In the midst of historically high energy costs and rising inflation, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and other countries that produce petroleum voted last week to reduce oil production. The timing appears to be chosen not only to provide fuel for the war machine led by Russian President Vladimir Putin, but also to reverse the aggressive efforts made by the United States Congress and the Biden administration to combat high inflation rates and lower gas prices. Yet, this antagonistic activity by Washington’s putative companions in Riyadh offered one silver lining: It demonstrated that the United States has a lot of power to change the relationship, which has become fundamentally lopsided. (US and Saudi Arabia relationship is mucked)
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly broken its promises to the United States, whether by murdering Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist based in the United States, or massacring civilians in Yemen with American weapons. It is time for the United States to rebalance this one-sided relationship and stop supporting Saudi Arabia’s bad behavior.
In light of Saudi Arabia’s decision to endanger the global economy by cutting oil production, one of us, Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, has introduced legislation that would halt all arms sales to Saudi Arabia for a year. The suspension of some less sensitive arms sales and related activities, such as the maintenance of aircraft and M1A2 Abrams tanks, should be reconsidered by Washington in the event that the Saudis reverse course and resume the promised levels of oil production. Washington ought to be prepared to put an end to such weapons sales for good if Riyadh continues its erroneous alliance with Moscow. It is possible that Saudi Arabia requires American arms more than the United States requires Saudi oil. Riyadh should face the consequences if it continues to take more from Washington than it gives back.
Due to the absence of a treaty or pact for mutual defense, the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia does not technically constitute an alliance. However, Washington has provided Riyadh with enormous security protection for decades, largely in exchange for oil. Until the 1970s, the United States controlled the Saudi oil fields. When they were given to Saudi Arabia, it became one of the wealthiest nations in the world right away. In addition, even during that time, the United States of America continued to guarantee Saudi Arabia’s safety in exchange for a promise to supply oil and join the region. (US and Saudi Arabia relationship is mucked)
Riyadh, on the other hand, continues to make use of this historical connection to gain security advantages that are far in excess of its requirements and capabilities. Riyadh’s plan to use transferred U.S. technology to manufacture a significant portion of these sensitive systems domestically should cause serious concern.
The opportunity to reevaluate these risky and careless arms deals arises from Saudi Arabia’s decision to renege on its oil production commitments. Before it is too late to reassert control over sensitive technologies and weapons systems, the United States should immediately halt their transfer to Saudi Arabia. Washington should not resume these transfers until it has completed a more comprehensive reevaluation of the defense relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, even if the Saudis reverse their planned production cuts. The United States should be willing to halt these sales indefinitely if the Saudis carry out their planned reductions.
Saudi defenses would be compromised by such a stop. Saudi Arabia’s entire fleet would be grounded in a matter of months if it did not receive assistance from the United States to maintain its air force. This is due to the fact that foreign weapons systems typically cannot be used in place of American ones.
China and Russia would not be strengthened by a pause in the United States’ arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is clearly dependent on Washington, purchasing 79% of its arms and almost 100% of its high-grade advanced weaponry from the United States, despite occasional saber rattling.
Small orders of far inferior Chinese drones and planes and low-grade, out-of-date small arms like Soviet-era grenade launchers, rifles, and ammunition make up the majority of the remaining 21% of its overall arms purchases. To put it simply, U.S. weapons are still the most advanced in the world, several generations ahead of the antiquated weapons that Russia frequently uses on the Ukrainian battlefield. It is understandable that Saudi Arabia would rather purchase brand-new flying Cadillacs and Lincolns than used Skodas and Ladas.
There are additional reasons why Riyadh prefers US weapons. Saudi Arabia’s security may be put at risk if it enters into service or aircraft purchase agreements with either Russia or China, which have close military ties to Iran. Riyadh has never purchased fixed-wing military aircraft from a non-Western vendor, in part because of this.
Iran would also lose out if the United States stopped selling weapons. By acting as a regional buffer against an Iran that is increasingly focused on its nuclear program, a strong, responsible Saudi Arabia would support U.S. interests. However, Saudi Arabia has not been ethical.
Contrarily, Iran has strengthened its position in long-running proxy conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria by assisting Iranian-backed militias in gaining popular support through its misuse of U.S. weapons systems, including its indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen. Iran’s negative influence in the region would be lessened rather than increased by tighter control over Washington’s Saudi partners and the prevention of weapons misuse.
Regarding the effect on U.S. defense contractors, U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia account for a small portion of the revenue and domestic jobs generated by the U.S. defense industry. This portion will be even smaller as long order backlogs for U.S. weapons systems from other nations in the Persian Gulf and around the world increase. (US and Saudi Arabia relationship is mucked)
Lastly, the Saudis would not withdraw additional oil from the market if arms sales were stopped. Saudi Arabia is already drilling 33% less oil than it was just two years ago, despite its false claims that it has no spare capacity. Riyadh’s storage facilities are already overflowing because it egregiously refused to release any strategic reserves this year. Any further reduction in production would put Riyadh at risk of losing market share to other producers.
Saudi Arabia has attempted to transform itself from an authoritarian petrostate that violates human rights into an oasis of stability, predictability, and modernity under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS. It allows women to drive and has relaxed restrictions on women’s attire. It has also started a huge $500 billion project to build Neom, a city in the desert that will be run by a new legal system and run by a grid of renewable energy.
However, the Saudi regime’s behavior has consistently undermined these efforts to rebrand, including its severe repression of dissent, appalling violations of human rights domestically and internationally, and ongoing use of torture and beheadings to punish its opponents. In its annual report on human rights, Freedom House placed Saudi Arabia in the lowest tier, and the World Economic Forum placed Saudi Arabia in the bottom 5% of countries when it comes to gender equality, far behind its Arab neighbors.
During a trip to Saudi Arabia in July, U.S. President Joe Biden got MBS to make a new round of promises to respect human rights. However, several regime opponents were quickly given lengthy prison sentences by Saudi courts. It is evident that the Saudis take their promises to improve their human rights record just as seriously as they do their promises to keep oil prices stable worldwide.
Riyadh’s image has been further tarnished by its most recent decision to join Moscow. Saudi Arabia appeared to be cozying up to Putin, at least when it came to energy issues, even before the OPEC+ decision this month. MBS and Putin personally approved OPEC+ on the sidelines of the Shanghai Economic Summit in 2016—the first time Riyadh and Moscow had collaborated on oil issues—as a result of increasing Saudi-Russian cooperation.
A flagrant and long-overlooked breach of the “reliable oil producer” pledge that underpins Washington’s strategic partnership with Riyadh has since been cemented by the two leaders’ frequent phone calls and explicit coordination. (US and Saudi Arabia relationship is mucked)
To cover Saudi recklessness, the United States cannot continue to tolerate these flaws and risk its own interests. The Saudi leadership is convinced that they can force the United States to accept their terms for a partnership that does little to advance American interests. The trust that the United States once had in the Saudi regime has been destroyed by arrogance, presumption, and deceit. Riyadh would receive a clear signal that it must regain Washington’s confidence if arms sales were halted.