The story started on October 5 when Saudi Arabia decided at OPEC+ to cut oil production by 2 million barrels per day. Saudi Arabia’s patience is over, as oil prices had plunged to about $80 in early June from $120 at the start of the Ukraine war, disrupting Riyadh’s Vision 2030 program.
After Saudi Arabia’s decision, some politicians in the US considered it a stab in the back. They did not accept in any way that in the economic crisis and the middle of the invasion of Ukraine, Saudi Arabia’s decision was helping to fill the Russian coffers. Incredibly, the Democrats became more agitated when they saw that they were soon on the threshold of midterm congressional elections and that the possibility of defeat strongly threatened them.
John Kirby, the National Security Council’s Spokesperson, reacted quickly to the Saudis. He said, “In recent weeks, the Saudis conveyed to us – privately and publicly – their intention to reduce oil production, which they knew would increase Russian revenues and blunt the effectiveness of sanctions. That is the wrong direction.”
Kirby added, “We presented Saudi Arabia with analysis to show that there was no market basis to cut production targets and that they could easily wait for the next OPEC meeting to see how things developed. Other OPEC nations communicated privately that they disagreed with the Saudi decision but felt coerced to support Saudi’s direction.” US President Biden also said that the Saudis would face the consequences.
The starting point of the distance between the US and Saudi Arabia was Barack Obama’s Pivot to Asia Strategy. The former President saw China as a more insecure place than Iran and disappointed his long-time allies by reducing commitments. He wanted Washington’s allies to be more independent and count on the indirect support of the US. It seemed that they did the same, but according to their interests and ideas, not the will of the US.
The decision to reduce the oil supply did not take long to be answered by the US. On October 16, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN that Biden has “no plans” to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) at next month’s G20 summit in Indonesia. That statement came six days after the US State Department announced Assistant Secretary Barbara A. Leaf’s plans to visit three GCC states and Egypt this month “to reaffirm US commitment to promoting security, economic prosperity, and strong ties with our partners”. At the same time, Saudi Arabia was notably absent from her itinerary.
The perception and attitude of MBS and Biden have also helped to deepen the existing mass of mistrust. Biden had initially said that he did not intend to talk to MBS. As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden promised to make a pariah out of Saudi Arabia over the 2018 killing of dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi. There is “very little socially redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Reviewing these memories has made MBS unhappy with Biden and think about the pleasant time of friendship with Trump. It cannot be said that the relations between the two countries have been reduced to favouring parties. However, there is no doubt that MBS is waiting for November 5, 2024, for Trump or another Republican President to be elected and assume office. He is not unwilling to sell the price of independence from the US if it returns to the previous era, which is unlikely, but he sells this price to Trump or someone like him, not to the Democrats.
Saudi Arabia knows that returning to the past is not possible. MBS knows that the US does not have enough power for security guarantees and must rely on itself and other powers. A test for MBS to think of a coalition of major regional powers and not just rely on one hegemon. Why China and Russia should not be listed in this test?
MBS had not forgotten when missiles targeted Saudi oil facilities in 2019, disrupting supplies of more than 5 million barrels daily. Washington, then led by Trump, an MBS ally, remained indifferent. So, what hope can he have now that the situation has changed to the detriment of the Saudis since Trump’s time?
The US is being tested by its allies as by its foes. Furthermore, for good reasons: they sense that the US will not resume the role of unchallenged leader, which it held briefly for three decades. In previous decades, tensions between Washington and Riyadh were resolved behind closed doors and rarely spilt into the public domain. Today, the most intimate aspects of bilateral diplomacy are ripped apart for everyone – complete with social media bots and trolls pushing their side of a polarizing story.