Democrats on Capitol Hill have suggested transferring US weapons systems in Saudi Arabia to Ukraine and suspending a planned transfer of Patriot missiles to Riyadh in the wake of what they call a “turning point” in Washington’s relationship with the kingdom.
Ro Khanna, a Democratic congressman from California who is a leading supporter of a weapons freeze, said he believed “at a minimum” Congress would move to stop the transfer of Patriot missiles to the kingdom and likely pause other defense initiatives.
Khanna is a long-standing critic of Saudi Arabia and was one of the original sponsors of a 2019 measure which received bipartisan support and would have forced the US to end military involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. that resolution was vetoed by then President Donald Trump.
In an interview with The Guardian, Khanna said tensions had reached a boiling point comparable to American sentiment following the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The break in the relationship followed an announcement last week that Opec+, the oil cartel, had agreed to cut oil production by 2 million barrels per day despite strong objections and lobbying from the Joe Biden administration. . The move was seen as a boost for both Vladimir Putin and his war effort in Ukraineand a shocking betrayal of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the US, just weeks after the president visited Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah.
“I think President Biden is temperamentally judicious and pragmatic, but this was a real slap in the face,” Khanna said. While lawmakers like him have long advocated a tougher response to Saudi Arabia on human rights grounds, Khanna said the OPEC+ move had galvanized members across Congress.
“This is a second moment like the Khashoggi murder. I think it is a total miscalculation on the part of the Saudis,” he said, adding that there was still time for the kingdom to change course.
Pressed on whether the Democrats were likely to go beyond rhetoricKhanna pointed to recent comments by his colleague Robert Menendez, a Democratic senator who, as chairman of the foreign relations committee, said he was prepared to stop Saudi arms sales.
“At a minimum, Patriot missiles will be suspended,” he said. “The fact that Menéndez has spoken means that, at a minimum, it is going to happen.”
Meanwhile, Chris Murphy, an influential Democratic senator from Connecticut, said he believed the United States should stop selling advanced air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia and reuse these missiles in Ukraine.
“For several years, the US military had deployed Patriot missile defense batteries in Saudi Arabia to help defend oil infrastructure against missile and drone attacks. These advanced air and missile defense systems should either be redeployed to bolster the defenses of NATO eastern flank allies such as Poland and Romania, or transferred to our Ukrainian partners,” Murphy said in a statement.
While physically transferring Saudi Arabia’s existing weapons systems to Ukraine would not be particularly logistically complicated, experts said it could risk accusations that the Biden administration was increasing its support for Ukraine beyond the levels it considered appropriate, because the systems might require it in the field. US personnel on the ground for support.
William Hartung, a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute, said that, at a minimum, any such move to switch weapons would face serious debate within the White House and Congress. At the same time, he said, Russia’s continued attack on Ukraine means that “political considerations are changing.”
Changes to planned deliveries of Patriot missiles would likely cause “consternation” in Saudi Arabia, but changes to delivery of spare parts and maintenance could ground much of the Saudi air force, he said.
Hartung said he believed the Saudis might be underestimating the impact of the sudden break in relations with Washington, given that the relationship appeared to survive Khashoggi’s assassination. In that case, however, Trump was in the White House and staunchly loyal to the Saudis. Hartung said he believed Biden was unlikely to veto a congressional resolution targeting the kingdom, as Trump did in 2019.
“It’s not a done deal, but the political tides are stronger against the Saudis than they have been, possibly ever,” he said.
the Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry this week rejected criticism of his OPEC+ decision and insisted that the cartel had acted unanimously and in its own economic interest. He also rejected any assumption that he might be forced to make a policy U-turn.
“The kingdom emphasizes that while it strives to preserve the strength of its relations with all friendly countries, it affirms its rejection of any dictates, actions or efforts to distort its noble goals of protecting the global economy from oil market volatility,” said. .
Khanna responded to that statement.
“The reality is that there is no economic justification for what they are doing. This was punitive to the Americans and it is helping Putin,” she said.
A national security council spokesman said OPEC’s decision last week to “align its energy policy with the war in Russia and against the Americans” underscored Biden’s earlier call for a “different kind of relationship” with Saudi Arabia. Saudi.
“We are reviewing where we are, we will be watching closely in the coming weeks and months, consulting with allies, consulting with Congress, and decisions will be made deliberately,” the spokesman said.