Congress May Have To Act To Punish Saudi ArabiaRoundup
tags: Saudi Arabia, international relations, oil, Petroleum, Middle East history
David M. Wight is a visiting assistant professor of history at UNC Greensboro and author of the forthcoming book Oil Money: Middle East Petrodollars and the Transformation of US Empire, 1967-1988 (Cornell University Press, 2021).
While President Biden enjoyed widespread praise for releasing an intelligence report concluding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he also received criticism for not sanctioning Mohammed. On March 1, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) introduced a bill denying the prince entry into the United States and conditioning any future U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia upon the White House certifying that the kingdom was no longer intimidating its critics in the United States.
That fits with a recent trend: Both Biden and members of Congress have vocally supported curbing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, in part because of the killing of Khashoggi. Their willingness to follow through, however, will face the same challenges that confronted, and ultimately torpedoed, President Jimmy Carter’s resolve to reduce arms sales to the Saudis. In fact, several key developments in U.S.-Saudi relations transformed Carter and members of Congress from advocates of arms-sales restrictions to promoters of expanding sales.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, the United States, Saudi Arabia’s primary arms provider, limited the size and scope of the weapons it sold to the Saudis so as to conserve its limited budget and restrain potential arms races in the Middle East.
During the 1970s, however, oil prices skyrocketed, and Saudi Arabia, at that point the largest oil exporter in the world, enjoyed a windfall. Suddenly, the kingdom had unparalleled influence over the global oil market and enormous revenue with which to buy imports, including weapons. Conversely, the United States experienced rapidly rising energy import costs and fuel shortages. These problems compounded when Saudi Arabia led an Arab oil embargo against the United States in retaliation for its massive arms resupply to Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
The administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford worked strenuously to repair Washington’s tattered alliance with the Saudi monarchy and obtain its help in restraining oil prices, in large part by offering the sale of advanced U.S. weapons. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger offered Saudi King Faisal the U.S. government’s “cooperation in the military field … to strengthen our friendship on a long-term basis.” Faisal and his successors responded positively, ending the Arab oil embargo in 1974 and subduing demands within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries for even higher oil prices. In exchange, U.S. arms and military construction sales to Saudi Arabia soared from $300 million in 1972 to $7.1 billion in 1976.
Yet this provoked increasing opposition within the United States, including in Congress. An array of factors drove this opposition, including a desire to protect Israel’s military superiority, to curb costly arms races, to reduce the potential for war and to prevent powerful weapons technology from falling into hostile hands through theft or a coup. Accordingly, in 1974, Congress passed a law empowering itself to veto major arms sales approved by the president. In 1976, a bipartisan coalition used that new tool to compel Ford to reduce missile sales to Saudi Arabia.
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