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U.S.-Saudi Tensions Ease as Concerns About Iran Grow

The Biden administration has dropped threats to retaliate against Saudi Arabia for an oil-production cut last year and is moving to step up security coordination to counter Iran in 2023, U.S. and Saudi officials said, three months after ties hit a historic low point.

Officials pointed to signs of improved U.S.-Saudi cooperation in recent weeks as falling U.S. gasoline prices, better-than-expected midterm election results for Democrats, and heightened concerns about Iran take the edge off a long-simmering spat that spilled into the open in October when the Saudis rebuffed White House requests to delay the production cut. The output decision fueled inflation fears just a month before the midterms, and President Biden vowed to work with Congress to impose unspecified “consequences” on Saudi Arabia.

Now, Biden administration officials say there are no plans to follow through on that threat. Instead, officials from both countries say they pressing ahead with new military and intelligence projects and sensitive efforts to contain Iran amid stalled efforts to revive the international nuclear deal with Tehran. 

In December, the Biden administration and Saudi officials worked to derail a bill in Congress that would have cut off the limited intelligence support the U.S. provides to Riyadh for the war in Yemen

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In November, the Biden administration told a U.S. court that Saudi Crown

Prince Mohammed

bin Salman’s status as a sitting head of government shields him from a civil lawsuit brought by the fiancée of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A federal judge agreed, and the suit was dismissed. Prince Mohammed had sought immunity in the aftermath of Mr. Khashoggi’s 2018 killing, which the U.S. intelligence community concluded that the 37-year-old de facto ruler was likely responsible for, an accusation the Saudi government denies. 

That same month, the two countries shared intelligence with each other that Iran was preparing an imminent attack on Saudi Arabia and developed a coordinated response, The Wall Street Journal reported. The U.S. military sent warplanes and bombers toward Iran in separate shows of force meant to deter Tehran. U.S. and Saudi officials said the cooperation was a key turning point in relations after the October rift.

The Prince Sultan Air Base, a desert outpost south of Riyadh that consists of temporary buildings and tents, has emerged as a focal point for continued U.S.-Saudi military cooperation.



Photo:

Nicole Tung for The Wall Street Journal

U.S. Air Force crew members boarding an aircraft at the Prince Sultan Air Base.



Photo:

Nicole Tung for The Wall Street Journal

“We think the combination of that rapid intelligence sharing and repositioning [of military assets] is what backed the Iranians off,” said

Colin Kahl,

the Pentagon undersecretary of defense for policy.

Officials also pointed to sustained military cooperation that helped carry the political relationship through months of upheaval. For example, Saudi jet fighters escorted long-range U.S. bombers through their national airspace several times last year in exercises carried out with other countries allied with Washington, including Israel.

The U.S. is working closely with Saudi Arabia, Israel and other Middle Eastern nations to develop new coordinated air-defense systems and expanded cooperation at sea to deter Iran.

“It’s imperative to build strong partnerships,” said Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, who commands the U.S. Air Force in the Middle East. “That keeps this key terrain secure and in our camp on the side of the liberal international order that’s been in place since World War II.”

In response to questions about the Saudi relationship, White House press secretary

Karine Jean-Pierre

said the U.S. would “continue to assess relations with Saudi Arabia methodically and strategically, and in line with what’s in our interests.”

At a December news conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said, “We will continue to have a very strong bridge with the U.S. across the board, both in security and political affairs.”

The emerging Saudi-U.S. thaw comes as the Biden administration looks to reshape the U.S. military presence in the Middle East by stitching together a security umbrella stretching from Israel through the Persian Gulf. Concerns about Iran have grown since Russia began using Iranian-made drones to attack Ukraine, with the White House warning that the two American adversaries are developing a full-scale military partnership.

Rep. Sean Casten said the U.S. still needs to ‘reevaluate the relationship’ with Saudi Arabia.



Photo:

Tom Williams/Zuma Press

The Saudi and U.S. officials caution that the relationship remains shaky and could rupture again. Prince Mohammed has charted a more independent foreign policy, and good relations with U.S. rivals like China and Russia are strategically important to Riyadh. At the same time, the Biden administration remains intent on focusing its firepower on Russia and China, and not the Middle East.

The U.S. dependency on its military relationship with Saudi Arabia has limitations. The U.S. once regularly deployed an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf in a display of its military commitment to the region’s security but hasn’t in 15 months, instead sending tankers and jet fighters.

Any emerging rapprochement doesn’t yet extend to Saudi decision-making on oil, which the kingdom’s officials have said they are making for their own national interests in a departure from the decades-old understanding that U.S. security guarantees would ensure a relatively low crude price. 

Saudi Arabia still faces a backlash from lawmakers who want to block future U.S. arms sales. An early 2023 test on Capitol Hill could be the confirmation process for a new U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia after Mr. Biden’s nominee was held up last year.

Rep. Sean Casten (D, Ill.), co-author of an unsuccessful bill introduced after the Saudi oil-output cut that would have removed U.S. troops and air defenses from Saudi Arabia, said the U.S. still needs to “reevaluate the relationship and accelerate our turn to clean, domestically-produced energy.”  

Saudi officials said the production cut was essential for their own economy and rejected any suggestion that they were aiding Russia, which also cut production as part of a 23-nation coalition known as OPEC+. While oil prices rose after the decision, they eventually eased toward the end of the year on global recession fears.

Saudi jet fighters in formation with a U.S. B-52 Stratofortress during a bomber task force over Saudi Arabia last year.



Photo:

Nicole Tung for The Wall Street Journal

A B-52 Stratofortress flew over the coast of Kuwait as well as other Gulf nations the U.S. is partners with.



Photo:

Nicole Tung for The Wall Street Journal

A focal point for continued U.S.-Saudi military cooperation is the Prince Sultan Air Base, a desert outpost south of Riyadh that consists of temporary buildings and tents. The Biden administration officials resisted pulling Patriot missiles from this Saudi base, saying they are essential for protecting U.S. forces who reside there.

Saudi jet fighters flew missions last year escorting long-range U.S. bombers through their national airspace, helping the American military project power across the Middle East. The B-52 escorts were run partially out of the Prince Sultan Air Base weeks before and after the October OPEC+ decision. They are expected to continue this year.

These routine training missions help both sides with “the basic blocking and tackling” of air operations, said Tracy Jones, the air force’s deputy director for security cooperation in the Middle East. “Our readiness to execute that mission has not changed,” he said. “It’s become more complex.”

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at Dion.Nissenbaum@wsj.com, Stephen Kalin at stephen.kalin@wsj.com and Nancy A. Youssef at nancy.youssef@wsj.com

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