The eruption of angry recriminations between a broad coalition of bipartisan political leaders in the United States – especially congressional Democrats – and the Saudi government and its supporters is one of the most bitter and potentially damaging in the 80-yearlong partnership between the two countries. It is also probably one of the most unnecessary and avoidable of the numerous rifts that have punctuated the relationship dating back to at least U.S.-support for Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the resulting Saudi-led oil embargo. At first glance, the proximate causes of the current contretemps are seemingly less severe than the 1973 crisis or the post-9/11 tensions and controversies, both of which continue to leave traces in the collective memory and political culture on both sides. However, underlying today’s tensions is a profound lack of trust that has been developing for almost 20 years, and which has personal, ideological, and partisan aspects, as well as distorting fallout from the Ukraine crisis, that will complicate the necessary repair work to restore a relationship that continues to be essential for both sides.
The proximate cause of the current anger is the decision by the Saudi-led OPEC+ group of OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers, which includes Russia, to initiate production cuts in order to stop, and slightly reverse, a steady decline in the price of oil per barrel on international markets. The problem is that both Saudis and Americans feel shocked and betrayed by each other’s actions and reactions, demonstrating not just a lack of trust but also a mutual incomprehension, which suggests that the two sides have not been paying sufficient attention to each other’s imperatives and perspectives. Rebuilding trust is never easy, but the underlying fundamentals of the partnership remain strong, so if national interests and reason prevail, it will happen over time. However, it’s imperative that tempers cool and further erosion of trust is prevented through the resumption of purposive and mutually respectful dialogue, beginning with consultations ahead of the next OPEC+ meeting scheduled for December 4.
Why Americans, Especially Democrats, are Furious
Saudis are taken aback by the enraged reaction of the United States to the production cut agreement, but they really shouldn’t be surprised. One of the main aims most Americans wanted out of President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s Middle East trip in July – although he said it was mainly about security and not energy pricing – was to ensure that Saudi Arabia helped keep the price of oil low to apply pressure on the Russian economy and help Europeans access affordable alternative energy resources during the upcoming cold winter months. The Biden administration reportedly believed that it had received assurances that Saudi Arabia would make such efforts, and it clearly regarded the new OPEC+ production cut announcement as a betrayal of those assurances. Moreover, the administration also reportedly strongly urged Riyadh not to enter into such an agreement with Russia and the other members for at least a month in the days before the recent meeting. In close coordination with the White House, the United Arab Emirates dispatched its national security advisor to Saudi Arabia urging the country not to take this step at this time. All these entreaties were unsuccessful. So, the administration regards this decision as a reversal of a Saudi commitment.
Moreover, the Western world has effectively divided into pro-and anti-Russia camps, with perspectives on international relations largely defined by the Ukraine war. There is an expectation that the entire international community should similarly choose sides, and that anything other countries do that affects any aspect of the Ukraine war reflects such an orientation. However, most of the developing world in Asia and Africa, including the Middle East, has not viewed the Ukraine war as the kind of definitive, transformational moment in international relations that the West does.
A typical U.S. interpretation of the oil production cut agreement has been that Saudi Arabia is siding with Russia in the confrontation with the West over Ukraine. What’s important about the agreement has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia or its economy, what resonates instead is that it strengthens the Russian economy, undercuts sanctions, and undermines Russia’s international isolation. Because, along with most of the West, the United States views the Ukraine war as a battle to salvage international law and order that is virtually between forces of good and evil, this supposed alignment with Moscow is viewed as intolerable faithlessness by a long-standing partner.
The timing of the decision, a few weeks before the crucial U.S. midterm elections, has also led many Americans – especially congressional Democrats and their allies – to suspect that Saudi Arabia is effectively intervening in U.S. domestic politics on behalf of Republicans and even former President Donald J. Trump. Many Democrats have still not forgiven Saudi Arabia for the warm welcome it gave Trump on his first overseas trip and have assumed that Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, are strongly aligned with Republicans and especially the Trump faction. The idea that an international partner would seek to aid Republicans in the upcoming elections, in hopes of strengthening their hand in Congress, and even promote a potential second Trump term, has fueled an apoplectic response by many Democrats, especially in Congress.
Many Democrats maintain a long list of grievances with Saudi Arabia in addition to its supposed strong alliance with Trump, including the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, the war in Yemen, and a range of human rights abuses. They were more comfortable with what Biden said as a candidate in 2020 about treating Saudi Arabia as “a pariah” than they were with his administration’s slow and careful, but deliberate, measures to rebuild ties culminating in his Middle East trip in July and his conciliatory fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Long primed to see Saudi Arabia as an unworthy, unreliable, and unsavory partner, congressional Democrats have demanded and threatened a range of damaging reprisals against Riyadh. The Biden administration, however, has said Saudi Arabia will face serious consequences but that it will determine them in the future, seeking to mull over the situation and allow tempers to cool. Beyond the issues of the moment, and the cool-to-frosty relationship between Biden and Mohammed bin Salman, some analysts also detect waning Saudi interest in coordinating on oil with the United States, as it has become a major oil producer in its own right.
Why Saudis are Taken Aback and Also Feel Betrayed
Americans were shocked by the Saudi move, although they ought to have seen it coming and understand its actual context. The key factor for Washington is the Ukraine war. OPEC+ is a forum for OPEC member producers, led by Saudi Arabia, and non-OPEC producers, primarily Russia. The structure of the relationship is primarily based on the 2020 oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, in which Riyadh demonstrated decisive ability to be the swing producer. Saudi Arabia is loath to give up this hard-fought and dearly won dominant position in a functioning de facto cartel.
From the Saudi perspective, the oil market cannot be stabilized without an agreement among these producers. Otherwise, the price would be determined by unpredictable and even chaotic forces as different producers increase and decrease production of this fungible commodity according to their own agendas. While the Saudis had committed not to let the price of oil rise sky high, they insist they always intended to maintain the price at an acceptable level and prevent its looming collapse. In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia watched the price of oil per barrel steadily sink. And apparently, Riyadh felt a national security imperative to intervene to prevent and modestly reverse the slide.
For many years Saudi Arabia had maintained that the appropriate price of oil was between $80 and $100 per barrel. And Washington was comfortable with such an arrangement as well, particularly as fracking became profitable in the United States. The Saudi purpose in OPEC+ is to maintain a minimum price of $80/bbl with the hope of stabilizing it at $90/bbl. While Saudi spokespeople are maintaining that this is a “purely economic” decision, in fact it operates at the highest level of national grand strategy – although this is not how it is understood in Washington.
Under King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has engaged in a remarkable and in many ways unprecedented effort to rapidly transform the social and economic conditions in a large and populous state through top-down guidance. The Saudi leaders know that they have merely a few decades left of major oil revenue in which to use hydrocarbon resources as the basis for a transformation to a viable post-hydrocarbon economy. This is urgent, risky, and cannot be postponed.
So, for the Saudi government, issues involving oil pricing are viewed through the lens of their highly ambitious and extremely fragile development and economic transformation agenda. Clearly, they did not view the OPEC+ agreement, essentially between themselves and the Russians, primarily through the lens of the Ukraine war – although arguably they should have understood how it would look to the Western world, especially Washington. They saw it through the lens of their own urgent domestic economic agenda and did not view it as siding with Russia, let alone betraying Washington or throwing Ukraine to the wolves.
This is almost entirely unappreciated and unrecognized in Washington. But what many Americans don’t seem to understand is that they are angry at Saudi Arabia for not taking a major hit to help the West in supporting Ukraine. Neither point of view is irrational and both are objectively correct. Saudi Arabia is indeed acting in its interests and in a manner that has been traditionally held as legitimate for oil pricing goals that have also been long regarded as reasonable. At the same time, the Saudi move does help strengthen the Russian economy and undermine a campaign of sanctions against and international isolation of Moscow. Differing imperatives and agendas produce differing perspectives that have resulted in both sides misunderstanding and misinterpreting each other’s intentions.
The December 4 OPEC+ Meeting is a Crucial Opportunity for a Reset
The current crisis is unnecessary because it is primarily based on these misunderstandings, but they reflect a lack of effective communication and a deep deficit of trust. The lack of trust between Riyadh and Washington is remarkably high and has developed steadily for at least the past 15 years. That’s why a Saudi move to maintain oil at $80/bbl, a price that rationally ought to be perfectly acceptable to the United States, and traditionally has been, has become a major flashpoint.
Americans expect Saudi cooperation, especially on oil pricing, and they feel they haven’t gotten it at the time of deep tensions and great vulnerability, particularly in Europe – and above all immediately before the looming midterm elections. And in many instances in the past, the Saudis have consulted with Washington and in essence cooperated on oil policy. Saudis expect U.S. support for their fundamental national security, including helping their urgent effort to create a viable post-hydrocarbon future, and they feel they haven’t gotten it at a time of their own deep vulnerability. U.S. inaction following the September 2019 missile and drone attacks widely believed to have been conducted by Iran against Saudi Aramco facilities was a key inflection point for Saudi Arabia and probably doomed any remaining hopes that Saudi Arabia had that Republicans or Trump would provide the solution to better relations with Washington and improved national security. The conviction among Democrats that Saudi Arabia is attempting to intervene in the midterm elections on behalf of Republicans or Trump is solipsistic. The Saudis are not adjusting oil prices according to the U.S. political calendar. What they are doing, though, is ignoring the political calendar as they move to adjust oil prices and prevent them from falling to what are, from their point of view, unacceptably low levels. In the context of such a close and crucial partnership, Saudi inattention to the U.S. political calendar constitutes a solipsism of its own.
The UAE has also played a serious role. Abu Dhabi reportedly communicated Washington’s concerns about a potential production cut to Riyadh in the days before the OPEC+ emergency meeting, and it, too, apparently expressed reservations. However, once the meeting was convened, the UAE eventually went along with Saudi Arabia and, by virtue of consensus, Russia as well. Yet immediately after the decision was made, UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan visited Moscow offering to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. He was warmly and enthusiastically welcome by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is constantly looking for ways to break out of his suffocating international isolation.
The UAE move was bold and reflects a newfound dynamism in Emirati international engagement that potentially carries certain risks. Traditional UAE foreign policy was characterized by caution, reflecting its role as a mid-level power. In recent years, the UAE has increasingly taken on international roles that break from that caution. However, in this case the trip to Russia was closely coordinated with the United States and was part of a U.S.-led international effort to press Putin on nuclear dangers arising from the Ukraine war.
The Biden administration has not reacted hastily or incautiously to the oil production cut. It was clear about its dismay over the OPEC+ decision, mainly directed toward Saudi Arabia. And it assured its congressional allies that Biden would “reevaluate” the relationship with Saudi Arabia and that the country would face “consequences” for the decision. However, he has not yet taken any actions that would constitute reevaluation or consequences, preferring to let tempers cool. For its part, Riyadh has assured Washington that it will vote against Russia at the United Nations and condemn its annexation of occupied Ukrainian territories.
Despite the deep-seated lack of trust that has built up for decades, the United States and Saudi Arabia still need each other for national interest imperatives. Saudi Arabia ultimately requires an external guarantor of its security, and only the United States can play this role under current circumstances. The kingdom is ill-equipped to go it alone in a dangerous world and region. Yet the Gulf and its energy resources remain central to the global economy, especially in South and East Asia. The powerful U.S. military presence in the Gulf region, and the waterways through which the lifeblood of the global economy passes every day, remains one of Washington’s key assets with friend and foe alike.
The United States may not be dependent on Middle East energy, but China certainly is, to Washington’s profound anxiety and displeasure. So even in the context of a “pivot to Asia” or an emphasis on “great power competition,” primarily with China, the Gulf region, with its vital energy resources and strategic waterways, remains a crucial competitive advantage for the United States and a major source of leverage, particularly with South and East Asian powers. To that end, the United States needs a primary local partner, and only Saudi Arabia can plausibly play that role, given that Iraq is barely functional, Iran is an anti-status quo and revisionist power, and the other Gulf states lack the strategic depth, in terms of population, geography, and economic size that the Saudis command.
Despite these strong fundamentals, over the years Saudi Arabia has come to distrust the U.S. commitment to its security and will to act, while continuing to issue dictates and set its own agenda without regard to Saudi interests and imperatives, treating it, as some Democrats have bluntly said in recent days, as “a client state.” Meanwhile, the United States has come to view Saudi Arabia as an untrustworthy, ineffective, and yet intolerably ruthless partner, one whose values are incompatible with Washington’s and that provides little of value. Since neither side views itself in this manner, there should be every reason to convince the other that they are mistaken.
Insofar as there are elements of truth in these perceptions, they are also, for the most part, inaccurate. If the United States really were abandoning the Gulf Arab countries and region, it would not be maintaining the huge military footprint and presence that it has. Instead, it would have radically drawn down, to widespread applause from the U.S. public. If Saudi Arabia truly were disinterested in U.S. considerations, it would connive with Russia to drive the oil price far above $80/bbl and cooperate with Iran and others in selling oil in other currencies (thereby costing the United States billions per year), and both sides would have stopped their extensive military and intelligence cooperation throughout the Middle East. And, in fact, under the hood of the vehicle, a great deal of cooperation has been going on. Although, the United States has reportedly canceled a meeting of a U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council working group on Iran that is seeking to develop a more integrated set of regional air and missile defense systems that Washington has been heavily promoting for Gulf Arab and other Middle Eastern partners.
The existence of this working group, and many other similar unsung elements of U.S.-Saudi and U.S.-GCC cooperation, is a useful reminder that, behind the scenes, a great deal of useful cooperation has continued and grown throughout the years. There are numerous reasons that the U.S.-Saudi relationship has flourished for almost 80 years despite being punctuated with minor and major tremors and rifts. But it has always repaired itself because neither side has entered the relationship out of altruism or mutual infatuation. Both sides have acted entirely in their national interests, and the reasons for doing so remain as powerful now as they have ever been. Therefore, the relationship should, and likely will, be repaired.
However, given the lack of trust that has developed on both sides, that is going to take some work. Fortunately, there is a major opportunity in the next OPEC+ meeting. The meeting is set for December 4, just as the cold European winter will be setting in. At that point, many things will have been clarified. Hopefully, Saudi Arabia will be more satisfied with the stability of the price of oil. The midterm election results will be in, and if Democrats perform well, particularly by maintaining control of the Senate, they will be a lot less upset about what they have perceived as intended meddling. Even the trajectory of the war in Ukraine could be somewhat clearer by then. At any rate, that meeting presents an excellent opportunity for Saudi Arabia, without any appearance of coercion or undue pressure, to undertake a new pricing structure that is acceptable to the White House and Congress.
The key is coordination. However inadvertently, Riyadh has ignited the current crisis and, therefore, it ought to take the initiative to rectify the misunderstanding by closely coordinating its position on December 4 with Washington. Beginning to fully appreciate the depth of anger in Washington, on October 12 the Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the United States had requested a one-month delay in the decision but that would have had “negative economic consequences.” However, it insisted the decision was not “politically motived against the United States of America,” that Saudi Arabia was not siding with Russia and that while it wouldn’t accept any “dictates,” it views “its relationship with the United States of America as a strategic one that serves the common interests of both countries.”
Words need to be reified by deeds. Fortunately, the December 4 OPEC+ meeting provides an opportunity for Riyadh, if it wants to take it, to correct the impression that it is somehow siding with Russia against the United States and Ukraine or that it does not take U.S. imperatives into consideration. And Washington needs to reciprocate by demonstrating how serious it is about Saudi national security interests, including its urgent national economic transformation project. U.S. and Saudi goals are not contradictory or in tension, and their long-term aims – all based on regional and international security and stability – are broadly compatible. There’s certainly no rational basis for a meltdown over energy pricing that ought to be mutually acceptable as long as there is sufficient consultation, coordination, and sincere attempts to understand each other’s imperatives.