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Democrats Urge a Saudi Split
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Democrats Urge a Saudi Split

Some lawmakers want the Biden administration to take a harder line on Saudi Arabia following OPEC’s decision to cut oil production.

Good afternoon. With Congress on recess—and my upcoming travel to a friend’s wedding—Uphill will be off next week. I’ll see you back in your inbox on October 18!

Democratic Lawmakers Slam Saudi Relationship

Congressional Democrats’ cries for a more adversarial stance toward Saudi Arabia are growing louder, setting up a potential clash with the White House.

The debate among Democrats over the U.S.-Saudi relationship isn’t new, but this week’s move by Saudi Arabia to cut oil output by 2 million barrels per day—in coordination with Russia and other OPEC+ members—has brought it to a boiling point. Because the decrease is based on existing targets several OPEC members had been failing to meet, the cut is likely larger on paper than it will be in reality, but it is still expected to push gas prices higher as Russia’s war with Ukraine strains global energy supplies.

“What Saudi Arabia did to help Putin continue to wage his despicable, vicious war against Ukraine will long be remembered by Americans,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told the Associated Press. He pledged to consider “all the legislative tools to best deal with this appalling and deeply cynical action.”

Congress often gives the executive branch primacy in foreign policy matters, but Schumer’s words were the clearest sign yet that lawmakers could consider a measure to punish the Saudi government. Yet winning enough support for a substantive response may prove challenging.

A congressional reckoning over the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been years in the making. But as consensus has solidified among most Democrats and some Republicans, lawmakers have failed to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Legislation to end American support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen passed Congress in 2019, but then-President Donald Trump vetoed it—and lawmakers couldn’t muster enough votes to override him.

Some Democratic lawmakers had hoped the Biden administration would mark a turning point for the relationship. Thus far, they’ve been disappointed.

More than 30 House Democrats urged the White House in April to rethink the United States’ alliance with Saudi Arabia, saying the two countries had reached an inflection point. America could continue “our status-quo of seemingly unconditional support for an autocratic partner,” the lawmakers wrote, or the United States could take a tougher stance toward the kingdom for its abysmal human rights record, assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and massive civilian death toll amid its war with Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Just three months later, President Joe Biden was in Saudi Arabia, fist-bumping de-facto Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman.

It was a far cry from his 2019 campaign trail pledge to make the country a pariah on the global stage, but Biden argued the trip was necessary for American security interests. If he could convince the Saudis to produce more oil, it would help lower prices and strengthen the West’s resolve in sanctioning Russia for its aggression in Ukraine.

But no major boost in production followed the trip. And this week’s decision to cut output has Democrats calling for a strong response.

“The royal Saudi family has never been a trustworthy ally of our nation,” Sen. Richard Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, wrote Thursday, citing “unanswered questions” about 9/11, the Khashoggi murder, and the kingdom’s latest oil move. “It’s time for our foreign policy to imagine a world without their alliance.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told CNBC this week it’s time for a “wholesale re-evaluation of the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia.”

“I thought the whole point of selling arms to the Gulf States despite their human rights abuses, nonsensical Yemen War, working against US interests in Libya, Sudan etc, was that when an international crisis came, the Gulf could choose America over Russia/China,” Murphy wrote.

Rep. Tom Malinowksi, a New Jersey Democrat, described OPEC’s cut in oil production as a “hostile act” designed to hurt the United States and its allies, and he announced plans to introduce legislation to withdraw American troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“I see no reason why we should defend a Saudi dictatorship’s oil fields if it is using its control of oil markets to tank our economy and help our enemies,” he said.

As of last summer, roughly 2,700 American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia guarded American regional interests (particularly to counter Iran), according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. The U.S. forces coordinate with the Saudi government and provide air and missile defense capabilities, among other operations. 

We wrote to you earlier this year about the White House halting most support for offensive operations by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen’s civil war, but the United States is still assisting with intelligence-sharing and other logistical support. And the Biden administration has approved major arms sales to the kingdom since taking office, including one in August for about $3 billion in Patriot missile interceptors and other equipment. Saudi Arabia is the largest buyer of American-made military equipment.

Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan argued the White House should consider withholding American military hardware and security assistance from the Saudi government.

“If the administration is reticent to threaten U.S. equipment,” she added, “Congress should be ready to do so.”

Democrats would need support from Republicans in the Senate to block arms sales or pass other legislative responses. But Republican lawmakers haven’t been as quick to slam Saudi Arabia, with many focusing their fire on Biden for failing to achieve production increases despite meeting with Saudi leaders earlier this year. Republicans have also urged the White House to encourage more American oil drilling to push down prices.

The White House, meanwhile, has ordered the Energy Department to release 10 million barrels of oil from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve for sale in November. Officials are also reportedly considering easing sanctions on Venezuela to allow Chevron to resume oil production there. Asked by reporters about the plan, Biden said he and his advisers “haven’t made up our mind yet,” while adding the authoritarian regime in Venezuela would have to do “a lot” to earn sanctions relief.

But the administration still faces the inflection point in the U.S.-Saudi relationship Democratic members of Congress warned about in April.

“How we move forward will send a strong message to democracies, activists fighting for democracy, and human rights defenders and will play an important role in our fight against authoritarianism around the world,” the House members wrote at the time.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.