WASHINGTON – Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez called Monday for freezing all U.S. cooperation with Saudi Arabia, delivering one of the strongest expressions yet of U.S. anger over Saudi oil-production cuts that serve to boost Russia in its war in Ukraine.
In a statement, Menendez specifically called for cutting off all arms sales and security cooperation — one of the underpinnings of the more than 70-year U.S. strategic partnership with the oil kingdom — beyond the minimum necessary to defend Americans and American interests.
As committee chairman, Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, vowed he "will not green-light any cooperation with Riyadh until the Kingdom reassesses its position with respect to the war in Ukraine. Enough is enough.”
His statement comes four days after Saudi Arabia and Russia led OPEC nations in announcing a 2 million barrel a day cut in oil production. The Saudi- and Russian-led cuts help prop up high oil prices that are allowing President Vladimir Putin to keep paying for his eight-month invasion of Ukraine. The production cut also hurts U.S.-led efforts to make the war financially unsustainable for Russia, threatens a global economy already destabilized by the Ukraine conflict, and risks saddling President Joe Biden and Democrats with rising gasoline prices just ahead of U.S. midterms.
Menendez's announcement Monday places him among a growing number of Democrats who, since the announcement by OPEC nations and Russia, have called for stopping what are billions of dollars in annual U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The Democrats accuse Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto ruler, of effectively flouting the Saudi side of a decades-long bargain that has consisted of the U.S. military and defense industry providing security for Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia in turn providing world markets with a reliable flow of oil.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last week was among the Democrats blasting Prince Mohammed for seeming to act in support of Putin's invasion.
Schumer declared then that lawmakers were looking at legislative options to deal with what he called Saudi Arabia's “appalling and deeply cynical action.”
Democratic lawmakers within a day of the OPEC move were introducing new legislation to stop U.S. arms sales to the kingdom. Menendez's action Monday, given his key role shepherding foreign policy legislation, raises the prospect that Congress could act to punish the Saudis during the lame-duck period after the November elections.
It's not clear how far Menendez and other Democrats would go in practical terms in cutting off weapons deals and most other cooperation with the Saudis, or whether the Biden administration would go along. Biden said last week he was disappointed with Saudi Arabia's role in the latest oil production cut and said the administration was looking at options.
John Kirby, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, said Tuesday on CNN that Biden is willing to work with Congress to determine “what the right relationship with Saudi Arabia needs to be going forward.”
Last week's oil production cuts delivered one of the sharpest yet in a series of blows in the U.S. and Saudi relationship. They include the 2018 Saudi killing of a U.S.-based journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in which the U.S. intelligence community concluded the crown prince played a key role. Americans also fault the crown prince for refusing to join in U.S.-led efforts to isolate and punish Putin for his February invasion of Ukraine, and for maintaining seemingly friendly relations with Putin.
“There simply is no room to play both sides of this conflict — either you support the rest of the free world in trying to stop a war criminal from violently wiping off an entire country off of the map, or you support him,” Menendez said in his statement. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia chose the latter in a terrible decision driven by economic self-interest.”
Biden had sought to patch relations with Prince Mohammed, traveling to Saudi Arabia in July to deliver an awkward fist bump in a conciliatory gesture.
Associated Press reporter Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.