In February 2022, as the U.S. was finalizing its strategy in Ukraine to harm Russia’s economy, the Biden administration sent two officials to Saudi Arabia to discuss boosting oil production “to alleviate the pressure” on the US energy markets.
However, Saudi authorities were hesitant to boost oil production as it will harm Russia which is also part of the OPEC+ oil-production alliance.
For context, Saudi Arabia is the world’s third-biggest oil producer after Russia and the US, and Washington wanted Riyadh to take up the slack after the Russian offensive on Ukraine.
When the pressure did not work, President Biden himself visited Saudi Arabia in July 2022 with the agenda of persuading the Saudis to increase the output of oil but the message that Biden and his team have heard in Riyadh is that “it is OPEC+ that makes the oil supply decision, and the cartel isn’t remotely interested in what Biden is trying to achieve.”
So, the Saudis declined, and in early October, OPEC+ announced its largest supply cut since 2020, to the tune of 2 million barrels per day starting from November. That means tighter supplies and higher prices at a time of already high inflation and worries of a global recession, which angered U.S. lawmakers who are now calling for a “re-evaluation” of relations with the Saudi kingdom.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby went further and accused the kingdom of aiding Russia’s revenues and hampering the impact of Western sanctions on Moscow for its war in Ukraine.
Right after this incident, President Joe Biden said there would be “consequences” for Saudi Arabia’s oil production cut, which the kingdom is carrying out in coordination with other OPEC members and non-OPEC allies like Russia.
Many in Washington saw this as a snub and a blatant display of siding with Moscow.
In public, the Saudi government defended its actions politely via diplomatic statements. But in private, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman threatened to fundamentally alter the decades-old U.S.-Saudi relationship and impose significant economic costs on the United States if it retaliated against the oil cuts, according to a classified document obtained by The Washington Post.
The crown prince claimed “he will not deal with the U.S. administration anymore,” promising “major economic consequences for Washington,” the document says,
Eight months later, Biden has yet to impose sanctions on the Arab nation, and MBS has kept in contact with senior American government figures, as he did last week when he met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the Saudi city of Jeddah.
The crown prince’s dramatic outburst revealed the tension at the core of a relationship long based on oil-for-security but rapidly evolving as China takes a growing interest in the Middle East and the United States evaluates its own interests as the world’s largest oil producer.
U.S. officials argue that the relationship with Saudi Arabia is too vital to let sour given Riyadh’s influence in global politics and the economy, and Beijing’s pursuit of long-time allies of the United States in the Middle East.
This week, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with the crown prince during a three-day visit to the kingdom, the men had a “candid, open” conversation that included U.S. efforts to broker normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the conflict in Yemen, human rights and the fighting in Sudan.
Following Blinken’s meetings, differences appeared to remain over Saudi Arabia’s ambitions to generate nuclear power which Washington does not like.
Therefore, the US has given itself the right to stick its nose in the internal affairs of the Kingdom and admonished Riyadh over its human rights record.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister noted that while Riyadh would welcome US support in building its civilian nuclear program but “there are others that are bidding,” a warning that the kingdom could strengthen its partnership with China on the project.
Hence, Blinken’s news conference in Riyadh also touched on Saudi Arabia’s relations with China, which the US views as its major economic and security rival. The top U.S. diplomat denied the claims that Washington was pressuring Saudi Arabia to choose between it and Beijing.
However, a second leaked U.S. intelligence document from December 2022 warned that Saudi Arabia plans to expand its “transactional relationship” with China by procuring drones, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and mass surveillance systems from Beijing.
While US officials say those warnings were exaggerated and did not come to fruition, the question remains: will Saudi Arabia’s increasing relationship with China pose a threat to the long-standing security partnership between Riyadh and Washington?
Time will tell but till then, whether you agree with Saudi Arabia or not, the oil-rich country is making an effort to position itself as an independent global player from Washington whose strategy of divide and conquer in the past decades has brought nothing but misery to the Middle Eastern people.
Therefore, in recent months, Riyadh has been on a diplomatic tear winding down hostilities in Yemen, normalizing ties with Iran, inviting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to rejoin the Arab League, and ending its regional dispute with Qatar.
Normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel appears to be the most challenging of all, especially as Israeli-Palestinian tensions rise under the far-right coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Riyadh’s insistence on a just resolution to the conflict based on the Arab peace initiative agreed upon in 2002.
So, what is your take on the Saudi policy shift in the region? Is MBS trying to distance itself from the US empire by establishing strong ties with Russia, China and the BRICS countries in General, or is he simply diversifying the relationships of Saudi Arabia to harvest the most from all sides?
Kevork Almassian is an award-winning political commentator from Syria. He is the founder of Syriana Analysis and is known for his contribution to the literature on the Syrian war.