Last week, Saudi Arabia joined Russia and other petroleum-producing nations in the cartel known as OPEC+ in voting to slash oil production at a moment of historically high energy prices and rising inflation. The timing appears designed not only to fuel Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war machine but also to reverse the aggressive work that the U.S. Congress and the Biden administration have done to counter high inflation rates and bring down gas prices. But this hostile action by Washington’s putative friends in Riyadh did offer one silver lining: it showed that the United States has considerable leverage to correct what has become a fundamentally lopsided relationship. Over and over, Saudi Arabia has broken its promises to the United States, whether by massacring civilians in Yemen with U.S. weapons, by murdering the U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, or by committing other human rights violations. It is time for the United States to stop enabling Saudi Arabia’s bad behavior and reset this one-sided relationship.
To that end, one of us, Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, has introduced legislation that would pause all U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia for one year in the wake of its decision to endanger the global economy by cutting oil production. If the Saudis reverse course and restore promised oil-production levels, Washington should reconsider the pause on some less sensitive weapons sales and related activities, such as the servicing of aircraft and M1A2 Abrams tanks. Transfers of sensitive weapons systems such as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Patriot missile systems that were offered to Saudi Arabia beginning in 2017, however, should remain paused until the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been fully reassessed. And if Riyadh doubles down on its misguided alignment with Moscow, Washington should be prepared to permanently halt such weapons sales. Arguably, Saudi Arabia needs U.S. arms more than the United States needs Saudi oil. If Riyadh continues to take more from Washington than it gives in return, it should have to deal with the consequences.
NOT AN ALLIANCE
The U.S.-Saudi relationship is not technically an alliance since the two countries have not signed a treaty or mutual defense pact. But for decades, Washington has given outsize security protection to Riyadh, largely in exchange for oil. Saudi oil fields remained under U.S. control until the 1970s, when they were turned over to Saudi Arabia, instantly transforming it into one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And even then, the United States continued to underwrite Saudi Arabia’s security in exchange for a pledge to provide oil supply and regional partnership.
But Riyadh continues to exploit this historical relationship, acquiring security largesse far beyond its needs and competence. Most troublingly, since 2017, Saudi Arabia has procured some of the United States’ most sensitive national defense technologies on a scale that exceeded combined U.S. transfers to more reliable U.S. allies: Australia, Canada, Israel, the United Kingdom, and the countries of the European Union. In addition to THAAD and Patriot missile systems, the Saudis now have advanced attack helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, among other sophisticated U.S. weapons. Riyadh’s plan to manufacture significant parts of these sensitive systems domestically using transferred U.S. technology should be deeply concerning.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to renege on its oil production commitments provides a chance to reconsider these reckless and dangerous weapons deals. The United States should immediately pause transfers of sensitive technologies and weapons systems to Saudi Arabia before it is too late to reassert control over them. Even if the Saudis reverse their planned production cuts, Washington should not lift the pause on these transfers until it has completed a broader reevaluation of the U.S.-Saudi defense relationship. If the Saudis follow through on their planned cuts, the United States should be willing to pause these sales indefinitely.
Such a halt would debilitate Saudi defenses. Without U.S. assistance to service its air force, Saudi Arabia’s entire fleet would be grounded within months, since foreign weapons systems are generally not interchangeable with U.S. systems and cannot be substituted for them. As the arms expert Bruce Riedel explained to The Washington Post, “It would take decades to transition away from U.S. and U.K. aircraft, for example, to Russian or Chinese aircraft. [The] same is true for tanks, communication, and other hi-tech equipment”. In other words, it would be impossible for Riyadh to find new weapons sources overnight.
A pause in U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia would not strengthen China or Russia. Despite its occasional saber rattling, Riyadh is plainly dependent on Washington, buying 79 percent of its arms and almost 100 percent of its high-grade advanced weaponry from the United States. Much of the remaining 21 percent of its overall arms purchases consists mainly of low-grade, outdated small arms such as Soviet-era grenade launchers, rifles, and ammunition, as well as small orders of far-inferior Chinese drones and planes. Simply put, U.S. weaponry remains the most advanced in the world, several generations ahead of antique weaponry Russia regularly deploys to the battlefield in Ukraine. Understandably, Saudi Arabia wishes to buy the newest flying Cadillacs and Lincolns, not used flying Skodas and Ladas.
Riyadh has other reasons to prefer U.S. weapons. Both Russia and China maintain close military relations with Iran, making the purchase of aircraft or servicing agreements with either country a potential security risk for Saudi Arabia. Partly for this reason, Riyadh has never bought fixed-wing military aircraft from a non-Western supplier.
Halting U.S. weapons sales would not benefit Iran, either. A strong, responsible Saudi Arabia would advance U.S. interests by serving as a regional bulwark against an increasingly nuclear-focused Iran. But Saudi Arabia has not behaved responsibly. To the contrary, its misuse of U.S. weapons systems, including its indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen, has strengthened Iran’s position in long-running proxy conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria by helping Iranian-backed militias gain popular support. Keeping a tighter rein on Washington’s Saudi partners and preventing the misuse of U.S. weapons would not increase Iran’s malign influence in the region but rather help to limit it.
As for the impact on U.S. defense contractors, U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia account for a small fraction of the revenue and domestic jobs generated by the U.S. defense industry, a fraction that will be made even smaller by long order backlogs for U.S. weapons systems from other countries in the Persian Gulf and around the world. Demand is especially strong for the THAAD and Patriot missile systems.
Finally, halting arms sales would not prompt the Saudis to take additional oil supply off the market. Despite its false claims of having no spare capacity, Saudi Arabia is already drilling 33 percent less oil than it was just two years ago. Cutting production any more would mean risking the loss of market share to other producers, especially since Riyadh’s storage facilities are already overflowing because it egregiously refused to release any strategic reserves this year.
Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS, Saudi Arabia has tried to recast its image from an authoritarian petrostate that perpetrates human rights violations to an oasis of stability, predictability, and modernity. It has relaxed restrictions on women’s attire and granted women permission to drive. It has also begun an enormous $500 billion project to construct a desert city called Neom, powered by a renewable energy grid and governed by a new legal system.
But these rebranding efforts have been consistently undercut by the Saudi regime’s conduct, including its harsh repression of dissent, appalling human rights abuses at home and abroad, and continued use of torture and beheadings to punish its opponents. Freedom House has ranked Saudi Arabia in the lowest tier of its annual human rights report, and the World Economic Forum has ranked Saudi Arabia in the bottom five percent of countries when it comes to gender equality, far below neighboring Arab countries. Even after U.S. President Joe Biden extracted from MBS a fresh round of pledges to respect human rights during a trip to Saudi Arabia in July, Saudi courts promptly sentenced several opponents of the regime to lengthy prison terms. Clearly, the Saudis take their pledges to improve their human rights record about as seriously as they take their pledges to maintain global oil stability.
Riyadh’s latest decision to throw its lot in with Moscow has further tarnished its image. Even before this month’s OPEC+ decision, Saudi Arabia appeared to be cozying up to Putin, at least on energy issues. OPEC+ itself is a product of increasing Saudi-Russian cooperation, personally approved by MBS and Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Economic Summit in 2016—the first time Riyadh and Moscow had entered into collaboration on oil issues. Since then, the two leaders have cemented their partnership with frequent phone calls and explicit coordination, a blatant and long-overlooked violation of the “reliable oil producer” pledge that undergirds Washington’s strategic partnership with Riyadh.
The United States cannot continue to tolerate these shortcomings, jeopardizing its own interests to cover for Saudi recklessness. Saudi leaders believe they can push the United States into a corner, forcing it to accept their terms for a partnership that does little to advance U.S. interests. Such arrogance, presumption, and deceit have shattered the trust the United States once placed in the Saudi regime. A pause on arms sales would send a strong message to Riyadh that it must regain Washington’s confidence.
Richard Blumenthal is the senior U.S. Senator for Connecticut. Jeffrey Sonnefeld is Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies and Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management at the Yale School of Management.