Biden to Re-evaluate Relationship With Saudi Arabia After Oil Production Cut


WASHINGTON — President Biden will re-evaluate the relationship with Saudi Arabia after it teamed up with Russia to cut oil production in a move that bolstered President Vladimir V. Putin’s government and could raise gasoline prices in the United States just before midterm elections, a White House official said on Tuesday.

“Certainly in light of recent developments and OPEC Plus’s decision about oil production, the president believes that we should review the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia and to take a look to see if that relationship is where it needs to be and that it is serving our national security interests,” the official, John F. Kirby, told reporters on a conference call.

Mr. Kirby, the strategic communications coordinator for the National Security Council, signaled openness to retaliatory measures proposed by Democratic congressional leaders who were outraged by the oil production cut announced last week by OPEC Plus, the international cartel. Among other things, leading Democrats have proposed curbing security cooperation with Saudi Arabia, including arms sales, and stripping OPEC members of their legal immunity so they can be sued for violations of U.S. antitrust laws.

“He is willing to discuss this relationship with members of Congress,” Mr. Kirby said of Mr. Biden. “He knows that many members have expressed concerns on both sides of the aisle.”

In an earlier appearance on CNN, Mr. Kirby sounded a note of urgency: “The timeline’s now, and I think he’s going to be willing to start to have those conversations right away. I don’t think this is anything that’s going to have to wait or should wait quite frankly for much longer.”

The comments came a day after Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, assailed Saudi Arabia for effectively backing Russia in its brutal invasion of Ukraine. The senator called for an immediate freeze on “all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia,” vowing to use his power to block future arms sales.

“There simply is no room to play both sides of this conflict — either you support the rest of the free world in trying to stop a war criminal from violently wiping off an entire country off of the map, or you support him,” Mr. Menendez said. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia chose the latter in a terrible decision driven by economic self-interest.”

Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said on Tuesday morning that Saudi Arabia clearly wanted Russia to win the war in Ukraine. “Let’s be very candid about this,” he said on CNN. “It’s Putin and Saudi Arabia against the United States.”

Mr. Biden’s willingness to consider retaliatory measures represents a significant shift for a president who had sought to improve relations with Saudi Arabia in recent months and reflected deep anger in the White House about the decision last week by OPEC Plus, which is led by the Saudis, to cut oil production by up to two million barrels a day.

Still, it was not immediately clear how far Mr. Biden was willing to go, or whether he was using the public comments as a warning to Saudi Arabia or as an effort to quiet domestic critics who have faulted him for being soft on the kingdom. No special team of aides was established to conduct a formal review; no deadline was set for a conclusion; and no options were mentioned for consideration.

Some foreign policy veterans cautioned Mr. Biden against drastic action. “The United States should seek a new strategic compact with Saudi Arabia rather than a divorce,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former diplomat in the Middle East who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We need a more responsible Saudi leadership when it comes to oil production and regional behavior. They need a more reliable U.S. security understanding to deal with the threats they face. We should both step back from the brink.”

Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who also spent many years in government dealing with Middle East affairs, said Mr. Biden needed to weigh the potential drawbacks of a break with Saudi Arabia, a vital ally to the United States in fighting terrorism and countering Iran in the region.

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“Biden will have to decide whether the objective is to punish Saudi Arabia to pre-empt domestic criticism or to try to alter M.B.S.’s behavior,” he said, using the nickname for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “The latter will be hard, even if Biden moves to suspend all arms sales — a response that could impact U.S. policy in the Gulf with regard to Iran.”

The president was subject to withering criticism for visiting Saudi Arabia in July and giving a fist bump to Prince Mohammed, despite a campaign promise to make the kingdom an international “pariah” for the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The C.I.A. has determined that Prince Mohammed ordered the operation that led to the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Mr. Khashoggi, who was a columnist for The Washington Post and a resident of the United States.

Overcoming his own reservations, Mr. Biden went along with advisers who had argued that it was worth the political hit to restore ties with Saudi Arabia for a variety of reasons, such as the need to bolster energy markets given the effort to isolate Russia, one of the biggest oil producers in the world. While no specific announcements were made during Mr. Biden’s visit to Jeddah in July, U.S. officials said at the time that they had an understanding with Saudi Arabia that it would increase oil production in the fall and lower gasoline prices heading into the crucial congressional elections.

The Saudi decision to do the opposite last week in defiance of American entreaties was a blow to Mr. Biden and opened him to further criticism even from fellow Democrats who argued that Saudi Arabia should be punished. Three House Democrats announced legislation requiring the removal of U.S. troops and defensive systems from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

After falling for more than three months, gas prices are rising again, increasing by 12 cents a gallon on average over the past week to $3.92, according to AAA. The White House was counting on falling gas prices to buttress Democratic efforts to keep control of both chambers of Congress.

The anger in Washington at Saudi Arabia was exacerbated in the past couple of days by Russia’s latest strikes against civilian targets across Ukraine. The Saudi alignment with Russia came even as China and India have put more distance between themselves and Moscow over the war in Ukraine.

Democrats increasingly framed the dispute with Saudi Arabia in terms of the kingdom’s willingness to aid Mr. Putin’s aggression.

“This is not the time for business as usual with Mr. Putin or the Kremlin,” Mr. Kirby said.

Source : Nytimes