Over a barrel, Biden faces tough options with the Saudis

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden has promised consequences for Saudi Arabia over its explosive cut in oil production, but like past U.S. presidents exasperated by the kingdom, he may find limitations when weighing options.

Biden endured criticism at home by traveling to Saudi Arabia in June and fist bumping its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite previously vowing to make him a pariah on human rights.

But Saudi Arabia dismissed the undisclosed reason for Biden’s visit as the OPEC+ oil cartel led by the kingdom announced a production cut of two million barrels a day – boosting much-needed revenue for Russia as it attacks Ukraine and raises prices on US consumer weeks. before the congressional elections.

The Biden administration has expressed openness to retaliatory measures in Congress from outraged fellow Democrats.

Senator Chris Murphy, a longtime critic of Saudi Arabia over its devastating war in Yemen, said the United States should suspend sales to the kingdom of medium-range air-to-air missiles and send them to Ukraine, as well as redeploy Patriot missile shields to Ukraine or NATO Allies.

“These two steps would fix the size of our relationship with Saudi Arabia AND help Ukraine,” he said on Twitter.

Saudi Arabia’s backers warn that the US could drive it into the arms of Russia or China, but many experts doubt the kingdom can easily do so after eight decades of partnership with the US.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN on Sunday that Biden would “act methodically, strategically” in reassessing US-Saudi relations, adding that the US leader had “no plans” to meet the crown prince at a G20 summit in November in Indonesia. .

President Joe Biden arrives at King Abdulaziz International Airport on Friday, July 15, 2022, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Russell Lucas, a Middle East expert at Michigan State University, said the Biden administration could at least curb arms sales, particularly resupply of Saudi hardware.

“These cannot be quickly replaced by another arms supplier,” he said.

Oil bonds

But previous attempts to distance the US from Saudi Arabia – including after mainly Saudi citizens carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks – have hit a major roadblock: oil.

Despite growing efforts against climate change, the United States is decades away from being insulated from high oil prices.

American officials are happy to note that the United States has surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer. But American manufacturing decisions are largely made by private firms; and oil extracted from shale, the heart of the US energy boom, is harder to scale up and down.

“This notion that simply increasing American capacity would protect us from these decisions by oil producers abroad is patently false,” said Annelle Sheline, a researcher at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which supports a firmer approach to the Saudis.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman looks at his notes while meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden at Al Salman Royal Palace, Friday, July 15, 2022, in Jeddah. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“We will always remain dependent on these other countries as long as we remain dependent on oil,” she said.

But she added that Saudi Arabia was hurting its own cause by no longer serving as America’s “predictable” source of oil.

‘Drama’ from the prince

Saudi Arabia has insisted the OPEC+ decision was purely economic, saying US arms sales serve the interests of both countries.

The kingdom voted with the United States at the United Nations on Wednesday to condemn Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory.

But Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the oil spike was a clear act of election intervention by the crown prince, known by his initials MBS, on behalf of Donald Trump’s Republican Party.

In this photo released by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets President Joe Biden with a fist bump after his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 15, 2022. (Saudi Press Agency). via AP)

The former president was a staunch supporter of the Saudis and boasted of rescuing MBS after US intelligence found he approved the killing and dismemberment of a US-based journalist who criticized him, Jamal Khashoggi.

“One thing we know from MBS’s behavior pattern is that he loves drama — and the more dramatic, the better,” Riedel said of the oil decision, adding that the prince took a page from Trump.

Riedel said that if the Saudis wanted to improve relations, they could ease pressure on Yemen or make moves on human rights.

But a US option to reduce Saudi leverage – ending oil sanctions against its regional rival Iran – looks increasingly unlikely.

Months of talks to restore a 2015 nuclear deal have stalled, and the Biden administration is expected to be careful not to take action seen to benefit the clerical leadership as it cracks down on mass protests sparked by the death of a young woman, who was arrested by the morality police. .

Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the US should accept a “realistic approach” to Saudi Arabia that recognizes the relationship is transactional.

“The United States still needs the Saudis, no matter how despicable,” he said.

“In the meantime, the United States must get serious about an energy policy. If we had one for the last 40 years or so, we wouldn’t be in this position.”

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