Skip to main content

Saudi Arabia's oil policy bankrolls Russian war crimes in Ukraine, US Democrats say

A group of senior House Democrats call on US President Joe Biden to 'recalibrate' US ties with Saudi Arabia ahead of his trip to the Middle East
A demonstrator dressed as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman holds 'the royal bone saw' outside the White House, on 19 October 2018 (AFP)

A group of senior House Democrats have criticised Saudi Arabia's "refusal to stabilize global energy markets", claiming it is helping bankroll Russian President Vladimir Putin's "war crimes in Ukraine".

In a letter sent to the White House on Wednesday, six House Democrats, including House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Gregory Meeks and House Intelligence chairman Adam Schiff, called on Biden to "further recalibrate the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia".

"The Kingdom has long been an important US partner, and we seek to further cooperate with it on regional, counterterrorism, energy and other priorities," they wrote. "However, since 2015, its leadership has repeatedly acted in ways at odds with US policy and values.

"Of most immediate relevance, Saudi Arabia's refusal to stabilize global energy markets is helping bankroll [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine, while inflicting economic pain on everyday Americans," they added.

Khashoggi: What Biden’s prior legal interventions tell us about immunity for MBS
Read More »

The lawmakers urged Biden to prioritise securing further Saudi commitments to stabilise global energy markets "and definitively abandon its Trump-era oil production deal with Russia".

Oil prices have remained consistently above $100 a barrel since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February, with Brent crude trading at $101.36 per barrel on Thursday.

High energy prices have supported Russia's military campaign, with Moscow generating about $20bn per month in oil sales this year. Rising gasoline prices have also become a hot-button political issue in the West, helping to fuel historic inflation.

Until recently, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two swing producers within Opec, rebuffed calls from the US to break from their agreement with Moscow, frustrating US attempts to isolate Russia on the global stage.

Last week, Biden told reporters that he would not directly ask Saudi Arabia to increase oil output when he visits the kingdom and that he had instead made the case that all Gulf countries increase production.

The average price per gallon for gasoline in the US was $4.78 on Thursday, down from the record $5.02 that Americans were paying last month.

'Unprecedented humanitarian disaster'

Also in Wednesday's letter, the lawmakers asked for continuing the suspension of offensive US military support to the Saudi-led coalition at war in Yemen.

Shortly after taking office last year, Biden declared in a speech - largely met with praise from many Democrats - that he would end "American support for offensive operations in the war".

But more than a year into his presidency, it remains unclear as to what ending "offensive support" entails. For months, questions have lingered regarding the details of the decision, such as what constitutes an offensive operation versus a defensive one, and what weapons systems would fall under such categories.

Yemen: Three months in, new leadership achieves little amid rising anger
Read More »

According to Vox, the "defensive" support the US provides the kingdom also includes greenlighting the servicing of Saudi aircraft through defence contractors.

In February 2021, 41 members of Congress asked Biden to clarify what forms of military aid the US was providing to Saudi Arabia under Trump, what aid would continue, and how his administration would define "offensive operations".

Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in Yemen's civil war in March 2015, and have since carried out more than 20,000 air strikes in an effort to roll back territorial gains made by Houthi rebels, with one-third striking non-military sites - including schools, factories and hospitals, according to the war monitor the Yemen Data Project.

The United Nations has described Yemen as the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe, with an estimated 377,000 people killed by direct fighting as well as from hunger and disease.

"The prolonged Saudi-led war in Yemen has not reduced Iran's malign influence but instead created an unprecedented humanitarian disaster that will fuel regional instability," the lawmakers said in Wednesday's letter.

'End arbitrary detentions'

In the letter, the lawmakers also urged Biden to prioritise "ending the kingdom's arbitrary detention of human rights defenders, as well as other human rights abuses".

"Recent mass executions and Saudi pressure on Turkey to cease the trial for Jamal Khashoggi's brutal murder bely claims that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is pursuing genuine reforms," the lawmakers said.

Until Saudi Arabia "shows signs of charting a different course, and in light of deliberations regarding a potential visit to the Kingdom during which you may have an opportunity to meet with King Salman and other regional heads of state, we encourage you to redouble your efforts to recalibrate the US-Saudi relationship".

Progressive Democrats press Biden on 'doomsday settlements' ahead of trip to region
Read More »

Biden will embark on a four-day trip to the Middle East next Wednesday. He will first visit Israel and the occupied West Bank. The visit will then culminate with a major gathering of regional leaders in the Saudi port city of Jeddah.

Biden has said the agenda includes much more than energy policy and stressed that the meetings will include leaders from many Gulf nations.

"I guess I will see the king and the crown prince, but that's not the meeting I'm going to. They'll be a part of a much larger meeting," he said. "It's in Saudi Arabia, but it's not about Saudi Arabia."

Several lawmakers have publicly advised Biden against meeting Saudi Arabia's powerful crown prince during his stay in the kingdom.

"Until Saudi Arabia makes a radical change in terms of its human rights, I wouldn't want anything to do with him," Congressman Schiff said, referring to the crown prince during an appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday.

Biden's visit marks a reversal for the US president, who on the campaign trail promised to make a "pariah" out of the kingdom. Soon after entering office Biden released the intelligence report that implicated the Saudi crown prince in the 2018 murder of Khashoggi.

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.