Photo: The AN/TPQ-53 Counterfire Target Acquisition Radar in Saudi Arabia. Credit: US Army - Photo: 2022

US-Saudi Alliance in Jeopardy Threatening Multi-Billion Dollar Arms Sales

By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS (IDN) — The longstanding US-Saudi alliance—political, economic and military—which dates back to 1931, is in deep trouble.

US President Joe Biden has warned Saudi Arabia that it would face “consequences” after OPEC Plus, the oil cartel led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, announced plans for a cut in oil production—an estimated 2.0 million barrels a day that could escalate gas prices in the United States.

The implications for the US are both political and economic—at a time when inflation is on the rise and mid-term elections are scheduled for early November.

According to Cable News Network (CNN), Saudi Arabia’s energy minister once famously said the kingdom “derives pleasure from keeping everyone on their toes.”

The reaction in Washington, DC, however, was fast and furious.

A group of Democratic lawmakers, the ruling party in the US, has threatened to pull all American troops out of both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), another partner in OPEC Plus, which was a party to the price hike.

Democratic Representatives Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, a former State Department official in the former Obama administration; Sean Casten of Illinois; and Susan Wild of Pennsylvania announced they were planning to introduce a bill to remove all US forces and military equipment from the two oil-rich nations.

But is this an empty threat or a political reality?

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the five biggest arms buyers from the US during 2017-2021 were Saudi Arabia, which accounted for 23.4 per cent of all US arms exports—followed by Australia 9.4 per cent, South Korea 6.8 per cent, Japan 6.7 per cent and Qatar 5.4 per cent.

Currently, the Saudis are the biggest single buyers of American weapons systems—a major lifeline for US defence contractors who lead a powerful political lobby in the US.

A Fact Sheet from the US State Department says Saudi Arabia is the United States’ largest government-to-government foreign military sales (FMS) customer, with more than $127 billion in active FMS cases and commercial sales.

Through FMS, the United States has supported three key security assistance organizations in Saudi Arabia—the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard, and the Ministry of Interior.

Since the 1950s, the US Army Corps of Engineers has also played a vital role in military and civilian construction in Saudi Arabia.

Recent US arms sales to Riyadh include: Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile systems; Patriot Advanced Capability-3 air defence systems; follow-on support for the Royal Saudi Air Force; M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tanks; High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs); Light Armored Vehicles; F-15SA, C130J, and KC-130J aircraft; AH-64D Apache, UH-60M Blackhawk, AH-6I Light Attack, MH-60R Multi-Mission, and CH-47F Chinook helicopters; Multi-Mission Surface Combatant ships; Mark V patrol boats; Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) modernization; Phalanx Close-In Weapons System; modernization of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, and Javelin and TOW-2B missiles.

Since 2014, the US has also authorized the permanent export of over $8.2 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia via the Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) process.  The top categories of DCS to Saudi Arabia include: tanks/military vehicles, military electronics, munitions, and launch vehicles.

Vijay Prashad, Executive Director, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, with Offices in Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, New Delhi and São Paulo, told IDN Saudi Arabia, like many countries around the world, are acting based on their own interest.

“They are not willing to subordinate what they see as their national interests to the demands of Washington, DC,” he pointed out.

“The Biden administration wants to try and lessen the costs of the Ukraine war—namely high energy prices—that are being borne by the Europeans”.

Rather than try to find a peace deal in Ukraine, which would allow Europe’s energy prices to decline due to supply from Russia and increasingly from Norway, the US wanted to ask what it sees as its gas station to pump out more.

This would harm the Saudis, who—despite the fist bumps during Biden’s visit —declined to follow orders, said Prashad, who is also a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China.

Asked about the projected rise in oil prices and the future of the US- Saudi alliance, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on October 13: For many, many months now, “President Biden has been making clear that our goal when it comes to energy is to make sure that there is enough supply on world markets to meet demand. And particularly as we head into to winter in various places around the world, that’s even more important. And so that was the lens through which we saw the OPEC decision.”

They also presented no market basis for the cuts, he said.

“We said that to them and we suggested that if they did have concerns about prices going down significantly, if their objective was to keep prices at a certain level, they should wait and see how markets reacted over the coming weeks and wait at least till their next monthly meeting”.

“So that’s what we strongly urged them to do for the reasons I just said. They didn’t do it. And as you know, we are not only deeply disappointed in that, we think it’s it short sighted. And as the President has made very clear, that decision has to have consequences, and that’s something that we are reviewing as we speak.”

Blinken pointed out that Biden also made clear that given the strong bipartisan reaction against the OPEC Plus decision, that he wants to consult with leaders of Congress when they come back from the campaign trail “to look at the most effective steps that we can take moving forward, keeping in mind that we have a multiplicity of interests with Saudi Arabia and our policies need to reflect that”.

Even before Biden was President, said Blinken, “the President has made clear that we need to recalibrate the relationship with Saudi Arabia. We’ve been engaged in doing that for the better part of two years. We’ve taken a number of steps last year, including the focus on human rights, the efforts to end the war in Yemen, policies on arms sales.  And that process is now continuing with one goal in mind: to make sure that the relationship with—between the United States and Saudi Arabia more effectively addresses and advances our interests”.

Asked about the threat to US-Saudi relations, Vedant Patel. the Principal Deputy Spokesperson for the US Department of State told reporters October 6: “We of course have a multiplicity of interests with our bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia—a component of that is the energy conservation”.

But another big aspect of that is the security aspect, and the role they play in regional stability as it also relates to the safety of more than 70,000 American citizens who live in the kingdom, he said.

Asked about plans to withdraw from Saudi Arabia, Patel said “what I reiterate—and you saw Secretary Blinken speak to this on his travels—is that we have a multiplicity of interests with regards to Saudi Arabia”.

Asked if this idea is a non-starter from the administration’s position, Patel said “We have no plans to take such actions. If you’re speaking to specific legislation, I’m not going to get ahead of Congress or legislation that is still pending. But in response to whether we intend to take such actions, I have nothing to read out on that right now.”

According to the State Department, Saudi Arabia’s unique role in the Arab and Islamic worlds, its holding of the world’s second largest reserves of oil, and its strategic location all play a role in the long-standing bilateral relationship between the Kingdom and the United States.

The US and Saudi Arabia have a common interest in preserving the stability, security, and prosperity of the Gulf region and consult closely on a wide range of regional and global issues.

“Saudi Arabia plays an important role in working toward a peaceful and prosperous future for the region and is a strong partner in security and counterterrorism efforts and in military, diplomatic, and financial cooperation. Its forces work closely with US military and law enforcement bodies to safeguard both countries’ national security interests,” the State Department said.

“The US and Saudi Arabia also enjoy robust cultural and educational ties with tens of thousands of Saudi students studying in US colleges and universities and scores of educational and cultural exchange visitors each year. The United States also provides promising youth and emerging Saudi leaders the opportunity to experience the United States and its institutions through the International Visitor Leadership Program and various other exchange programs.” [IDN-InDepthNews — 19 October 2022]

Thalif Deen is a former Director, Foreign Military Markets at Defense Marketing Services; Senior Defence Analyst at Forecast International; and military editor Middle East/Africa at Jane’s Information Group, US. He is also the author of a recently released book on the United Nations titled “No Commentand Don’t Quote me on That” available on Amazon.  The link to Amazon via the author’s website follows:

Photo: The AN/TPQ-53 Counterfire Target Acquisition Radar in Saudi Arabia. Credit: US Army

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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