US cannot punish KSA; gas prices back home 'absolutely a factor': CNN
US President Joe Biden failed to re-evaluate the United States’s policy toward Saudi Arabia many times, and the fact that nothing was done speaks volumes.
Several months after US President Joe Biden pledged Saudi Arabia would face "consequences" if the Saudi-led OPEC+ oil cartel unexpectedly announced it would cut production, the Biden administration has no plans to punish, let alone significantly reorient its posture toward, the oil-rich Middle Eastern Kingdom, as per multiple sources on Capitol Hill and in the administration, CNN reported.
Despite repeated assertions by the White House over the past few months that legislative involvement would be critical to such an evaluation, legislators have yet to hear from administration officials about beginning a coordinated review of the US-Saudi relationship.
Officials are “sidestepping the reassessment” because there is a growing recognition that getting the two countries' relationship back on track is important to the US, one administration official said as quoted by CNN.
Some politicians on Capitol Hill are concerned that the Saudi leadership, especially de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS), is set to walk away from the OPEC+ episode last autumn without paying a price.
It has also irritated Saudi government critics, who claim that the Biden administration is now willing to postpone its promised review of the US-Saudi alliance for domestic political reasons, notably the fact that gas prices have significantly leveled out since the collapse.
The apparent U-turn by Biden highlights the reality that, despite major strains in the US-Saudi relationship that occasionally burst into public view, as they did last fall, maintaining friendly relations with the Kingdom remains heavily in the US security interests.
One senior Democratic aide said, as quoted by CNN, that “there is only so much patience one can have when you’ve been asking for a conversation for four months.”
“Frustrated is a good characterization. We are expecting and intending to hold the administration to its word,” he added.
Abocado al fracaso
The Kingdom made an announcement in early October that, together with OPEC+, it would cut down on oil production, while effectively raising gas prices and siding with Russia's best interests, as per US claims. Following two years of navigating the complicated relationship with the oil-rich autocracy, Biden said, "There’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve done, with Russia."
At the time, it marked the third time Biden has re-evaluated Saudi policy, however, Biden promised a harder line.
Earlier, Biden bashed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) for his role in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Can we expect anything from Biden? After all, the US relies on the Kingdom as a major oil producer and economic power with important shipping routes, a close partner in allegedly "countering Iran and terrorist organizations," and a significant trading partner and number-one purchaser of US weapons. The perception of common interests, Saudi Arabia's limited clout, and Biden's inner circle's preferences all favor maintaining the status quo.
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US officials admit that there is little affection between Biden and MBS, whom he previously tried to exclude from negotiations with Saudi Arabia's official leader, King Salman. However, King Salman, who is 87 years old and in worsening health, has ceded immense power to his son, making it nearly impossible for Biden to conduct interactions with anybody else in the Kingdom's leadership.
US officials have detailed difficult meetings with their Saudi counterparts in recent months and said ties with the monarchy remain strained.
US national security comes first
However, a lack of good choices for downgrading the partnership without jeopardizing national security has led to a tactic acknowledging that the oil production decision will have no substantial implications.
Providing an update on the administration’s review of US-Saudi ties last week, National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby said that "the administration is continuing to examine whether the relationship is in our best national security interests.”
However, he also tersely stated, “This is about reviewing that bilateral relationship, making sure that it’s in our best interest but not rupturing it.”
Conclusively, US officials plan to meet with their Saudi counterparts later this month as part of a "Gulf Cooperation Council working-group meeting," according to sources familiar with the plans, with one administration official saying the gatherings will serve as a sort of litmus test for the state of the bilateral relationship.
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 with 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.
On its account, Saudi Arabia said 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 in October.
Gas prices in the US are "clearly a factor"
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."
Nonetheless, administration officials were apprehensive from the start of taking actions that may permanently sever what everyone acknowledged was an important regional relationship. Biden officials have consistently expressed concern about the consequences of particular actions, considering that the US-Saudi partnership is regarded as a foundation of regional stability.
Others close to the administration have expressed concern that halting US arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia could push the Kingdom closer to Russia, perhaps complicating the ongoing war in Ukraine.
One senior administration official, who verified that there are currently "no notable discussions" inside the administration about slapping sanctions on Saudi Arabia, as Biden promised last autumn, simply stated that the gas prices here at home are "clearly a factor."
The political debacle between Saudi Arabia and the US unmasks the latter's hypocrisy which sells itself as a beacon for human rights while choosing business every single time. In short, the US thirst for oil will force its administration into a relationship where -- Riyadh and Washington will be honeymooners, yet again.
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