Monday, 5 December, 2022
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Over a barrel, Biden faces tough options with Saudis

Over a barrel, Biden faces tough options with Saudis

Joe Biden has vowed consequences for Saudi Arabia over its explosive slash in oil output but, like previous US presidents irked by the kingdom, he may find constraints as he assesses options.

Biden endured criticism at home by traveling to Saudi Arabia in June and fist-bumping its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite earlier vowing to make him a pariah over human rights.

But Saudi Arabia reneged on the unstated reason for Biden's visit, as the OPEC+ oil cartel led by the kingdom announced a production cut of two million barrels a day -- raising much-needed revenue for Russia as it attacks Ukraine and hiking prices on US consumers weeks before congressional elections.

The Biden administration has voiced openness to retaliatory measures in Congress by enraged fellow Democrats.

Senator Chris Murphy, a long-time critic of Saudi Arabia over its devastating war in Yemen, said the United States should suspend sales to the kingdom of medium-range air-to-air missiles and send them to Ukraine, as well as redeploy Patriot missile shields to Ukraine or NATO allies.

"These two steps would right-size our relationship with Saudi Arabia AND help Ukraine," he said on Twitter.

Saudi Arabia's backers warn that the United States could drive it into the arms of Russia or China, but many experts are doubtful the kingdom could easily do so after eight decades of partnership with the United States.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN on Sunday that Biden would "act methodically, strategically" in re-evaluating US-Saudi relations, adding that the US leader had "no plans" to meet the crown prince at a November G20 summit in Indonesia.

Russell Lucas, a Middle East expert at Michigan State University, said the Biden administration could at least slow down arms sales, especially resupplies to Saudi hardware.

"These cannot quickly be substituted by another arms supplier," he said.

- Oil bonds -

But previous attempts to distance the United States from Saudi Arabia -- including after mostly Saudi citizens carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks -- have hit a major roadblock: oil.

Despite growing action on climate change, the United States is decades away from being insulated from high oil prices.

US officials are fond of noting that the United States has surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world's top oil producer. But US output decisions are largely made by private firms; and oil extracted from shale, the heart of the US energy boom, is more difficult to scale up and down.

"This notion that just ramping up American capacity would protect us from these decisions of oil producers abroad is patently false," said Annelle Sheline, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, who supports a firmer approach with the Saudis.

"We will always remain dependent on these other countries as long as we remain dependent on oil," she said.

But she added that Saudi Arabia was hurting its own case by no longer serving as America's "predictable" source of oil.

- 'Drama' from the prince -

Saudi Arabia has insisted the OPEC+ decision was purely economic and said US weapons sales serve both countries' interests.

The kingdom voted with the United States on Wednesday at the United Nations to condemn Russia's annexations of Ukrainian territory.

But Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the oil hike was a clear act of electoral intervention by the crown prince, known by his initials MBS, on behalf of Donald Trump's Republican Party.

The former president was a staunch supporter of the Saudis, boasting of saving MBS after US intelligence found that he authorized the killing and dismembering of a US-based journalist who criticized him, Jamal Khashoggi.

"One thing we know from the pattern of MBS's behavior is he loves drama -- and the more dramatic, the better," Riedel said of the oil decision, adding that the prince was taking a page from Trump.

Riedel said the Saudis, if they wanted to improve relations, could ease pressure on Yemen or make gestures on human rights.

But one US option to reduce Saudi leverage -- ending oil sanctions on its regional rival Iran -- looks increasingly unlikely.

Months of negotiations to restore a 2015 nuclear deal have stalemated, and the Biden administration is expected to be careful not to take action seen as benefiting the clerical leadership as it cracks down on mass protests sparked by the death of a young woman arrested by morality police.

Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the United States should accept a "realist rapprochement" with Saudi Arabia that acknowledges the relationship is transactional.

"The United States still needs the Saudis, no matter how loathsome," he said.

"In the meantime, the United States needs to get serious about an energy policy. If we had one for the last 40 or so years, we wouldn't be in this position."