Saudi Arabia is testing US relations with Opec+ production cuts

As US politicians lined up to berate Saudi Arabia after the Opec+ alliance cut its oil production targets, the kingdom brought in one of its most experienced diplomats to deliver a message through American TV channels: This isn’t about you.

“The idea that Saudi Arabia would do this to harm the US or engage in any sort of political engagement is absolutely not correct,” Adel al-Jubeir, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and former Ambassador to the US, told Fox news this weekend.

The message from Riyadh was that it had acted based on market conditions and in its own interest as it attempted to sustain oil prices to fund massive government spending plans.

But his words fell on deaf ears as Democrats lashed out at the kingdom, a traditional US ally, for ignoring Washington’s pleas not to cut production.

On Tuesday, a senior White House aide said President Joe Biden was reassessing America’s relationship with Riyadh in “light of the Opec decision.” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby also told CNN that Biden is ready to work with Congress on punitive measures against Saudi Arabia and that those talks would begin immediately.

The production cuts show how the kingdom under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is increasingly willing to pursue its own agenda, even at the risk of angering its partners. But it was also a massive gamble, as the decision by Opec+, which includes Russia, to cut production targets by 2 million barrels a day further poisoned Saudi Arabia’s image in the US.

“They tried to suggest very bluntly that the relationship between Washington and Riyadh is no longer vertical and that mutual interests must be considered for both sides,” said Sanam Vakil, a golf expert at Chatham House. “Through that kind of assertive behavior, they’re saying that if they want us on their side, our relationship needs nurturing.”

But in Washington, ahead of the midterms and at a time of high global energy inflation, the move was seen as a snub to Biden. The deal also underscored US concerns over a traditional ally’s relationship with Moscow as Vladimir Putin intensified his war against Ukraine.

On Monday, Bob Menendez, Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on the administration to “immediately freeze all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia, including all arms sales and security cooperation.”

“I will not give the green light to any cooperation with Riyadh until the kingdom reassesses its position on the war in Ukraine,” he said. “Enough is enough.”

The decision also unsettled a Saudi ally closer to home. Riyadh insisted all 23 Opec+ members backed the cut, but the United Arab Emirates, its closest Arab partner, and Iraq had raised concerns about the production cuts, according to several people briefed on the discussions.

When the UAE’s concerns failed to materialize, they suggested a delay, but to no avail, people said. The UAE Energy Minister and his Iraqi counterpart later agreed to support the cut and defended it after the meeting.

Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE has tried to adopt a neutral stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Both Gulf states are dependent on US weapons and weapons systems and are pushing for greater security commitments from Washington.

But the conflicting narratives reveal tensions in a decades-old relationship between Riyadh and Washington. It has historically focused on the personal relationships between the president and the king, but today it is marred by distrust, tension and misunderstanding, analysts say.

Prince Mohammed, the country’s day-to-day ruler, was on good terms with former President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, both of whom stood by him after Saudi agents assassinated Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

But the crown prince has virtually no relationship with Biden, who ran for office and vowed to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” over the murder of Khashoggi, which Riyadh has blamed on a rogue operation, and other rights abuses. His government also froze sales of “offensive arms” to Riyadh over its military intervention in Yemen, fueling Saudi perceptions that the US was no longer the predictable partner it expected.

“The personal touch isn’t there and they don’t have enough understanding on either side of each other’s needs, political climate and culture,” Vakil said.

After a meeting between Prince Mohammed and Biden in July, US officials had been optimistic that the kingdom was ready to increase oil production.

However, Saudi officials said Riyadh made no such promise. In August – when the US State Department approved a $3 billion missile sale for the kingdom’s Patriot air defense systems – Opec+ increased its production target by just 100,000 b/d, one of the smallest increases in its history. In September, the cartel began announcing cuts.

“Saudi Arabia has promised to do its best to prevent the price of oil from hitting $200 and it has done so by ramping up production over the summer,” said Ali Shihabi, a nearby Saudi commentator of the royal court. “The kingdom has never committed to letting the price of oil collapse.”

Ahead of the Opec+ meeting, US officials had suggested postponing the cuts at least until after the congressional elections, Shihabi said, a proposal Saudi Arabia rejected.

A US official said it was “categorically wrong” for the government to seek a delay related to the midterms, adding that Washington’s concern is the impact on the global economy.

Saudi officials and commentators see criticism of production cuts as a symptom of US domestic politics. Prior to Biden’s comments, a Saudi official described the US relationship as “strategic” and said he hoped Washington and Riyadh would “overcome these challenges.”

But Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Riyadh could expect increasing hostility from Congress.

“Whether it was so or not, there was a tangible scent of vengeance for the comments Biden made during the campaign and allegedly for the lectures he gave during his visit to the kingdom,” he said. “The President’s attitude is most likely, ‘I’m not going to turn this into a pissing game, but I’m also not going to protect them from their opponents in Congress.'”

Alterman continued, “This could get messy very quickly for the Saudis since they don’t have many friends in Congress.” Saudi Arabia is testing US relations with Opec+ production cuts

Adam Bradshaw

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