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Biden to review U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia, White House says

Oil production move has prompted calls in Congress to cut arms sales and take other punitive measures

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, attending a meeting in Riyadh last year, and President Biden in Washington in October.

President Biden is kicking off a process of reevaluating, and potentially altering, the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia following the announcement by a Saudi-led coalition that it would slash oil production, the White House said Tuesday.

That move by OPEC Plus last week to cut its oil output by 2 million barrels a day could boost oil prices in the United States and worldwide, potentially hurting consumers during a tough winter, and its timing a month before the midterm elections was a political blow to Biden that some in the president’s circle saw as a personal shot at the president.

Since then, calls to revisit America’s support for Saudi Arabia have emerged in Congress and elsewhere. Officials said Tuesday that Biden is doing so, but they offered no details on how the relationship might shift or what policies the president is considering.

“In light of recent developments and the OPEC Plus decision about oil production, the president believes we should review the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia and take a look to see if that relationship is where it needs to be,” White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday, reiterating Biden’s disappointment in the decision by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and its partners.

Kirby said discussions about a reevaluation of the U.S.-Saudi relationship have not yet taken place, adding that Biden is “willing to discuss this relationship with members of Congress.”

“We’re not announcing a formal policy review here with a special team or anything like that,” Kirby added. “This is something the president’s been thinking about certainly in light of OPEC’s decision last week.”

In an interview on CNN Tuesday, Biden said that “there will be consequences” for Saudi Arabia, but he declined to specify what they might be.

“There’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve done, with Russia,” Biden said, adding, “I’m not going to get into what I’d consider and what I have in mind. But there will be -- there will be consequences.”

Kirby said Biden was open to discussing proposals put forward by Democratic lawmakers, including Sens. Robert Menendez (N.J.), Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and Chris Murphy (Conn.). Those senators have proposed various changes to the U.S.-Saudi relationship, including limiting security cooperation; reducing arms sales; and removing OPEC Plus’s exemption from U.S. antitrust laws.

U.S. officials have worked to press Saudi Arabia to produce more oil to compensate for the global shortage and price increase caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The president personally visited Saudi leaders in Jiddah in July, taking part in a two-hour meeting that included Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler.

Biden Saudi trip faces new scrutiny after oil production cut

The trip was criticized at the time by human rights activists, given the crown prince’s role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The scrutiny has been renewed in the aftermath of the oil production cut, as detractors ask what Biden got in return for the visit.

Biden aides say the purpose of the trip was not to ensure that Saudi Arabia keep producing oil at a certain level, but to improve the U.S.-Saudi relationship in multiple areas.

“Clearly the Biden administration made an attempt to try to repair the relationship. I supported that effort but it failed,” Murphy said in an interview. “The whole point of looking the other way when it comes to the Saudi war in Yemen and their awful human rights record was to make sure they would pick us in the middle of an international crisis, and instead they chose the Russians.”

“For a long time, Saudi Arabia was a really imperfect ally. Now, there’s a question as to whether they’re an ally at all,” Murphy added.

With last week’s announcement, however, Saudi Arabia appeared to signal a rejection of the overture, at least in part. During the campaign, Biden had promised to make the kingdom a “pariah,” a comment that seemed to deeply anger the crown prince and other Saudi leaders.

While OPEC has 13 member countries, joined by several partners — including Russia — to make up OPEC Plus, “clearly Saudi Arabia is the leader of that cartel,” Kirby said.

The nearly 80-year U.S.-Saudi relationship has experienced myriad ups and downs and vexed several U.S. presidents. It has endured several crises, including the 1973 oil embargo and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.

The cut in oil production helps Russian President Vladimir Putin as he wages war on Ukraine and could trigger higher gas prices in the United States weeks before the midterm elections, when Democrats’ slim majorities in the House and Senate are in jeopardy.

While the review announced Tuesday may serve the purpose of putting the administration on record as considering punitive steps against the Saudis, any significant downgrading of ties would probably have a cost beyond oil.

The administration, like many before it, has been trying to persuade Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Persian Gulf to invest in a coordinated surface-to-air missile system to fend off any potential attack from Iran. American officials would like such a system to be purchased from the United States, which has tens of thousands of troops in the region, and to be interoperable with its systems.

This month, the State Department approved a $3 billion sale of the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System to Kuwait — the same system it now plans to send to Ukraine to protect against Russian missile attacks.

But other gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, have been more reticent about committing to similar purchases, even as they separately have discussed sophisticated arms purchases with Russia and other suppliers.

On Monday, Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the kingdom for the production cut and called for an immediate freeze “on all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia.” He promised to wield his power as committee chairman to block any future arms sales.

On Tuesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) introduced legislation to stop U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

“This simple yet urgent measure would halt U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia after their deeply offensive, destructive blunder: siding with Russia at this historic moment,” Blumenthal said. “Saudis must reverse their oil supply cuts, which aid and abet Russia’s savage criminal invasion, endanger the world economy and threaten higher gas prices at U.S. pumps.

The legislation would immediately pause all U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including military supplies, sales and other weapons aid. It also would impose a one-year halt to all direct commercial sales and foreign military sales of weapons and munitions to Saudi Arabia.

But Saudi Arabia is a powerful player in the Middle East and the Arab world, and the United States looks to the kingdom for an array of things beyond oil. The administration is depending on continuing Saudi cooperation, for example, in extending a truce in Yemen.

During his July visit, Biden signed an agreement with Saudi leaders to cooperate on advanced communication technologies, clean energy, cybersecurity and other areas.

An administration statement after the visit said that “Saudi Arabia has committed to support global oil market balancing for sustained economic growth” and that the United States welcomed Saudi plans to increase production levels.

“These steps and further steps that we anticipate over the coming weeks have and will stabilize markets considerably,” it said.