Saudi Arabia shows no sign of backing down in the face of U.S. pushback to its decision to cut oil production, part of Riyadh’s strategy to flex its foreign policy influence more forcefully.
Saudi officials insist that the highly criticized decision to cut oil production to keep prices high is purely economical, pushing back on attacks they are siding with Russia over its war in Ukraine.
Democrats have furiously called to freeze military sales and cooperation with the kingdom as Republicans largely remain quiet, saying U.S. ties to the powerful Gulf nation are too strategic to risk.
Experts say Riyadh is trying to find a balance between the U.S. and Russia, concerned that Washington is retreating from the Middle East but cautious to avoid severing the relationship completely.
“The Saudis have tried to thread the needle between the Americans and the Russians, in part because they are distrustful of the United States,” said Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a long-term rift, it’s just going to be one of those major ups and downs in the American-Saudi relationship, and, today, here’s another down.”
President Biden’s highly publicized fistbump with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah in July did little, in Riyadh’s eyes, to make up for his campaign comments pledging to treat the kingdom as a pariah in the wake of it killing Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, experts say.
And the administration’s pursuit of reviving the nuclear deal with Iran — as well as lingering upset from the Trump administration over what the kingdom viewed as an insignificant response to Iranian drone attacks on the Aramco oil facilities in Abqaiq — have hardened their position.
“They’ve been really interested in strategic diversification, in reaching out to other powers,” said Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“Over the last 10 to 15 years, [Riyadh] slowly developed this sense that the U.S. is checking out, even though it has this huge military apparatus in the region, it’s sort of checked out in a way.”
Saudi Arabia is America’s largest foreign military equipment customer, amounting to about $100 billion in sales between 2009 and 2020, a relationship that benefits the U.S. for the influx of investment, but also allows the U.S. and Saudi militaries to work closely together on security concerns.
Approximately 2,700 U.S. troops are stationed in the country.
Selling U.S. military hardware to Saudi Arabia is also meant as a bulwark to prevent Russia and China from gaining a foothold.
The Saudis have welcomed efforts from the Biden administration to smooth over some rocky parts of the relationship. This includes closer consultation about the administration’s intent to revive the nuclear deal with Iran.
Saudi moves, such as allowing Biden to fly from Tel Aviv to Jeddah in July and opening up its airspace to Israeli flights, are viewed as the kingdom showing the soft side in its relationship with Washington.
But they are resisting pressure to publicly open relations with Israel, and the OPEC+ decision last month, in which the members of the group agreed to cut oil production by 2 million barrels per day, is a further sign the kingdom is not too concerned with Washington’s opinion.
“Our decisions on production levels are strictly determined by supply and demand and market fundamentals,” Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in the U.S., told CNN on Monday. “So political issues, political considerations do not take effect, they do not have a role.”
Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that economic argument may be true, but bin Salman likely didn’t care about political implications with the U.S.
“The Saudis could not have been this obtuse not to understand that weeks before a midterm — that’s going to turn on inflation, and a large part of that is scarcity of crude oil and rising gas prices — that this would not be perceived as a political blow against the president,” Miller said.
The OPEC+ decision triggered fury from the White House and Democrats, who accused Riyadh of siding with Moscow, saying the high price of oil will continue to fuel Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ability to conduct his war in Ukraine.
Ibish said that any benefit to Russia is not a concern in Riyadh.
“The key thing I think for the Saudi’s is, Russia is really important because of the OPEC+ deal. They have this crucial national security issue that is not really appreciated here enough, which is they have about 25 years to transform their economy,” he said.
“In the context of the Ukraine war… [it] looks like helping Russia, that’s not the way they’re thinking about that. They’re thinking about their own plans, which is dire for them. But it looks to the Western world like ‘Oh you’re backing up the Russians.’”
Saudi officials say their actions have made clear they support Ukraine, even as they maintain relations with Russia.
“We have actually been in touch with the leadership of Ukraine and with Russia, we have offered to mediate between the two because we do maintain good relations with both,” Nazer said Monday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has not issued any criticism.
Riyadh helped broker a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia earlier last month, and then announced $400 million in humanitarian assistance for Kyiv a week ago.
Riyadh also points to its votes at the United Nations General Assembly, rejecting Russia’s referenda of Ukrainian territory on Oct. 12 and condemning its invasion during a vote held in March.
Zelensky spoke with bin Salman and thanked him for “supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, resolution at the UN General Assembly” and that the two “agreed on the provision of [Saudi] macro-financial aid to Ukraine.”
Days later, the Saudi Foreign Ministry tweeted a photo of Ukraine’s ambassador to the kingdom meeting with the Saudi Deputy Minister for International Multilateral Affairs, saying the two “reviewed bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Ukraine and regional and international developments of common interest.”
While Biden is facing blowback from Democratic lawmakers, the administration is unlikely to punish Riyadh severely.
White House National Security spokesperson John Kirby on Thursday said the administration’s review of its relationship with Saudi Arabis “ongoing,” but would not put a timeline on taking action.
“We’re not going to rush this.”
Jon Alterman, the director of the Center for Strategic & International Studies’ Middle East Program, said the administration is unlikely “to be punitive for the sake of being punitive.”
“But the Saudi strategy is a strategy of getting a lot of the benefits of being closely aligned with the United States while having increasingly close ties to adversaries of the United States. And in times of war, that’s a hard gap to straddle,” Alterman said.