Constant dollars

Biden’s pivot on Saudi Arabia has roots with this CT senator

When President Joe Biden announced his intention to re-evaluate the United States’ longstanding partnership with Saudi Arabia earlier this week, it served as an affirmation of a once fringe view held by the young senator of the Connecticut, Chris Murphy.

The president’s announcement – which follows the Arab kingdom’s decision to cut oil production, a move widely seen as benefiting fellow oil exporter Russia – came just days after the fellow Democrat Murphy and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey has vowed to block further arms sales to the country in the wake of the latest diplomatic crack.

While it’s not the first time Biden or Menendez have threatened to rebuke the US ally, their concerns echoed long-past calls by Senator Murphy to ‘rethink’ the US-Saudi relationship, including the billions of dollars won by selling arms to the Saudi regime.

“I’ve argued for almost 10 years that Saudi Arabia is an increasingly unreliable partner,” Murphy told CT Insider in an interview on Wednesday. “I think it’s taken a long time for the foreign policy consensus in Washington to understand this, but people finally seem to be coming together.”

Murphy noted that in 2016, a resolution sponsored by him and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, to block a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia drew just 27 votes in the Senate (Menendez was among those who voted to authorize the sale).

Three years later – following the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the alleged direction of the Saudi government – ​​another attempt to block the sale of arms to the country has received the support of a majority of senators, including Menendez. .

While the growing dissatisfaction with Saudi Arabia in Congress is mostly with Democrats, Murphy said a “handful” of Republicans – like Paul and Utah Sen. Mike Lee – have also been sharply critical of the Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and protracted war in Yemen. Murphy has also not been unwavering in his opposition to the Saudi government, voting in 2021 to approve an arms sale he said were “defensive” in nature.

When asked if he believes he played a role in any of the recent announcements, Murphy said he’s been in “constant dialogue” with President Biden and Senator Menendez on the matter. of Saudi Arabia, before ultimately blaming the fractured relationship between the two nations on the actions of the Saudi government and its leader, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

“The Saudis have made their own bed here,” Murphy said. “It’s very possible that some of the arguments I’ve made over the years have changed my mind, but the president’s announcement and President Menendez’s announcement is clearly a consequence of Saudi Arabia’s decision to align with Russia in the war in Ukraine.”

As critics of US-Saudi relations point to the regime’s long record of human rights abuses, lack of political and civil liberties and allegations of terrorist financing and perpetrators of the 9/11 attack Others point to the country’s vast oil reserves, record of intelligence sharing and mutual opposition to Iran as reasons for maintaining the existing relationship.

“A typical status quo argument would start with energy and that a strong U.S.-Saudi relationship is important to maintaining U.S. access to Saudi oil and also, more broadly, Middle Eastern oil at a price reasonable,” said Jeremy Pressman, director of the Middle East Studies program at the University of Connecticut. “Secondly [the argument goes] that Saudi Arabia can be a moderating force in the region, which means helping the United States on issues important to the United States”

While Murphy acknowledged that certain aspects of the relationship have been beneficial to both countries – particularly the Saudi government’s efforts to unfreeze relations with Israel – he said other actions such as the war in Yemen and the detention of a Lebanese Prime Minister have only served to provoke further conflict in the Middle East.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence, outside of their work trying to reduce tensions with Israel, that the Saudis are a force for peace and stability in the region,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s senior colleague from Connecticut, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, has also been a frequent critic of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, voting against arms sales in 2016 and 2019 (while also joining Murphy in supporting the first arms sale). weapons of President Biden in 2021). On Tuesday, Blumenthal tabled legislation to suspend further arms sales for a year in response to Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut oil production.

“The Saudis need to come to their senses,” Blumenthal said at a news conference in Hartford on Wednesday. ”

While both senators mentioned that Saudi Arabia’s move was likely to drive up the cost of global oil supplies, Pressman, the UConn professor, said a factor in recent instability in US relations Saudi Arabia was America’s growing dependence on domestic oil supplies as well as global shift in focus away from the Middle East. This has led Saudi Arabia to explore other potential partnerships with countries like China and Russia.

“While Saudi Arabia is cooperating with Russia, the United States is not happy with that,” Pressman said. “It’s not an easy balance to maintain.”

In addition to stopping arms sales, Murphy said the United States could pass legislation to strip the Saudi Arabia-led Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries of their legal immunities from the US price-fixing law, and even remove existing defense systems from Saudi Arabia.

The Biden administration and the senator himself are “considering” how far to deviate from the existing relationship, Murphy said Wednesday.

Murphy also acknowledged the potential political costs of opposing the foreign policy status quo in a state where billion-dollar arms sales are impacting jobs making helicopters, plane parts and other defense systems.

“It’s true that some of the things we’ve sold to Saudi Arabia over the years have components that were built by companies in Connecticut, but if those weapons are used to kill civilians, or if those weapons are used in a way that drives recruitment for al-Qaeda, it’s not worth the economic opportunity that comes with it,” Murphy said.