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House Democrats call for 'recalibration' in US-Saudi relationship

In some of the harshest criticism to date, lawmakers take aim at Riyadh's refusal to increase oil production, human rights issues, and deepening ties with China
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending the annual Shura council meeting in the capital, Riyadh, on 30 December, 2021 (AFP)

Several US officials urged the Biden administration to "rebalance" Washington's relationship with Saudi Arabia, citing Riyadh's refusal to cooperate with the US over Russia's invasion of Ukraine and a score of human-rights issues.

The leaders of the House foreign affairs and intelligence committees, and more than 20 other Democrats, sent a letter to the White House on Wednesday, criticising the administration's handling of its relationship with long-time strategic ally Riyadh.

"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," read the letter.

"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 continued. 

Washington and Riyadh have clashed over the kingdom's response to the war in Ukraine, and Saudi Arabia has rejected pleas from the Biden administration to pump more oil at a time of rising prices, instead reiterating its commitment to an Opec+ deal with Russia, agreed last year, which caps month-on-month increases in production by 400,000 barrels a day.

The kingdom's top diplomat has also met publicly with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and stressed Riyadh's positive relations with Moscow, at a time when Washington is trying to isolate the Kremlin on the world stage.

Along with other Gulf states, Saudi Arabia has sought to build bridges with many of Washington's foes in recent years amid a perception of US disengagement from the Middle East region. The shift has led to Riyadh and Beijing growing much closer, even as the US looks to pull ahead of China in their great-power rivalry. 

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The kingdom has entered into talks with Beijing to price a portion of oil sales in yuan, in a move which would mark a profound shift for the global oil market. With 80 percent of all oil sales conducted in dollars, the move has the potential to dent the greenback's position as the world's reserve currency.

China is also helping Saudi Arabia with its ballistic missile development and has partnered with it on several nuclear projects, including the construction of a facility for extracting uranium and enhancing its ability to produce nuclear fuel.

"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 lawmakers wrote.

The letter was signed by 30 members of Congress, all Democrats, led by Congressman Gregory Meeks, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Congressman Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee; and Congressman Jim McGovern, chairman of the House Rules Committee.

The call for a "recalibration" in US policy towards Riyadh comes amid strained ties in the bilateral relationship over human rights issues as well.

On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia the "pariah that they are" for the 2018 murder of Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and famously ruled out dealing directly with the country's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS.

Upon taking office he permitted the release of a report by US intelligence agencies which concluded that MBS likely ordered the killing of Khashoggi inside the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul.

In their letter, the lawmakers raise concern about the jailing of women's activists in the kingdom, the war in Yemen, and a recent mass execution of 81 people in a single day in March.

"Our continued support for the Saudi monarchy, which systematically and ruthlessly represses its own citizens, targets critics all over the world, carries out a brutal war in Yemen, and bolsters authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa, runs counter to U.S. national interests and damages the credibility of the United States to uphold our values," the letter said.