Joe Biden’s limited room for maneuver on Saudi Arabia

As Joe Biden weighs his response to Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut oil production, the US president faces mounting calls from Democrats to do what they think would hurt Riyadh the most: freeze arms sales and restrict security cooperation with the Kingdom.

But if Biden, who warned on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia would face consequences without elaborating, decides to go down that route, diplomats and analysts say he will have limited room to maneuver.

That’s in part because his administration frozen sales of “offensive” weapons to the kingdom when he took office last year due to Biden’s concerns about Riyadh’s warfare in Yemen. However, sales of defense weapons continue.

More broadly, analysts say Saudi Arabia is too important to US interests in the region, including counterintelligence and its efforts to contain threats from Iran and the Islamic Republic’s proxies, to be abandoned on the security front.

“It’s an understandable reaction, but there are also strong forces and strong reasons for continued cooperation,” said Tom Karako, director of the missile program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There is a strong and shared interest in maintaining defense and deterrence [to Iranian threats].”

The Biden administration has postponed a meeting of the US-Gulf Cooperation Council “working group” due to be held in Riyadh this month, a meeting at which officials will discuss military cooperation and regional threats, particularly from Iran. This move was seen as largely symbolic.

Emile Hokayem, a Middle East expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Washington could express its displeasure by delaying arms sales or shipments, belittling official representation in security settings, and rolling back Saudi policies in Yemen and elsewhere .

“But ultimately, the US cannot break counter-terrorism cooperation and take its eyes off Iran,” Hokayem said. “It’s too important to American security interests and the Saudis are counting on it to tie the US down.”

The US State Department hinted as much as it reiterated Biden’s pledge to review the relationship with Riyadh after Opec+, a Saudi-led alliance that also includes Russia, cut its daily production targets by 2 million barrels last week had lowered.

“We will not set aside any of the important tools we must use to ensure Iran does not pose a threat to the American people, American interests and our broader interests in the region,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price, ” he said on Tuesday.

US officials recognize that an American presence in Saudi Arabia protects Pentagon assets in the region and limits the extent to which they could restrict ties. They said they expect military cooperation to continue.

But Biden, who has said he will work with Congress on his response, must also consider the level of anger in his party.

Bob Menendez, Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on the administration to “immediately freeze” arms sales and security cooperation. He said he “would not approve any cooperation with Riyadh until the kingdom reassesses its position regarding the war in Ukraine”.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, proposed diverting a shipment of 280 air-to-air missiles bound for Saudi Arabia to Ukraine and installing U.S. Patriot air defense systems in Saudi Arabia in to relocate to Ukraine. “These two steps would improve our relationship with Saudi Arabia AND help Ukraine,” he tweeted.

Washington’s anger comes after Saudi Arabia urged the Biden administration to strengthen its security ties, including improving information sharing and institutionalizing the partnership.

The kingdom, which has relied on the US as a security guarantor for decades, is one of the top buyers of US weapons. Estimated military spending of Saudi Arabia in 2021 was US$55.6 billion. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the kingdom accounted for nearly a quarter of America’s sales between 2017 and 2021.

But since Biden took office, the security partnership has been one of the biggest points of friction in the relationship.

Riyadh was furious when Biden halted offensive arms sales while criticizing the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents; vowed to reassess the relationship and not engage with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s daily leader.

There were signs of a temporary easing of tensions this year, as senior administration officials reaffirmed Washington’s long-standing commitment to defending Saudi Arabia and began assessing that Riyadh is serious about ending its war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Biden also appeared to have been convinced by officials that, for all his moral objections to human rights, it was in the US interest to seek Saudi Arabian cooperation on energy and Middle East policy. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US sought Riyadh’s help to stabilize energy markets. In July, Biden traveled to Saudi Arabia and held talks with Prince Mohammed.

But Riyadh’s risk of cutting oil production will at the very least wipe out any chance of Washington deepening security ties. “Much of the national security apparatus that supported greater engagement in Riyadh is deeply concerned,” Hokayem said. “It’s now a cold transactional relationship at best.”

Saudi officials have tried to defend the oil production cut, insisting it was an economic rather than a political decision, while reaffirming their view of the US as their key security partner.

“This relationship has always been and will be, to a large extent, supportive of stability and security not only in the region but beyond,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the foreign minister, told Saudi television this week. “We are very interested in continuing this relationship.”

Riyadh’s reliance on US systems and munitions came under the spotlight this year when it was forced to turn to its Gulf neighbors to replenish its depleted inventory of interceptors for its US-made Patriot batteries, while Houthi rebels captured the Attacks on the kingdom intensified. The Houthis have repeatedly attacked Saudi cities, airports and oil infrastructure in the seven years since Saudi Arabia intervened in the Yemen conflict.

This lack of interceptors was partly blamed on the weapons procurement process, but was also seen in Riyadh as a signal of changing relations with Washington.

But for all the political tensions, both sides have an interest in keeping the security partnership alive, analysts say.

“Everybody’s a little mad at each other right now, [but] To a certain extent, they need each other and there’s a bit of dancing going on,” Karako said. “I don’t think this will be the end of the relationship, but we have to work through it.” Joe Biden’s limited room for maneuver on Saudi Arabia

Adam Bradshaw

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