Eyeing Payback for Midterm Oil Cut, Biden Faces Saudis Going Their Own Way

As Saudi Arabia prepares to face a new pressure campaign from President Joe Biden's administration over Riyadh's recent decision alongside other leading oil exporters to slash production by nearly two million barrels per day, leading Saudi experts have offered Newsweek an insight into the Kingdom's calculus.

They conclude that Washington's attempts to postpone the cut agreed upon earlier this month by the expanded group of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC+) was rooted in domestic political considerations related to the price of energy ahead of the U.S. midterm elections.

And while these analysts argue that the U.S.-Saudi relationship would likely withstand the current deterioration, which began nearly as soon as Biden took office early last year, they also asserted that Riyadh was prepared to continue pursuing its own policy path independent of Washington, no matter the "consequences" that the White House has vowed to unveil.

Mohammed al-Sabban, who served as the former senior adviser to the Saudi minister of energy, told Newsweek he was "surprised" at the tough language being levied by the Biden administration, and said the response from the Saudi Foreign Ministry was clear.

"We are a sovereign country and we do not take orders from anyone," Sabban said of the Kingdom's reaction.

Sabban argued that Riyadh's decision came despite "Washington's repeated demands" both during Biden's visit to the Kingdom in July and before and after the fateful OPEC+ meeting held October 5 in the Austrian capital of Vienna. And given the timeline of these demands, he suspects the presence of an ulterior motive.

"What's strange is that the Biden administration asked OPEC+ to postpone its decision to lower oil production by one month, and it is clear why they asked the organization to do so, and why they chose this specific timing," Sabban said. "We don't intervene in the United States' internal affairs, but it seems clear that the request to postpone OPEC's move was due to the upcoming midterm elections in November."

"However," he added, "the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other OPEC nations did not take this request into consideration."

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U.S. President Joe Biden (behind) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (front) arrive for the family photo during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit (GCC+3) at a hotel in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on July 16. While White House officials have denied this narrative, Biden's trip to meet the Saudi leader he had long dismissed as a "pariah" was widely seen as linked to U.S. efforts to reduce rising gas prices, spurred in party by sanctions targeting Russia over its ongoing war in Ukraine. MANDEL NGAN/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Along with other OPEC+ nations, Saudi officials have contended that the group's decision to cut production was apolitical and taken in line with projected global energy demands. They draw parallels to the COVID-19 crisis, when the organization agreed to reduce output by nearly 10 million barrels per day in April 2020 as the pandemic began its spread around the globe.

Sabban reiterated this logic, noting how "the production gradually rose when the effects of the pandemic began to decrease."

Nevertheless, the blowback in Washington has been severe. Biden has been scrambling to keep fuel prices down, having taken measures over the summer including the release of millions of barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and putting extra pressure on companies not to hike costs. But the OPEC+ move served as an additional challenge at a politically sensitive time for the administration.

The reaction has been especially pronounced within the Democratic Party, where a number of influential members of Congress have gone so far as to call for a halt in longstanding security assistance to Riyadh. White House National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby has confirmed that the administration was looking to "reevaluate" the decades-long relationship with Saudi Arabia, forged during World War II.

Sabban took exception to the suggestion that a halt to arms sales would only effect Saudi Arabia, arguing that U.S. lawmakers spoke "as if they're giving us weapons for free," arguing that "the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia pays the price for every weapons deal." He also pointed out that there were other potential sellers available, including those in direct competition with Washington.

"If we don't receive our weapons from the U.S., then Saudi Arabia can receive them from other countries either located in East Asia or Russia or others," Sabban said. "And that is the advantage of achieving balanced economic, military and political relations with different nations in the world."

Sabban said that for decades prior to the OPEC+ decision, "the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been developing relations with China and Southeast Asian countries and Russia and others." He asserted that "this diversity is important, and its balance is important so that it ensures the stability of the Saudi economy."

Saudi international conflict analyst Saad Abdullah al-Hamid also downplayed the threat of the U.S. reducing military aid to Saudi Arabia.

"Saudi Arabia hasn't seen any proper military assistance provided from the United States over the past two years anyway," Hamid told Newsweek, "and that really didn't affect KSA's military capabilities much."

He argued such a measure would be ill-advised, as the OPEC+ decision was not taken by Riyadh alone but by a conglomerate of nations whose aims weren't targeted at any third party, including Washington. But he also noted that Saudi Arabia was not looking to instigate tensions with Russia, even if the U.S. was looking to do so with other nations.

"KSA has always cared about securing the stability of global oil prices and prioritized doing so over the past years," Hamid said. "We hold no hostility towards the United States because it is a strategic ally."

"But at the same time, Saudi Arabia doesn't want to be hostile to Russia because it is also an ally," he added. "KSA doesn't want to be part of the current dispute between the U.S., the West, and Russia."

And, regardless of the tense geopolitical climate, Hamid said that "Saudi Arabia will always achieve stable relations with both Russia and the United States."

Hamid also felt that U.S.-Saudi ties would ultimately persevere, noting prior rough spots such as in the wake of 9/11, in which 15 out of 19 hijackers that day were Saudi citizens, and the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi officials at Riyadh's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Hamid added that "Democrats have long been against us in many situations," including during the era of President Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president.

As for the anticipated U.S. reaction, Hamid said that "we are aware that some Democrats and Republicans want to introduce laws that would hold OPEC accountable." He stated that Democrats, in particular, "at the moment care about what is affecting average citizens and they care about their popularity as a party among voters ahead of the midterm elections, and so their statements about holding OPEC accountable or suggesting to cut off military assistance to Saudi Arabia really stem from this aspect."

He sees the pressure from the administration as a sign of insecurity.

"The request by the U.S. for OPEC to postpone its decision until after the midterms clearly indicates that the Biden administration has many issues," Hamid said.

Saudi political scientist Hesham al-Ghannam also cast suspicion on the timing of the U.S. pressure campaign, telling Newsweek it "raises a serious question about the relationship of this demand with the midterm elections scheduled for next month."

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High gas prices per gallon are displayed as a vehicle pulls into a Chevron gas station in Los Angeles, California on October 5. Gas prices have again begun to increase at a critical time for President Joe Biden, as polls show fuel costs to be among the top concerns of voters this midterm season. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. officials have declined to confirm on record the specific timing and nature of their communications to Saudi counterparts in an effort to stop OPEC+ from reducing oil output. State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters Monday that the move would "not only would impact supply, but it would also increase Russian revenues and blunt the effectiveness of sanctions that this country and our allies and partners have been placing on Russia."

Patel said U.S. officials put forth the case that the cut "would be the wrong decision to make," and "presented that there was no market basis to cut production targets, and that they could easily wait and see how the energy market developed over the coming months before taking this step."

Speaking on the fallout for U.S.-Saudi relations, Patel said that the reevaluation "is not something new," as Biden "has talked about re-evaluating the relationship with Saudi Arabia since the early days of this administration, talked about it as a candidate."

Ghannam concurred with that official assessment. He pointed out that the president's overall approach to Saudi Arabia, especially on human rights issues such as Khashoggi's killing and concerns over civilian casualties in the ongoing war in Yemen, has been apparent since Biden entered the White House.

But he emphasized the domestic political angle, related to the "unique relationship" enjoyed by Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, and Crown Prince Mohammed, who Biden had branded a "pariah" during a presidential debate with Trump in 2019.

Ghannam said the personal element of those ties now "seems to make the deep state and some U.S. institutions feel that this relationship" had "transcended the interests of states to individual interests."

Therefore, Ghannam argued, U.S. officials believe the answer is "to consider restoring the U.S.-Saudi relationship in its traditional form."

"Regardless of whether this interpretation is correct," he added, "the United States, since its withdrawal from Iraq and then the nuclear agreement with Iran, has given Riyadh an opportunity to rethink the position of the American administration in general, especially the Democratic Party in particular."

Ghannam also identified continuity in Biden's approach to his foreign policy, one Ghannam saw as marked by "a re-consideration and positioning of American power in the region by putting pressure on the allies and trying to lure them into getting closer to the United States and keeping them away from competing global powers such as China and Russia."

This position was reinforced last week by the White House's new National Security Strategy, which singled out China and Russia as the greatest challengers to the U.S. Biden's views were also made evident when, following his talks with Saudi leaders in July, he declared that he was "not going to leave a vacuum in the Middle East for Russia or China to fill."

Some observers took this — along with Biden's now-infamous fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — to mark a possible turning point in the administration's relationship with Saudi Arabia, as the U.S. sought to engage with regional partners as part of a broader geopolitical competition in which Washington was mired with Beijing and Moscow.

But as those aspirations fade amid an even deeper crisis in U.S.-Saudi ties, Ghannam said that "Saudi Arabia does not always act as a state subservient to the White House in most of the shared interests that exist between them."

"In the past years, Riyadh has developed a perception that the American reaction to the strategic, security and military issues related to the Kingdom indicates a lack of appreciation, respect and consideration for what Riyadh sees as one of its priorities," he added.

Specifically, Ghannam referred to Biden's early decision to reverse the Trump administration's last-minute designation of Yemen's Iran-aligned Ansar Allah rebel movement, also known as the Houthis, as a terrorist organization. He also noted what he perceived as Riyadh's view that the U.S. response to strikes against the Kingdom attributed to low-cost Iranian guided missiles and drones was insufficient.

And while Ghannam said that "Riyadh realized that its standing with American interests harmed its reputation and position in the region," he also argued that the Kingdom was not looking to accept "dictates" from any power, including China and Russia, even if the former marked a leading buyer of oil and overall investor in the region.

"Washington and Riyadh share strategic, military, political, and economic relations for decades, and it is unlikely that this relationship will disintegrate in the future, whether on the political, economic, or cultural levels," Ghannam said. "Many of the reforms undertaken by Riyadh stem from the American experience."

"But the region is going through various changes," he added, "and the United States must realize that this change represents a turning point on all levels."