The congressional backlash against Saudi Arabia escalated sharply on Monday as a powerful Democratic senator threatened to freeze weapons sales and security cooperation with the kingdom after its decision to support Russia over the interests of the US.
Washington’s anger with its Saudi allies has intensified since last week’s Opec+ decision to cut oil production by 2m barrels, which was seen as a slight to the Biden administration weeks ahead of critical midterm elections, and an important boost to Russia.
But the remarks by Senator Robert Menendez, who serves as chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, indicated a serious possible sea change in US policy.
Hitting out at Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to “help underwrite Putin’s war through the OPEC+ cartel”, Menendez said there was “simply is no room to play both sides of this conflict”.
“I will not green-light any cooperation with Riyadh until the Kingdom reassesses its position with respect to the war in Ukraine. Enough is enough,” he said.
Another Democratic senator and a member of Congress – Richard Blumenthal and Ro Khanna – expressed similar sentiments in an opinion piece for Politico that also accused Saudi Arabia of undermining US efforts and helping to boost Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The Saudi decision was a pointed blow to the US, but the US also has a way to respond: it can promptly pause the massive transfer of American warfare technology into the eager hands of the Saudis,” they wrote.
“Simply put, America shouldn’t be providing such unlimited control of strategic defense systems to an apparent ally of our greatest enemy – nuclear bomb extortionist Vladimir Putin.”
While similar proposals have failed to pass in the past, Blumenthal and Khanna said “intense bipartisan blowback to Saudi’s collusion with Russia” meant that “this time is different”. Their piece followed Chris Murphy, another Democratic senator, last week calling for a “wholesale re-evaluation of the US alliance with Saudi Arabia” and Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democratic congressman, introducing legislation to withdraw US troops from the Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates.
In his statement, Menendez suggested he would be willing to make exceptions and did not support an outright ban on all support, saying he would block all arms sales and security cooperation “beyond what is absolutely necessary to defend US personnel and interests”.
A spokesperson for the senator did not immediately respond to questions about the nature of those possible exceptions. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Menendez and others’ statements suggest that Democrats in Congress are poised to take a tougher stance against Saudi Arabia than the White House has publicly said it is willing to accept.
Joe Biden previously threatened to cut off all US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen, but a damning report released earlier this year by the government accountability office, which serves as a congressional watchdog, found that the Biden administration’s move to classify weapons as offensive or defensive was largely meaningless.
Since vowing to turn Prince Mohammed into a “pariah” because of his alleged role in approving the murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden changed course this summer and met with the Saudi heir as part of a broader attempt to improve Saudi-US relations.
That outreach was broadly criticised as having failed last week after the OPEC+ decision.
William Hartung, senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute, commended Menendez’s statement but said that to have “maximum impact”, the cut-off ought to cover “all weapons transfers, spare parts, and maintenance to the Saudi military”.
“In addition, a suspension should be tied not just to Saudi Arabia’s ties with Russia or stance on the Ukraine war, but also to pressing the Saudis to refrain from airstrikes on Yemen and to fully lift its blockade on that nation as a step towards good faith negotiations to end the conflict,” he said.
Khalid Aljabri, whose father, Saad, is an exiled senior Saudi intelligence official, said the “weaponization” of oil was likely to have a broader impact on the US relationship with Saudi, as ordinary Americans would probably begin feeling the ripple effects of Saudi’s decision at the gas pump.
Aljabri said it was not clear whether congressional anger seemed more potent than the Biden administration’s own stance because Democrats had more to lose ahead of November’s critical midterm elections, or whether the White House and Congress were playing a game of “good cop, bad cop” in attempts to influence the kingdom’s policies.
“Either way, they tried appeasement and fist bumps and it didn’t work. [Mohammed bin Salman] only understands the language of power. It is high time the Biden administration acts like the senior partner in this relationship,” he said.