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US-Saudi relations sour as oil feud escalates

Tensions over Saudi Arabia’s decision with OPEC+ to cut oil production reached new heights on Thursday when the White House made the unprecedented move to publicly dispute the Kingdom’s defense, marking a shift in long standing relations between the two countries. 

The Saudi foreign ministry said in a lengthy statement that the decision was based on economic considerations and that all members of OPEC+, a group of oil producing nations, unanimously agreed to it. But Biden administration officials, who saw the move as benefiting the Kremlin, sharply pushed back. 

“The bottom line is we don’t want to see any nation helping Russia prosecute this war, whether that’s moral support, military support, or economic support, and the decision that OPEC+ came out with this week was certainly economic support. And I would argue it also fell into the category of moral and military support,” said John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council.

He accused the Saudis of trying to “spin or deflect” and, giving insight into some private conversations, said that the Saudis conveyed to U.S. officials in recent weeks that they wanted to reduce oil production, and they knew it would increase Russian revenues. 

The administration had presented Saudi Arabia with an analysis to argue there was no market basis to cut production targets, Kirby said.

President Biden also had a clear message on Thursday to the Saudis: “We’re about to talk to you.”

“Stay tuned,” he told reporters when asked what he will say to Saudi leaders.

The administration has also brought other countries into the dispute, albeit without naming names. 

Kirby said other OPEC+ nations have communicated to the U.S. privately that they disagree with the Saudi decision “but felt coerced to support” it. He said those OPEC+ members that expressed their concerns to the U.S. can speak for themselves but that “there was more than one OPEC member” that did.

Experts said the outward criticism of the Saudis by a U.S. presidential administration was unprecedented.

“The fact that they went public with it, it’s quite a statement in and by itself,” said Hafed Al Ghwell, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “I think this public roil is quite significant. And it’s really going to affect the relationship in general.”

Biden earlier this week, in an interview with CNN, agreed that it was time for the U.S. to rethink its relationship with Saudi Arabia in the wake of the decision by OPEC+.

Kirby added on Thursday that rethinking the relationship also includes thinking about their leadership of OPEC+, saying that the Saudis “twisted arms” to get the decision they wanted.

The OPEC+ announcement earlier this month that it will cut oil production by 2 million barrels per day led to immediate fury among White House and Democratic lawmakers. The decision was seen by many as Saudi Arabia siding with Moscow over the Biden administration. 

The kingdom, though, voted at the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday to condemn Moscow’s attempts to annex regions of Ukraine. Kirby conveyed that the vote hasn’t changed minds at the White House.

“We saw this as a short-sighted measure, and the other aspect of it is, regardless of the vote yesterday, the country that benefits the most from this 2 million barrel cut is Russia,” Kirby said. “Because it does come down to supply and demand and Russia obviously wants to keep the supply down so the demand drives the price up.”

He added that “the one who benefits here is clearly Vladimir Putin … and that just allows him to continue to profiteer off this.”

Eric Ueland, the under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy and human rights under former President Trump, warned that average Americans could see consequences from the Biden administration’s public feud with the Kingdom.

“Trashing the relationship without an alternative for turning domestic energy production back on and outlining a path forward with our friends and allies in the region is a striking lack of statecraft,” he said. “Frustration is high, and the Biden administration must lay out a well-reasoned plan which should command significant cross-party support so that Americans aren’t hurt like they were during the two oil embargoes of the 1970s.” 

Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry also said in its statement that U.S. criticism of the OPEC+ decision was “politically motivated” and suggested that the U.S. had asked the Kingdom to wait to cut production until after the midterm elections.

The Biden administration has been under pressure for months to lower gas prices, while Republicans have blamed the president for the country’s inflation woes. The GOP have made the economy and rising prices a central part of their midterm campaign pitch. 

The president has also been under pressure to defend his visit to Jeddah in July, telling CNN earlier this week that the meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wasn’t about oil. 

The trip was a source of controversy, given Biden’s remarks on the campaign trail to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” during the 2020 presidential election following the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden’s visit to the Kingdom also came at a time when gas prices in the U.S. had reached record levels.

The process of reevaluating the U.S.-Saudi relationship has already started, officials said. While they wouldn’t give specifics or put a timeline on it, they have said that future arm sales are going to be on the table.

“There will be consequences. We believe the decision that OPEC+ made last week was a mistake and it was short sighted,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Wednesday. “From the beginning, the president has talked about recalibrating, readjusting our relationship with Saudi Arabia. And now we’re going to get into a process where we’ll review that, and we’ll have more to share on that.”

Jean-Pierre also said Biden will work with members of Congress throughout the process and include the House and Senate on discussions.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) has called for freezing U.S. cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) introduced legislation on Tuesday that would suspend all U.S. arms sales to the Kingdom for one year.

Leaning into being outwardly critical of the Saudis could be a way for the Biden administration to set a precedent with other countries, Al-Ghwell argued.

He said the U.S. could “use Saudi Arabia as a punching bag and say, ‘look at us willing to take some serious negative steps towards a very long-standing ally when they stepped out of line and did not march with us, especially in this environment of the Ukraine.’”

“They may want to use it as an example to teach other allies not to do the same,” he added.

Source: The Hill

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