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White House signals willingness to 'reassess' US-Saudi relations

The Biden administration is rapidly shifting its rhetoric about relations with Saudi Arabia, indicating a willingness to “reassess” what is considered a strategic partnership with the Gulf nation in the wake of a decision by OPEC+, a group of oil producing nations, to cut supply.

Multiple White House officials said Tuesday the president is willing to reevaluate the U.S.-Saudi relationship, a potential repositioning that aligns with growing congressional calls to cut some ties with the kingdom. Officials have not outlined any specific changes that are on the table, nor did they put a timeline on when President Biden might come to a decision about how to execute such a change in policy.

“The president believes it’s time to look at that relationship and make sure it’s serving our interests,” John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, told reporters on Tuesday.

Kirby said that Biden has “talked about the need to not be afraid to think anew about this bilateral relationship.” 

“Certainly, in light of recent developments and OPEC+’s decisions about oil production, the president believes that we should review the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia and take a look to see if that relationship is where it needs to be and that it is serving our national security interests.”

Kirby did not elaborate, saying that he’s not in a position to preview what a reevaluation could look like. He also said that the president is willing to discuss the decision with members of Congress, but such discussions have not yet occurred.

Asked why the administration has zeroed in on Saudi Arabia when it is just one member of the larger OPEC+ coalition who opted in favor of cutting crucial oil supply, Kirby said the Kingdom “clearly… is the leader of that cartel.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the administration would consult with members of Congress and international allies in the coming weeks and months, though she would not put a definitive timeline of any review of the relationship. She also wouldn’t say who will be leading the review, but said it will be an effort across the White House. 

“From the beginning, we have said we need to kind of reassess and have a different relationship with Saudi Arabia, especially after the decision made by OPEC+,” Jean-Pierre said, adding that the OPEC+ decision was “self-serving.”

Biden has not personally commented on whether he supports fundamentally altering or cutting ties with Saudi Arabia, but the president will be interviewed Tuesday by CNN’s Jake Tapper and could be asked about the situation then.

Much of the fallout stems from an announcement by OPEC+ to cut oil production by 2 million barrels per day at a time when rising gas prices are a top concern for many voters leading into the midterms. Administration officials also viewed the decision as strengthening Russia’s hand as the U.S. and allies are trying to isolate Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine.

Last week, top White House economic official Brian Deese told reporters he did not have anything to announce about a potential shift in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, underscoring how the administration’s rhetoric has changed in a short time. 

The OPEC+ announcement last week has reignited calls from congressional Democrats for the U.S. to rethink its relationship with Saudi Arabia, specifically when it comes to weapons and defense technology sales.

And, members of Congress are pushing to pass the “NOPEC” bill, which would allow the Justice Department to bring lawsuits against the OPEC+ countries and their state-owned oil companies under U.S. antitrust laws.   

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chair of the Senate Foreign relations Committee, called Monday for freezing U.S. cooperation with Saudi Arabia. 

Kirby said he was not aware of any kind of heads up from Menendez to the White House about his move, but said Biden will talk to lawmakers about next steps towards the Saudis.

“He’s gonna take seriously the words of taking a look at this relationship as well as taking seriously the concerns by members of Congress,” Kirby said.

Biden traveled in July to Saudi Arabia, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The trip was a source of controversy given Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia a pariah during the 2020 presidential election following the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and it came at a time when gas prices in the U.S. had surged.

Biden defended the trip after the OPEC+ announcement, saying the visit was “not essentially for oil. The trip was about the Middle East and about Israel and rationalization of positions.”

“But it is a disappointment, and it says that there are problems,” Biden said last week.

Source: The Hill

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