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PoliticsSaudi Arabia

Oil, US or Russia: Whose side is Saudi Arabia really on?

October 12, 2022

After an OPEC+ decision to cut oil production, the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia is in dire straits. Critics say the Saudis are supporting Russia and snubbing the Americans deliberately.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.
More in common? Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian leader, Vladimir PutinImage: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/AP/picture alliance

The reaction from the US was unambiguous. The decision that the group of petroleum exporting nations known as OPEC+ had made on October 5 was "disappointing," the White House said in a statement.

The decision meant that OPEC+ members' oil production would be cut by 2 million barrels, or around 2% of global output, in November.

The decision by OPEC+ — which has 22 members and includes Saudi Arabia and Iraq as well as Russia — "shows there are problems" with the US' relationships with traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia, US President Joe Biden said.

US broadcaster CNN obtained talking points sent to the US Treasury by the White House, in which the OPEC+ decision was described as a "total disaster" and a "hostile act." White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that "it's clear that OPEC+ is aligning with Russia" during a media briefing. And Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, a Democrat, said in a statement that what OPEC+ had done was a "deeply cynical action." 

Anger and escalation

On Tuesday, the anger in US political circles escalated with President Biden saying there would be "consequences" for the US' relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The OPEC+ decision, and Saudi Arabia's part in it  — the Gulf state is the second largest producer of oil in the world and plays a significant role within the organization — feels like even more of a betrayal to the US because of President Biden's July visit to Saudi Arabia. It came after several years of diplomatic chilliness between the two nations, following the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and was heavily criticized because the human rights situation inside Saudi Arabia has certainly not improved since then. 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) meeting with US President Joe Biden at Al-Salam Palace.
After the OPEC+ decision, Joe Biden (left) said he would review the US' ties with Saudi ArabiaImage: Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout/AFP

But Biden's visit and a friendlier stance towards Saudi Arabia was important. The war in Ukraine and political confrontations with Russia have seen global energy prices skyrocket and these could have been brought down if the Saudis had increased oil production. Lower prices at the petrol pump are also important to the US President's own Democratic party, which will contest mid-term elections in early November.

The announcement that OPEC+ plans to curtal oil production will do exactly the opposite. It is likely to increase the price that US voters pay, and at a very sensitive time politically. As one oil industry magazine asked in a succinct headline: "Has OPEC+ dictated the outcome of the US mid-term elections?"

Siding with Russia, against Ukraine, US?

So there was only ever one way that the US could see this decision: as a snub by Saudi Arabia. It can also be seen as tacit support for Russia by Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states.

Because this decision by OPEC+ may negate the impact of the embargo on Russian oil that was agreed upon by the European Union in early June. The embargo is supposed to cut Russian budgets and thereby exhaust the country's war funding. However the OPEC+ decision will see oil prices go up again, which means that Russia is going to make more money from selling its oil, even if it cannot sell as much.

As Marc Lynch, a professor of political science and Middle East expert at George Washington University in Washington, wrote on his blog that "the intense response to the OPEC+ decision … came because it decisively places Saudi Arabia on the other side of what Washington sees as the key dividing line in world politics."

This line has Russia on one side and Ukraine and its Western supporters on the other. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors have already been slow in supporting European and US measures taken against Russia.

"That decision is going to benefit the Russians in terms of generating more revenue and profits from selling their oil," Bilal Saab, founding director of the Defense and Security Program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told DW. "But also it will not slow down the Russian war effort against Ukraine."

All about the money

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia has said that the OPEC+ decision is purely about economics, not politics.

"Oil is not a weapon, it's not a fighter plane, it's not a tank, You can't shoot it," Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told the US broadcaster Fox News. "We look at oil as a commodity … in which we have a huge stake."

People walk past a banner showing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, outside a mall in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia's ambitious modernization plan, named Vision 2030, will cost at least a trillion dollarsImage: Amr Nabil/AP Photo/picture alliance

The Middle East Institute's Saab believes that Saudi Arabia wanted to send a signal to Washington, just not necessarily the one it has been accused of fomenting. Saudi Arabia is showing thatit will pursue its own economic interests. To achieve many of the country's current ambitious plans as well as to maintain political stability, Riyadh is dependent on its oil income. Its national budget is helped by higher oil prices.

Relationship going downhill

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and its longtime ally, the US, hasn't been great for some time now anyway.

Saudi Arabia felt that the US didn't do enough when its oil facilities were attacked by Iranian proxies out of Yemen. The country felt as though its longtime protector was no longer standing so firmly by its side.

On the US side, the gruesome 2018 murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi — which US intelligence reported was undertaken with the Saudi leadership's knowledge — played a negative role. The fact that Saudi aerial missions over Yemen often heedlessly targeted civilians in Yemen also made Saudi Arabia an increasingly problematic partner.

In 2019, Iran-backed Houthi militias struck at Saudi oil facilities from Yemen.
In 2019, Iran-backed Houthi militias struck at Saudi oil facilities from YemenImage: Hassan Ammar/AP/dpa/picture alliance

The two countries also differ when it comes to how best to prevent Iran, Saudi Arabia's traditional foe in the region,from acquiring nuclear weapons. The US, under Biden, is hoping that a new version of the so-called "Iran deal," on sanctions, will stop that from happening. Even though they too favor a diplomatic solution, the Saudis don't think that will be enough.

All of which means that the alliance can no longer be taken for granted by either side.

"I wonder if this [OPEC+] decision would have taken place, if [recent] dialogue between the Americans and the Saudis was more productive," Saab pondered.

What happens next?

In the long term, the new chill between the two could have consequences for their military bonds, Saab told DW.

"Military-to-military relations are still functional," Saab argued. "But it's virtually impossible to see them thrive in the absence of a more favorable political and policy climate. The military track can't carry this relationship on its own."  

This week there have been calls from senior US politicians to stop supplying the Saudis with armaments.

"The whole point of looking the other way when it comes to the Saudi war in Yemen and their awful human rights record was to make sure they would pick us in the middle of an international crisis," Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator, told the Washington Post this week. "And instead they chose the Russians."

Saab predicts that, for the time being, the US-Saudi relationship will deteriorate further. "I think the Saudis have made up their mind about the Biden administration," he concluded. "They've figured out that there is no hope in terms of fixing that relationship. But they haven't given up on the US. So they're going to wait out this administration and hope that the next one, preferably a Republican one, is going to be better positioned to fix the relationship with Saudi Arabia," he argued.

This story was originally published in German.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East
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