Only three months have gone by since President Biden gave Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, the fist bump heard ’round the world.
But relations between the United States and the world’s top swing producer have deteriorated markedly since then, precipitated by OPEC’s decision this month to reduce oil production. The Saudis argued that the falling price of crude oil, which had dropped to $80 a barrel, mandated the cut; U.S. officials disagreed.
But coming at the height of a U.S. election season characterized by public anger over high gas prices, it looked to many Democrats like a partisan move. The U.S. had asked for a one-month delay, to no avail.
The Biden administration was “blindsided by this,” said Steven Cook, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And now the Saudis are dug in.”
National security officials insist they weren’t blindsided. But other officials, including John Podesta, the climate czar, were furious. Many saw the move as a Saudi attempt to meddle in a U.S. election, and they viewed the Saudis as reneging on a mutual understanding the two countries had reached after the war in Ukraine took Russian oil off the market. The president said there would be “consequences,” and John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the U.S. would be “re-evaluating our relationship with Saudi Arabia in light of these actions.”
Jared Kushner’s front-row seat at an investor meeting in Riyadh this week will probably only heighten Democrats’ suspicions, as will the kingdom’s recent agreement to strengthen energy ties with Beijing. Notably, no U.S. officials were invited to the Riyadh meeting.
“The White House has taken this very personally, and for understandable reasons,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He speculated that OPEC might not ultimately cut production by the full two million barrels a day that it said it would; member countries often fail to meet their production quotas anyway.
“More important,” Riedel added, “is the symbolism of the president trying to reset U.S.-Saudi relations and the Saudis essentially repudiating him and humiliating him.”
Riedel urged the White House to take action before the midterms, possibly by revoking maintenance contracts for Saudi warplanes or by withdrawing the U.S. troops stationed in the kingdom.
Many Democrats in Congress, and some Republicans, would support a rebuke to Riyadh. Several leaders of key committees have already announced that they will refuse to approve future arms sales without a change in Saudi attitudes.
The State of the 2022 Midterm Elections
Both parties are making their final pitches ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
But Representative Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey who is on the Armed Services Committee, said he “found it a bit puzzling that the administration was pushing this on Congress at a time when Congress was out of session.”
The most likely vehicle for congressional action would be an amendment attached to the annual defense authorization bill, which has passed the House but not the Senate. Saudi Arabia, Malinowski said, had become a “partisan actor” in U.S. politics, and it was time to move to punitive actions.
“Any move like this would send a very powerful signal to the kingdom that the U.S. is unhappy with the crown prince,” Riedel said, noting that the young Saudi leader “has many enemies inside the kingdom.”
None of that has happened yet, however; U.S. officials viewed some of the ideas kicking around Congress as impractical, and thought it was important to consult with both parties.
Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, said he appreciated that the administration had not acted rashly to punish Saudi Arabia, arguing in favor of a deeper reassessment of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. And if the Saudi decision accelerated U.S. moves toward alternate sources of energy, he added, it might turn out to be a “blessing in disguise.”
As for fears that Saudi Arabia might turn to other security partners, such as China, Murphy and others noted the kingdom’s utter reliance on U.S. support for its military. The United States, he said, needed to get out of a situation in which “Saudi Arabia benefits from this deep security relationship, but then knifes us in the back.”
A crown prince who ‘much preferred’ Trump
For the Biden administration and the kingdom, the mutual animosity appears to be personal.
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the crown prince “mocks President Biden in private, making fun of the 79-year-old’s gaffes and questioning his mental acuity” and that he “much preferred former President Donald Trump.”
For his part, Biden vowed during the 2020 campaign to make the Saudi government a “pariah” — making his fist bump with the crown prince all the more striking.
But the clash with Democrats has also been long in the making. As the U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks showed, Saudi rulers were enraged by the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Iran. And they were further outraged by President Barack Obama’s decision to nudge aside Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian dictator, during the Arab Spring.
Trump made it a priority to patch up U.S. ties with the Gulf. He visited Riyadh on his first presidential visit abroad — a trip defined by the famous photo of him touching a glowing orb at a counterterrorism conference.
And he endorsed a Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, a tiny, iconoclastic Gulf state that was a cheerleader for the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. A close Trump friend who became the chairman of his inaugural committee, the investor Thomas J. Barrack Jr., is currently on trial on charges that he acted as an undisclosed agent for the United Arab Emirates.
The Saudis have underscored their diplomatic hostility to Biden by throwing money at Trump and his family. Kushner’s investment fund has taken on at least $2 billion in Saudi cash. And this weekend, Trump is hosting a Saudi-backed rival to the P.G.A. Tour at his golf course in Balmedie, Scotland — his second such event in recent months.
Now, the Gulf nations’ budding relationship with President Vladimir Putin of Russia has become another flash point.
During the Cold War, the United States leaned on Saudi Arabia to ramp up oil production, undermining high-cost Soviet producers in an effort to bankrupt the Kremlin. But in recent years, the Gulf countries have developed cordial ties with Russia.
This month, for instance, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates, made a high-profile visit to Moscow to meet with Putin. Foreign policy analysts saw the move as yet another slap in the face to Biden, who has backed the Ukrainian government with weapons, intelligence and heavy diplomatic support in the face of Russia’s invasion.
Part of Biden’s problem in the Gulf, Cook said, is “wanting to have it both ways.”
Biden began his term by embracing Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump exited and the Saudis vigorously oppose. He also reversed Trump’s policies on the bloody Saudi-led war in Yemen, blasted the Saudi government for killing the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and talked up the shift away from hydrocarbon-based energy — only to backtrack this summer as gasoline prices squeezed U.S. consumers.
“The kingdom and its neighbors view the appeasement of Iran as the foundational error preventing cooperation on many other issues,” said Rob Greenway, a former senior Middle East official on Trump’s National Security Council.
In the long run, though, Saudi Arabia might have less leverage than its leaders assume. High oil prices are a momentary annoyance for Americans, but the future of energy is an existential one for Riyadh — and the United States has become a significant producer over the last decade. As Riedel put it, “We don’t need them the way we used to need them.”
Malinowski, noting that Saudi Arabia had snapped to attention in 2020 after Trump threatened to pull out U.S. troops, said, “It’s time to act like a superpower, not a supplicant.”
What to read
One of this year’s most anticipated debates is tonight in Pennsylvania, where Lt. Gov. John Fetterman will face Mehmet Oz in their pivotal Senate race. Here’s what we’re watching for, and you can follow live updates here.
As Republican candidates make crime a central midterm issue, they are running ads against Black candidates that appeal to white fears and resentments — and they are brushing off criticism of such tactics with unabashed defiance, Jonathan Weisman writes.
Many political observers trying to forecast the midterms note that as gas prices go up and down, the public’s mood tends to follow. Why, our Upshot team asks, does the cost of fuel have such power over us?
The governor’s race in New York, where Gov. Kathy Hochul was expected to coast to victory, is now too close for Democrats’ comfort, Nicholas Fandos reports.
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