Democrats in the US Congress have issued a fresh ultimatum to Saudi Arabia, giving the kingdom weeks to reverse an Opec+ decision to roll back oil production or face a potential one-year freeze on all arms sales.
The threat came as Joe Biden reiterated his pledge to take action over Riyadh’s decision last week to cut oil output by 2m barrels a day, which Democrats have said would help “fuel Vladimir Putin’s war machine” and hurt American consumers at the petrol pump.
The White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told reporters the US president was also looking at a possible halt in arms sales as part of a broader re-evaluation of the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, but that no move was imminent.
On Capitol Hill, anger with the Saudi move was far more palpable, as was the desire for swift and specific retribution for what has been seen as a stunning blunder by a key ally in the Middle East.
The tensions with Washington and vow to “rebalance” relations between the two countries could have ripple effects far beyond petrol prices, from determining the future of an apparent emerging alliance between Russia and the Saudi heir, negotiations over Iran, and Moscow’s financial strength in its continuing assault on Ukraine.
Some analysts have pointed out that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman might have been seeking to tip the scales of next month’s critical midterm elections in Republicans’ favour, but Democrats downplayed the allegation that Riyadh was seeking to interfere in the polls.
Instead, Democratic lawmakers emphasised that Prince Mohammed’s move bolstered Russia and would ultimately harm all US consumers in what they said was a brash betrayal after decades of support from Washington.
“We provide so much not just in weapons, but in defence, cooperation and joint defence initiatives to the Saudis. They get almost 73% of their arms from the United States,” said Ro Khanna, a Democratic congressman from California and longtime critic of the kingdom.
“If it weren’t for our technicians, their airplanes literally wouldn’t fly … we literally are responsible for their entire air force.
“What galls so many of us in Congress in the ingratitude.”
Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic senator from Connecticut who is working with Khanna on the proposed legislation to cut sales, also pointed to broader security concerns.
“We are selling highly sensitive technology, advanced technology, to a country that has aligned itself with an adversary – Russia – that is committing terrorist war crimes in Ukraine,” he said. “So there’s a moral imperative, but also a national security imperative.”
He pointed specifically to sales of Patriot and anti-missile systems, air-to-air missiles, advanced helicopters, jet fighters, radar and air defences.
“These continued sales pose a national security threat, and I am hopeful that the president will act immediately … and exercise his power on those sales,” he said.
Blumenthal also suggested his proposed legislation was serving as a stick to prod Riyadh into action.
“We hope that this legislation will provide an impetus for the Saudis to reconsider this and reverse,” he said. “There’s still time. The oil supply cuts don’t take effect until November.”
If the Saudis did not reverse course, Blumenthal suggested the impact of defence cuts on US jobs and companies would be negligible.
Any decision would likely have a ripple effect among other allies, including the UK and France, who are significant defence suppliers to Saudi Arabia.
“There are issues of interoperability, of different weapon systems,” Blumenthal said. A freeze in US sales “will have an effect that could be supplemented by decisions by other countries. Certainly. They’re impacted by the economic effects of … oil supply cuts. They will make their own decisions … our allies like the UK and France may wish to join.”
There was little evidence that tensions with Washington were having an effect on Prince Mohammed. A Saudi decree on Wednesday appointed an official alleged to have been involved in the cover-up of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was murdered by Saudi agents, as the president of the country’s counter-terrorism court.
Dawn, a human rights group founded by Khashoggi, said the kingdom had also appointed other detectives and prosecutors who are loyal to the crown prince to serve as judges in the court.
The appointments followed the arrest and removal of at least nine prominent judges by the State Security Agency in April, the group said..
It is not clear whether the Democrats would be able to garner enough Republican support to pass legislation once Congress is back in session next month, but Blumenthal said he had reached out to Republican colleagues who were “receptive” and “favourable in remarks that there need to be consequences” for Saudi actions.
The comments underscore that, while the his administration will ultimately determine the US stance on Saudi Arabia, Biden is facing considerable pressure from allies in Congress to move beyond rhetoric and take a tougher stance against the kingdom.
Robert Menendez, the Democratic chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, suggested in an interview on MSNBC on Wednesday that Saudi Arabia had little choice but to re-evaluate its Opec+ decision if it wanted to maintain its security against regional foes.
“Who are they going to rely upon to have greater security from Iran, which is an existential threat, than the United States? Russia? Russia’s in bed with Iran,” he said.
“The bottom line is, Russia is not the bulwark against Iran … they have to understand that their actions have consequences.”