House Democrats Will Urge Biden to “Rebalance” Saudi Relationship

Members of Congress drafted a letter demanding information on an unprecedented but little-known report reconsidering U.S.-Saudi relations.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 01: A TV plays U.S. President Joe Biden's first State of the Union address in the window of the White House on March 01, 2022 in Washington, DC. During the address Biden spoke on his administration's efforts to lead a global response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, work to curb inflation and to bring the country out of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
A view of the White House as President Joe Biden’s gives his first State of the Union address on March 1, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

House Democrats, frustrated with President Joe Biden’s handling of Saudi Arabia, plan to send a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken requesting information on the administration’s assessment of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and urging him to “rebalance” support for the kingdom. While this might seem like a relatively innocuous ask in light of the intense conflict with Saudi Arabia over oil production and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the letter hints at the existence of an unprecedented and expansive review of U.S.-Saudi relations conducted by the administration that has not yet been made public.

“A recalibration of the U.S.-Saudi partnership is long overdue in order to reflect President Biden’s important commitment to uphold human rights and democratic values in our foreign policy,” reads a draft of the letter obtained by The Intercept. The effort, led by Reps. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., and Jim McGovern, D-Mass., currently has more than 20 Democratic members signed on. “We look forward to your response on the status of the review of the entirety of the U.S.-Saudi relationship that takes into account such matters,” it continues.

During his Senate confirmation hearing, Blinken said the administration would conduct a broad review of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, but no review has been discussed publicly since then. According to a U.S. intelligence official with direct knowledge, however, a highly classified National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, regarding the U.S.-Saudi relationship was completed sometime around the new year and included in Biden’s daily briefing. (The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.)

NIEs are the gold standard of intelligence and draw on highly classified information gleaned from all U.S. intelligence agencies and often take months or even years to complete. This is likely the first NIE pertaining to Saudi Arabia since at least the George W. Bush administration and a sign of the deteriorating relationship between Washington and Riyadh. (Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly declined a call with Biden amid the Ukraine crisis, signaling that Riyadh would not help alleviate soaring oil prices.) The report focused on subjects like MBS and Saudi Arabia’s decisions on oil production, the intelligence official said. Spokespeople for the National Security Council and Blinken did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The letter, which two sources with knowledge of the discussions (but no authorization to speak publicly) say members plan to send to Blinken later this week, contains a litany of grievances about the desert kingdom’s conduct. Key among them is Saudi Arabia’s refusal to increase oil production to alleviate high oil prices amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Most recently, reports indicate that the Government of Saudi Arabia has rejected cooperation with the U.S. government following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent oil crisis,” the draft states. (As The Intercept previously reported, MBS has repeatedly shot down Biden’s pleas to increase oil production, sending gas prices spiking, much to the benefit of Russia, whose economy depends heavily on oil revenues.) “Instead of accepting appeals from our government to produce more oil, an initial step that would immediately lower prices for Americans across the country, the Saudi monarchy has elected to engage in talks with Beijing to discuss pricing a portion of its oil sales to China in yuan, a proposal that would weaken the reach of the dollar.”

The draft letter goes on to cite other concerns underscoring the urgency of the review’s release, including Saudi Arabia’s unilateral pursuit of nuclear technology, the lack of accountability for Khashoggi’s killers, its assault on Yemen, repression of its own citizens, their ballistic missile partnership with China, Saudi industrial espionage conducted against American companies, and a lack of progress on gender and labor rights. A range of Democrats are signing on to the letter, including members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and House Armed Services Committee.

“We stand at an inflection point: The United States can continue our status-quo of broad support for an autocratic partner, or we can stand for human rights and rebalance our relationship to reflect our values and interests,” the draft closes. “How we move forward will send a strong message to democracies, activists fighting for democracy, and human rights defenders and will play an important role in our fight against authoritarianism around the world.”

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