Biden administration must not risk losing Saudi Arabia as a partner
Saudi Arabia was heavily condemned in the aftermath of the decision by OPEC+ to cut oil output by 2 million barrels per day from November, even being accused by the US of supporting Russian policies and undermining sanctions imposed on Moscow.
These accusations were the result of concerns among Democrats in the US that the rise in energy prices caused by the OPEC+ decision would harm their party’s chances of retaining control of the Congress in the midterm elections. Therefore, the Biden administration intends to review its relations with Saudi Arabia, hinting at measures that could undermine the long history of US military cooperation with the Kingdom.
The Biden administration’s approach to the Kingdom is heavily distorted. The decision to reduce oil output was not taken solely by Saudi Arabia, but jointly by all 23 member countries of OPEC+. There were several sound, objective reasons behind the decision, chief among them being the global decline in oil demand. Furthermore, the decision was not made with any intention of providing support to Russia or undermining sanctions against it. Saudi Arabia’s stance on the Ukrainian conflict is unequivocal, with it unambiguously supporting legitimacy and international norms.
It should also be clear that the OPEC+ decision does not imply any Saudi desire to influence US domestic affairs in the run-up to the midterm elections, as the Biden administration apparently believes. The only factors influencing Saudi Arabia’s decisions are the pursuit of its own strategic interests, as well as playing its customary vital regional and international role in promoting peace and stability. Saudi Arabia has always been an essential partner in the maintenance of a rules-based regional and global order led by the US and it is committed to maintaining this vital partnership.
Nonetheless, taking the OPEC+ decision out of its purely economic context and blaming Saudi Arabia alone without attributing any responsibility to the other OPEC+ member countries, who unanimously voted in favour of the decision to reduce output, is sadly a typical politicization of an apolitical issue.
Saudi Arabia has spared no effort in responding to calls for increased output to address the global energy crisis, which has been exacerbated by Russia’s war on Ukraine. When the price of an oil barrel reached $120, Saudi Arabia increased production to full capacity, thus refuting any allegation of bias in the conflict between Russia and the West. The true cause of the world’s energy crisis is strategic competition, in which the US is competing against its rivals Russia and China, bringing the world to the brink of conflict, as is the case in Ukraine and Taiwan.
What’s more, by expressing displeasure with the OPEC+ decision, the Biden administration indicated that it did not intend to support sanctions against Russia or stand in solidarity with its European allies, which accuse the administration of greed and of selling gas at four times its true price, according to both French President Emmanuel Macron and German officials. Instead, the Biden administration attempted to gain indirect support for Democratic candidates by delaying any OPEC+ decision to cut oil output for one month, until after the midterms in November.
This issue has exposed the Biden administration to harsh domestic criticism, causing significant embarrassment for the leadership in the eyes of the US public, which may result in political or even legal liability. This is especially noteworthy given that this administration has consistently vowed to punish, and indeed has already punished, any outside party that plays a role in influencing the outcome of US elections — let alone demanding such interference.
Despite this, however, Saudi Arabia is eager to maintain its partnership with the US. The Biden administration’s decision to review ties with Saudi Arabia, however, will have far-reaching and possibly severely damaging consequences, potentially risking the entire partnership.
The Biden administration is using the OPEC+ decision as a pretext to continue its unpredictable and unjust policy toward the Kingdom, even if doing so is not in Washington’s domestic or international interests or in those of US voters. Therefore, Saudi Arabia categorically refuses to become unjustifiably embroiled in a dispute with the US, nor will Saudi Arabia accept the sacrifice of its own economic interests for the sake of political calculations within the US. The Kingdom also reiterates that it will not submit to blackmail or threats.
As Saudi Ambassador to the US Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan has noted, the days of US-Saudi relations being framed solely in terms of oil-for-security are over. Regional security is a shared responsibility that benefits all parties. Saudi Arabia has long been an important ally of the US for achieving regional security in the face of Iran, a state on the verge of the nuclear threshold.
The US administration must reconsider its position on Saudi Arabia. This unfortunate US position serves certain wings of the Biden administration, which have adopted a hostile stance toward Saudi Arabia, deepening the schism in the two countries’ relations. Everyone is aware of the crisis’s root cause and how low the Middle East has fallen on America’s list of strategic priorities. This decline has had the greatest impact in terms of creating a crisis of confidence in the US, not only with Saudi Arabia but also with several other countries in the region.
The US is now viewed as an untrustworthy partner, especially given the current White House’s insistence on shifting the burden of achieving stability onto the region’s countries, while abandoning them in the face of acute dangers and threats. The schism between the US and the region’s countries is primarily the result of President Joe Biden and his administration’s failures, and their uninformed perspectives on the Middle East.
Interestingly, when the Biden administration recognized the region’s importance and its inextricable link with resolving global disputes and reasserting the US’ dwindling dominance over the global order, Biden himself came to Saudi Arabia to break the ice and rebuild positive relations with regional powers, including Riyadh. It is clear, however, that his visit to the region was motivated by political and economic factors, primarily the US’ dispute with Russia and China.
Another reason for Biden’s visit to the region was to alleviate the strain imposed on the US economy by the rise in oil prices — and thus help the Democratic Party win the midterm elections. This is in addition to the pressures exerted by progressives, who are more aware of the vital significance of the US’ partnership with Saudi Arabia.
Thus, Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia was not based on a genuine personal conviction regarding the importance of the two countries’ relations or on maintaining balanced interests between the two countries. Indeed, this visit seemed to be nothing more than a superficial bit of political PR suggesting opportunism and a lack of seriousness toward developing policies that benefit both parties.
The Kingdom’s message is clear: If the US considers Saudi Arabia to be an important partner in the Middle East, the Biden administration should consider its interests and the vision of its leaders without imposing diktats or pressures, rather than heaping hollow, insulting accusations on it and employing these politically as part of its domestic partisan bickering, which will lead to nothing less than the unravelling of an eight-decade partnership.
Saudi Arabia has never abandoned its partners or allies and it remains a crucial pillar in achieving regional stability and protecting regional security. It is also an indispensable economic powerhouse in terms of assisting countries in crisis and protecting vital trade corridors, in addition to securing energy supplies at a critical juncture in the history of the global order — all while maintaining a prestigious global status.
The true cause of the world’s energy crisis is strategic competition, in which the US is competing against its rivals Russia and China.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Saudi Arabia is also an important global partner, going to great lengths to collaborate on vital issues such as development, energy, food security, climate change, counterterrorism and others. In this regard, the Kingdom will, as it has in the past, make every effort to keep oil prices low when necessary. Riyadh, of course, values its sovereignty, independence and its pursuit of its own national projects. Nonetheless, the Kingdom is keen to usher in a new chapter in its partnership with the US as a priority, so long as Washington shares the same goals, free of any exploitation, politicization or imbalance of interests. However, if the Biden administration chooses to go in the opposite direction, it will be wholly responsible for the loss of a key strategic partner in Saudi Arabia and for any future consequences.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami