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Mohammed bin Salman Has Leverage on Biden—and Is Using It

Saudi Arabia’s cooperation on lowering oil prices will come at the cost of the West’s values.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a Brussels-based columnist for Foreign Policy who writes about Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is pictured while meeting with the Tunisian President during his arrival at the presidential palace in Carthage on the eastern outskirts of the capital Tunis on November 27, 2018.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is pictured while meeting with the Tunisian President during his arrival at the presidential palace in Carthage on the eastern outskirts of the capital Tunis on November 27, 2018.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is pictured while meeting with the Tunisian President during his arrival at the presidential palace in Carthage on the eastern outskirts of the capital Tunis on November 27, 2018. FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images

The sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine caused havoc in global energy markets. Western capitals panicked over how to contain the price of oil as it climbed to nearly $140 a barrel—and how to wean themselves off Russian supplies. The United States and the United Kingdom, both of which announced bans on the purchase of Russian oil, rushed to convince their traditional allies to open their taps and reduce global oil prices.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two of the biggest producers of oil, however, did not oblige, instead seeing an opportunity for themselves in the crisis. The message to the United States and the West more generally was unmistakable: The Saudis have too much leverage to be taken for granted in geopolitics or to be treated as an object of continuous criticism for violating human rights. 

Even more than the Emiratis, the Saudis hold the key to oil wells and expect big concessions from the United States before opening their taps and reversing their pro-Russia oil policy. Activists fear that human rights will be sacrificed at the altar of energy security once again. Neither the United States nor the U.K. publicly criticized Saudi Arabia’s mass executions of 81 people in mid-March. The West’s policy toward Saudi Arabia has consisted mostly of cajoling to ease the pressure on consumers’ wallets.

The sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine caused havoc in global energy markets. Western capitals panicked over how to contain the price of oil as it climbed to nearly $140 a barrel—and how to wean themselves off Russian supplies. The United States and the United Kingdom, both of which announced bans on the purchase of Russian oil, rushed to convince their traditional allies to open their taps and reduce global oil prices.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two of the biggest producers of oil, however, did not oblige, instead seeing an opportunity for themselves in the crisis. The message to the United States and the West more generally was unmistakable: The Saudis have too much leverage to be taken for granted in geopolitics or to be treated as an object of continuous criticism for violating human rights. 

Even more than the Emiratis, the Saudis hold the key to oil wells and expect big concessions from the United States before opening their taps and reversing their pro-Russia oil policy. Activists fear that human rights will be sacrificed at the altar of energy security once again. Neither the United States nor the U.K. publicly criticized Saudi Arabia’s mass executions of 81 people in mid-March. The West’s policy toward Saudi Arabia has consisted mostly of cajoling to ease the pressure on consumers’ wallets.

The Saudis and Emiratis have a spare capacity of more than 3 million barrels a day and could reduce oil prices even if they released a part of it. Moreover, since Russia exports about 5 million barrels a day and nearly 80 percent to Europe, an assurance of support from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could go a long way in assuaging the concerns of European countries and encouraging them to reduce dependence on Russia. 

But the two Gulf states have held back, citing commitment to the OPEC+1—the expanded version of the oil cartel that incudes Russia. Their rationale is that the war in Ukraine has not so far resulted in a massive disruption of oil supplies; hence, there is no need to max out production. But experts believe it to be a political decision that reflects a major shift in world politics. The choice to keep the prices up, which also benefits Russia’s war machine, displays how dictatorships in the Gulf no longer feel the need to be on the right side of the United States and are embracing newer alliances with like-minded authoritarians. On several occasions in the past, Saudi rulers increased or reduced the output to please their U.S. allies. 

This time, however, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sees a chance to get even with U.S. President Joe Biden for what he believes have been gratuitous insults and less than favorable treatment. While still a candidate in the U.S. presidential election, Biden described Saudi Arabia as a pariah and when in office made public an intelligence report that implicated the crown prince in the assassination of the Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Moreover, both the Saudis and Emiratis felt their concerns over the possible resumption of the Iran nuclear deal were sidelined and that the United States failed in its duty as a military ally when it refused to take action against the Houthis in Yemen for attacking their ships and cities. Lately, even their pleas to keep the Houthi movement on the list of designated terrorists were ignored by Washington. 

As fuel prices rose in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war, the White House scrambled to organize a phone call between Biden and the jilted crown prince but was rebuffed. However, the Saudi heir was not at all anxious about being seen as a closer ally of Putin, who stood by him through the allegations of ordering Khashoggi’s killing and didn’t so much as whisper condemnation when women’s rights activists were arrested and prisoners executed en masse. 

The Saudi tilt toward a fellow authoritarian began back in 2015, when relations soured with then-U.S. President Barack Obama. A year later, Russia was included in OPEC. Riyadh’s relationship with Moscow has since strengthened, while ties with the United States have waxed and waned, improving during the tenure of U.S. President Donald Trump, who withdrew from the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, and plummeting again as Biden took charge and restarted talks to revive the agreement. During the Trump administration, Mohammed bin Salman was portrayed as a reformer, but under Biden he was once again criticized widely for Saudi strikes in Yemen that killed civilians and for human rights violations inside his own kingdom. 

Trita Parsi, a co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said Saudi Arabia supports Russia because the crown prince is certain of the continuation of Putin as Russian president and a change of government in the United States. 

“The Saudi crown prince is making a bet on Putin,” he said. “Not only does he believe but he also hopes that the Republicans will win the midterm elections, turning Biden into a lame duck. By 2025, [Mohammed bin Salman] likely believes that Biden and the Democrats will be out of power, while Putin will remain president of Russia.” 

The crisis has forced the United States to assess its claims of energy independence. It must either come up with a more coherent long-term plan to better manage its domestic energy industry, which has suffered extensive losses during the pandemic, or seal its lips and tolerate the authoritarians. 

Energy experts believe in any case it would take months for U.S. fracking companies to dig new wells. Even if sanctions against Iran and Venezuela are lifted, it will still take time before they can supply their oil to the global market. Last weekend, Germany signed a long-term deal with Qatar to import liquefied natural gas (LNG); Qatar holds the third-largest gas reserves after Russia and Iran. Under the agreement, Germany will fast-track construction of two LNG terminals to be able to import Qatari gas, but even then, it would take years before that gas is supplied to German homes. Until now, Germany had banked on cheaper Russian gas transported through pipelines.

Saudi Aramco, currently the world’s largest oil producer, reported record profits in 2021, earning $110 billion, a net income increase of 124 percent from $49 billion the year before. The company announced a general investment in increasing oil production but nothing to increase the supply in the short term. “We recognize energy security is paramount for billions of people around the world, which is why we continue to make progress on increasing our crude oil production capacity,” said Amin Nasser, CEO of Saudi Aramco. 

The International Energy Agency has said that by the end of this year, at least 1.5 million barrels of oil a day are likely to be lost from Russia. It will undoubtedly lead to a further price rise. OPEC+ is next meeting at the end of this month and is expected to take stock of the situation to decide on oil output. But a lot depends on how much the Saudis and Emiratis feel heard by the United States. 

They are certain the United States will not change its position on the nuclear deal, but could it back the Gulf countries in their war against the Houthis in Yemen and cut down on criticism on human rights violations? The lowest hanging fruit in the world of hard national interests is individual liberties. Saudi activists may end up paying the price for global oil stability and a reduction in prices once again. Mohammed bin Salman, however, might want even more than that from Biden.

 Twitter: @anchalvohra

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