A senior Democratic lawmaker has raised alarms about the possibility that sensitive US defense technology could be shared with Russia by Saudi Arabia in the wake of the kingdom’s recent decision to side with Moscow over the interests of the US.
Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Senate armed services committee who has proposed a one-year freeze on weapons sales to Saudi following Opec+’s decision to cut oil production, said he would “dig deeper into the risk” in discussions with the Pentagon.
“I want some reassurances that they are on top of it and if there are risks, I want to determine what can be done to mitigate those risks immediately,” Blumenthal said in an interview with the Guardian.
The comments show the depth of the rift that has emerged between the Saudi monarchy and Democrats in Washington, who have reacted with fury against a recent decision by the Opec oil cartel to begin cutting oil production next month by 2m barrels a day.
The decision was seen in the US capital as a sign of Riyadh siding with Russia in its war with Ukraine, and as a possible attempt to hurt Joe Biden and Democrats ahead of next month’s critical midterm election by raising the price of petrol at the pump.
Both Biden and his Democratic allies in Congress have expressed frustration with the move and called for a realignment in the Saudi relationship, with the US president warning that Saudi would face “consequences” for the move.
On Sunday, the White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said President Biden will act “methodically” in re-evaluating the relationship, but options include changes to security assistance to the major oil producer.
While Republicans on Capitol Hill have been far less vocal about the Opec+ move, Blumenthal said his discussions with colleagues indicated there would be bipartisan support for measures to curb weapons sales, which is an issue likely to be taken up formally next month.
Blumenthal has also suggested that one of his primary areas of concern was making sure that Russia would not benefit from the sensitive technology that has been shared with US partners in Riyadh.
“We are going to be consulting with the Pentagon, speaking to them very frankly about their assessment of the risk in the transfer of technology in advanced weapons systems made already,” he said. “I am not leaping to any conclusions but it needs to be a consideration that is heightened.”
The senator also said he supported proposals to shift weapons that are currently in Saudi Arabia, and those en route, to allies in Ukraine.
Some analysts have noted that the transfer of weapons to Ukraine would be complicated by the fact that they require US personnel to operate the systems, which would represent an untenable escalation. Blumenthal emphasised that he was not suggesting that any US personnel would train Ukraine forces in Ukraine, but that it was possible to do so outside the country.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at Yale School of Management who has studied arms sales to Saudi and is sharing his research with Senate Democrats, said he has found that the last five years have seen an “unparalleled outsourcing” of the most sensitive US weapons to the kingdom.
“We have no allies including Canada, UK, Israel and Australia with such a unique security partnership as the Saudis, providing them with ownership and local manufacturing capability of our most sensitive strategic weapons,” he said, adding that the arrangements began in 2017, under the Trump administration.
“There has been no public discussion of the impact of this alarming weaponry handoff to the Saudis for self-sufficiency with no US control in the near future,” he said.
Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, said Saudi Arabia had been a major purchaser of US military equipment, including some of its most sophisticated weapons systems, for decades.
“It is plausible that the Saudis have information about those weapons that the United States would not want shared with Russia,” he said. “The truth is that the United States supplies weapons to many undemocractic regimes around the globe, with potential sharing of defense information just one of many concerns about how those relationships may harm, rather than help, national and global peace and security.”
It is not clear whether Democrats’ rhetoric will lead to action. Biden entered the White House after having promised to treat Saudi crown prince like a “pariah”, but later traveled to Jeddah and gave the Saudi heir a fist bump.
Asked about Democrats’ intentions, Blumenthal said: “You know the old saying ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’?”
“Feelings have reached a different point. Saudis brought the president to Saudi Arabia to talk about the whole relationship and we need to rebalance the entire diplomatic and military relationship because it has been so one-sided. This action – siding with the Russians in this manner – is so dramatic. I think it calls for a response,” he said.
“The human rights violations inside Saudi Arabia, the fostering of civil war in Yemen, the disrespect for 9/11 families seeking justice, there’s a parade of insults and injuries here [and] now in some ways Saudi Arabia has crossed a line,” he added.
On Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman, said on Twitter that the decision by OPEC+ to cut oil output was made unanimously for “purely” economic reasons.
The statement echoed a position from last week in which the Saudi foreign ministry rejected criticism of its Opec+ decision and insisted the cartel had acted with unanimity and in its own economic interest. It also rejected any assumption that it could be forced into a policy U-turn.
The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment.