WASHINGTON – The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee announced on Monday that he will block arms sales to Saudi Arabia following OPEC’s announcement last week that the cartel will curtail oil production, a move seen as signaling alignment with Russia.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., argued that Saudi Arabia’s push for the OPEC cuts amounted to support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, calling it “a terrible decision driven by economic self-interest.”
He accused Riyadh of helping “underwrite [Russian President Vladimir Putin’s] war through the OPEC+ cartel” and called for an immediate freeze to “all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia, including any arms sales and security cooperation beyond what is absolutely necessary to defend U.S. personnel and interests.”
To that end, Menendez vowed that he “will not green-light any cooperation with Riyadh until the Kingdom reassesses its position with respect to the war in Ukraine.”
OPEC announced that it would reduce its petroleum output as Saudi Arabia and other member countries brace for a potential recession. The decision put the cartel at odds with the Biden administration’s attempts to persuade Riyadh and other oil-rich countries to increase output as Europe and the global market more broadly grapples with the energy shortages wrought by Russia’s Ukraine invasion.
The decision could also have domestic ramifications for Democrats in the midterm elections, as Republicans have hammered their opponents on rising gas prices.
President Joe Biden in July traveled to Jeddah to meet with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as part of a bid to persuade him to increase oil output. A White House fact sheet from the visit noted that Saudi Arabia had committed to increase production levels 50% beyond what the kingdom had planned for July and August.
Biden’s meeting with the prince also marked a concession after the U.S. president refused to meet with him for more than a year on account of his 2018 orders to kill Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia notably helped broker a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine last month, which secured the release of two Americans captured fighting alongside Ukrainian forces.
Shortly after taking office, Biden announced that he would suspend all offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia due to its aerial campaign in Yemen that has killed nearly 9,000 civilians.
The Biden administration approved a $3 billion Patriot missile defense system to Saudi Arabia in August. Additionally, the State Department in 2021 approved a $650 million sale in AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles and another $500 million to cover the maintenance of eight CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters that have yet to arrive in Saudi Arabia after a 2018 purchase.
The House National Defense Authorization Act, which passed 329-101 in July, also contains an amendment in honor of Khashoggi that would limit future offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia until Riyadh stops targeting dissidents at home and abroad.
The Saudis and Yemen’s Houthi rebels last week failed to renew the truce that the Biden administration brokered in April. And the subsequent announcement regarding the OPEC oil cuts led congressional Democrats to target Saudi Arabia with renewed fury.
The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said the U.S. should envision a world without an “alliance with these royal backstabbers” and called on Congress to pass his NOPEC bill, which would authorize the Justice Department to target OPEC with U.S. anti-trust lawsuits.
And three frontline Democrats in danger of losing their seats in November – Reps. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, Susan Wild of Pennsylvania and Sean Casten of Illinois – introduced legislation that would force Biden to remove U.S. troops and missile defense systems from Saudi Arabia.
“It is time for the United States to resume acting like the superpower in our relationship with our client states in the Gulf,” they said in a statement.
Saudi Arabia aside, it’s business as usual for other OPEC member states in the Persian Gulf who seek U.S. weapons. The State Department last week approved a $3 billion sale of the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System – the same system that defends Washington – to Kuwait despite its support for the OPEC cuts.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.