Is Saudi Arabia meddling in US midterms?
The US administration is inflamed by the Saudis' refusal to increase oil production, deeming the move as an attempt to interfere in the 2022 US midterm election.
Days prior to the Nov. 8 US midterms, Saudi Arabia and the US seem to be in a debacle just three months since US President Joe Biden gave Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman the fist bump that echoed around the globe.
However, ties between the United States and one of the world's largest oil producers have worsened significantly since then, prompted by OPEC's decision to cut oil output.
Going back to the historical relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia might help in understanding how events in the past shaped the current reality.
In 1945, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt met Saudi King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud in the Suez Canal aboard the USS Quincy, an American cruiser. And they set the basis of a long relationship: “America’s security guarantees for the Kingdom in return for access to affordable energy supplies”.
Since then, Saudi Arabia played the role of oil compensator. Since the mid-1960s, Saudi Arabia has played an important role in keeping costs down. Riyadh turned on the tap in 1980 and 1981 to compensate for lost supplies in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war, to force fellow OPEC members to toe the line on pricing in 1986, and again after the Iraq-Kuwait war to compensate for embargoed Iraqi and Kuwaiti crude.
To compensate for the disruption in Libyan supply, Saudi Arabia upped its oil production to more than 9 million barrels per day in 2011 during the NATO-led occupation of the country.
In 2019, the US aimed to reduce Iran's oil exports to near zero. At the time, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, who served under former US President Donald Trump, said: “We will no longer grant any exemptions. We’re going to zero—going to zero across the board.”
Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia vowed to compensate for the loss of Iran's oil in the global market.
In 2020, the United States pressured Saudi Arabia to end its oil price war with Russia.
At the present time, the current US administration is seemingly inflamed by OPEC's decision to cut oil production, deeming the Saudi move as an attempt to interfere in the 2022 US midterm elections.
On its account, Saudi Arabia claimed that its decision was motivated by worries regarding the world economy. US politicians have reacted strongly to a move that is probably going to keep petrol prices high. Regular gasoline now costs $3.76 a gallon on average in the United States, which is still too expensive for most people to afford. In June, the price reached a record high of $5 per gallon. Standard Brent crude was trading at $95 a barrel last month.
Is Saudi Arabia meddling in US midterms?
But coming at the height of a US election season marked by popular outrage over high petrol prices, the Saudi refusal to increase oil production appeared to many Democrats to be a partisan action that aims to turn rage into a tactic. The US had requested a one-month delay, but it was rebuffed.
Democrats' suspicions will likely be heightened by Jared Kushner's front-row seat at the Davos in Desert investor meeting in Riyadh, as will the Kingdom's recent pledge to enhance energy ties with Beijing. Notably, no representatives from the United States were invited to the Riyadh meeting.
US President Joe Biden threatened Saudi Arabia with "consequences" after cutting oil output.
Biden would not specify what exactly was being re-evaluated, although the White House had previously stated that Biden was reassessing connections between allies.
“I think the President's been very clear that this is a relationship that we need to continue to re-evaluate, that we need to be willing to revisit," National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby stated.
"Certainly in light of the OPEC decision, I think that's where he is”, he stressed.
Kirby added that Biden was "willing to work with Congress to think through what that relationship [with Saudi Arabia] ought to look like going forward," although he clarified that no formal discussions had yet begun.
Many analysts believe that the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States is not a typical relationship between two countries.
Head-to-head with Biden
Since Biden visited Saudi Arabia in July and met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite threatening to make the Kingdom an international pariah following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the OPEC move was generally viewed as a diplomatic "slap in the face".
At the time, US Senator Bob Menendez said that "the United States must immediately freeze all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia, including any arms sales and security cooperation beyond what is absolutely necessary to defend US personnel and interests."
He stressed, "As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I will not greenlight any cooperation with Riyadh until the kingdom reassesses its position with respect to the war in Ukraine."
"For years we have looked the other way as Saudi Arabia has chopped up journalists, has engaged in massive political repression, for one reason: we wanted to know that when the chips were down, when there was a global crisis, that the Saudis would choose us instead of Russia," he said.
"Well, they didn't. They chose Russia."
Is MBS using the oil card against democrats?
Analysts also argue that Saudi Arabia has currently gained more leverage following western sanctions on Russia as a major oil supplier.
On this issue, Journalist and political analyst Hafsa Kara-Mustapha told Al Mayadeen English that “with the ongoing crisis in Eastern Europe impacting energy supplies and prices, all major producers are aware of having the upper hand in negotiations and are using that to their advantage. Saudi Arabia, with its reserves, is exercising pressure on the international stage, in particular, as in recent years its image was badly affected by the ongoing war in Yemen, the botched assassination of Khashoggi, and of course its indirect defeat in Syria, where Assad’s position is now stronger than ever.”
“As a result, Saudis are milking this opportunity and ensuring that they regain ground on the diplomatic stage through their energy policy,” Kara-Mustapha added.
“Furthermore, we know that Saudis enjoyed very good relations with Trump, despite his infamous Muslim ban, and have historically been closer to Republicans who are less critical of their conservative domestic policies. Impacting US' upcoming elections through their energy policy that affects US consumers would not only bring back some balance in favor of Saudi Arabia in the US Congress but also show that it has the ability to play a role even in America’s domestic agenda,” she stressed.
See more: US midterm elections: Dark way for Biden?
Regarding the direct role of Saudi Arabia in the outcome of the US midterms, Kara-Mustapha believes that no one will come out and claim some responsibility for the outcome but this will put Saudi Arabia back on the international stage as a major mover and shaker.
“If Saudi Arabia increases its supplies after a Republican victory, it will confirm their preference for Republicans and their role in helping them win,” she asserted.
On his account, attorney, author, political commentator, and former diplomat Michael Springmann told Al Mayadeen English that the uproar about strained relations between the US and Saudi Arabia is a tempest in a teapot.
“The Kingdom has a great deal of oil but its price in world markets is insufficient for the country’s needs, both to build Mohammed bin Salman’s city in the desert as well as wean its economy away from dependence on Petroleum. And Saudi Arabia is only one part of OPEC+,” he added.
“What’s got everyone’s attention is the American midterm elections next week. The Democrats greatly fear losing and are desperate to cut gasoline prices. Americans vote their pocketbooks and believe they have a divine right to cheap fuel for their cars”, he stressed.
Springmann argues that this uproar should blow over once the elections are passed.
“I do not see any material change. The Democrats are talking about cutting military aid to the Kingdom but that’s election talk. Whether we’re dealing with Democrats or Republicans, good relations with the Saudis mean sales of weapons—and money in the coffers of US arms makers,” he said.
Springmann highlighted that “no administration will jeopardize jobs, political contributions or votes to make a point with Progressives. Look at the Democrats who wrote a letter seeking action against the Saudis and then retracted it. Some Republicans are complaining about the Saudis but I think more are concerned with Biden’s war against Russia.”
“Certainly Saudi Arabia can use the possibility of an oil price rise to extract concessions from whatever administration is in power. However, I do not see the Republicans benefiting. The Democrats have made sufficient mistakes so that cutting oil production (or threatening to cut it) won’t make a material difference at the polls”.
“Both parties throughout much of the last century and this one support extremist, repressive, repulsive governments in the region and elsewhere in the world,” he affirmed.
In short, the political debacle between Saudi Arabia and the US is a formal disagreement and not an animosity. However, the ups and downs in the ties reveal an unstable, toxic relationship. The outcomes of the US midterms elections won’t cause shockwaves whether Democrats or Republicans win -- Riyadh and Washington will be honeymooners yet again.