President Joe Biden will examine all aspects of US ties with Saudi Arabia, including arms sales, as administration officials begin quiet discussions with members of Congress and congressional aides about how the US could impose consequences on the kingdom following the kingdom’s decision to partner with Russia in cutting oil production.
“There is a range of interests and values that are implicated in our relationship with that country,” Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Wednesday. “The President will examine all of that. But one question he’s going to ask is: Is the nature of the relationship serving the interest and values of the United States and what changes would make it better serve the interests and values?”
It’s the latest indication from the administration that changes to the US-Saudi relationship could be coming after the Saudi-led OPEC+ oil cartel announced last week it would cut output by 2 million barrels per day.
The decision by the grouping of major oil producers rebuffed heavy lobbying from US administration officials and prompted Biden to say he was concerned about the move, which he called a “disappointment.” It reversed a small increase in output OPEC+ announced shortly after Biden visited Saudi Arabia for a conference in July. The decision to decrease output also came just weeks before the midterm elections, where inflation and the price at the gas pump will be top of mind for many voters.
In initial conversations between administration officials and Capitol Hill, some ideas that have been discussed include: rotating the US F-16 fleet out of Saudi Arabia, halting continued US military assistance to the country and the administration supporting legislation that would prevent OPEC from being shielded from US antitrust lawsuits for colluding to fix oil prices.
Administration officials have expressed an openness to some of the ideas on the table, sources familiar with the conversations said.
Any move that the US might take could have unintended ripple effects, and the Biden administration is concerned about what those after-effects could look like, particularly because the US-Saudi relationship is viewed as key pillar for regional stability. There are also concerns within the administration about further harm to the economy if the so-called NOPEC legislation is passed, which would alter antitrust law to revoke the kingdom’s sovereign immunity.
That legislation is gaining steam on Capitol Hill among Republicans and some Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has expressed an openness to supporting it.
As these conversations are happening, sources told CNN that the Biden administration is not expected to completely overhaul the relationship, but members of Congress are outraged by the OPEC announcement and expect changes in the coming months.
In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday, Biden said he believed it was time to “rethink” the US relationship with Saudi Arabia after the kingdom partnered with Russia to cut oil production, a rebuke after intensive White House efforts to prevent such a decision.
“I am in the process, when the House and Senate gets back, they’re going to have to – there’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve done with Russia,” Biden said.
Sullivan said Biden would act methodically in making his decisions and wanted to work closely with members of Congress. Top Senate Democrats have called for the US to end its relationship with the Saudis.
Senate Foreign Affairs Chairman Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, called for an immediate freeze in US-Saudi relations after OPEC announced decreasing oil production last week, pledging that he “will not green-light any cooperation with Riyadh until the kingdom reassesses its position with respect to the war in Ukraine.” Another top Senate Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, said Tuesday that Saudi Arabia “clearly” wants Russia to win the war in Ukraine and told CNN’s John Berman on ‘New Day’: “Let’s be very candid about this: it is Putin and Saudi Arabia against the United States.”
Other members of Congress are concerned that halting US arms sales to Saudi Arabia could push the country closer to Russia, which could negatively affect the ongoing Ukraine war.
And some US officials believe that inflicting a cost on Saudi Arabia would be counterproductive, a US official said. They believe it to capitalize on this moment by pushing Saudi Arabia to take actions on Yemen or human rights, they said, while it is unclear if any such action would fulfill the intense desire on Capitol Hill to see Saudi face actual consequences.
Biden “will make a decision on how to proceed on his timetable,” Sullivan said, and lay out his decision in a time and place “of his choosing.”
The President won’t wait to engage members of Congress and other stakeholders in the US-Saudi relationship, though many of the discussions will happen when lawmakers return to Washington following November’s midterm elections.
On the potential of halting arms sales, which some lawmakers have already proposed, Sullivan noted there is not currently an “imminent decision” that needs to be made on weapons shipments.
“There is not an imminent decision that has to be made on the question of arms sales,” he said. “That is something he will be looking at along with everything else in the relationship.”
While the Biden administrations officials are still fuming over the OPEC production cut and weighing options on the table, Saudi Arabia is privately telling oil analysts that they would increase oil output later this year if there is a dire energy crisis in Europe, and that message is reaching US officials second hand, explained sources familiar with the matter.
US officials acknowledge would like to see Saudi Arabia make that commitment clear publicly because it would have a market calming effect, sources said.
While the Biden administration mulls over options on the table, there has been very little conversation between the US and Saudi Arabia. The top State Department official for the region is traveling this week to the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Kuwait and Qatar but notably not stopping in Saudi Arabia. There was also a meeting that US officials planned to attend in Riyadh this week which has been rescheduled.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price did not rule out that the OPEC+ decision to cut oil production contributed to the rescheduling of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting.