exchange for access to Saudi oil. In 2015, the Saudis led a coalition to intervene in Yemen’s civil war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Over the next four years, U.S. arms sales to the Saudis increased 130 percent, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.  

Biden was a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia on the campaign trail and early in his presidency, pledging to end U.S. backing for the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen. However, in August his administration allowed the sale of more than $5 billion in arms to the two OPEC nations. The administration also caught the ire of Saudi critics by failing to call for an end to its blockade of Yemen. 

In the meantime, Whitson said, despite the calls to sever the business relationship with the Saudis, the American defense industry is likely to stiffly resist any attempts to unwind it. In the meantime, she said, the Saudis would likely find alternate sellers to replace much of the lost arms sales to the U.S. 

An end to arms sales “is not just a punishment for Saudi Arabia. It’s a punishment for a very powerful defense industry that has extremely close ties to Biden administration,” she said. “So I think there will be countervailing pressures on taking the actions that are being threatened.” 

“The painful reality that we see over and over and over again, is that our policymakers … are not actually in a position to make the decisions that are in the best interests of the American people because they are beholden to so many interests,” she said.  

Tags Bernie Sanders Biden Bill Cassidy Dick Durbin Jamal Khashoggi Mohammed bin Salman Richard Durbin Ro Khanna
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