Saudi oil cut hits back at Biden’s reach

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Thursday effectively acknowledged the failure of one of his biggest and most humiliating foreign policy gambles: a fist bump on Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, the crown prince, who has been linked to human rights abuses.

Bidens awkward encounter with Mohammed bin Salman in July was a humiliating attempt to mend relations with the world’s most influential oil power at a time when the US. sought his help to counter the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the consequent rise in oil prices.

That punch three months ago was followed this week by Prince Mohammed’s slap in the face: a major cut in oil production by OPEC producers and Russia, threatening to push up inflation in support of oil producer Russia in its war in Ukraine and pushing gas prices back to levels that anger voters just ahead of the US midterm elections, undermining Biden and the Democrats’ electoral prospects.

When asked about Saudi Arabia’s actions, Biden told reporters Thursday it was “a disappointment and it says there are problems” in the US-Saudi Arabia relationship.

A number of congressional Democrats called on the US to respond by withdrawing its decades-old supply of arms and US military protection to Saudi Arabia, and no longer blamed Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s side of a more than 70-year strategy maintain partnership. The relationship is based on the US protecting the Kingdom from its external enemies and Saudi Arabia providing enough oil to keep global markets stable.

New Jersey Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski called the oil production cuts “a hostile act” and led two other lawmakers in introducing legislation that would withdraw US troops and Patriot missile batteries from the kingdom.

The US currently has no plans to withdraw military personnel or equipment from Saudi Arabia, Deputy State Department Spokesman Vedant Patel said Thursday.

Congress and the government reacted to the announcement of a larger-than-expected 2 million barrels-per-day cut by the OPEC-plus group led by Saudi Arabia and Russia. The production cut is likely to push up prices and boost oil revenues, which Russia is using to continue its war in Ukraine despite US-led international sanctions, and a global economy already grappling with tight energy supplies , continue to shake.

Saudi Oil Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman, a half-brother of the crown prince, insisted at the OPEC Plus meeting that the action was not “belligerent”. But he smiled as he separately told Arabic-language reporters that oil producers are “keeping the world busy.”

As a candidate, Biden had made an impassioned pledge to make the Saudi royal family an “outcast” for human rights abuses, most notably the 2018 assassination of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi officials at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

US intelligence officials concluded that Prince Mohammed, who wields much of the power in Saudi Arabia in place of his aging father, King Salman, ordered or authorized Khashoggi’s assassination.

Biden as president disappointed rights activists when he chose not to punish Prince Mohammed directly, citing his senior position in the kingdom and the US’s strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia.

Then, in February, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exacerbated an already tight global oil market, pushing up gasoline prices and overall inflation. Allied Israel and some in the government argued that smooth relations between Riyadh and Washington must be a US priority.

As US prices at the pump rose and Biden’s poll numbers continued to fall, senior government officials began commuting to the Gulf to mollify Prince Mohammed’s anger at Biden’s campaign remarks and US findings on Khashoggi’s assassination. This led to Biden making his first visit as president to Saudi Arabia in July, putting presidential prestige behind an attempt to put US-Saudi Arabia relations and global oil supplies back on a more stable footing.

In Jeddah, Biden stayed close to offering a much-anticipated handshake. Instead, Biden, who looked more frail and stooped compared to Prince Mohammed, who is in his late 30s, leaned over to offer an unusual fist bump. Prince Mohammed replied. Any smiles on the two men’s faces as their ankles touched were fleeting.

Critics deplored Biden’s association with a prince accused of ordering the imprisonment, kidnapping, torture and murder of those, even other royals and family members, who oppose him or express dissenting views.

Even if “you’re not willing to use the sticks with MBS, then don’t give up the carrots for nothing,” Khalid al Jabri, the son of former Saudi Minister of State Saad al Jabri, said Thursday, using the prince’s initials.

Senior al Jabri accuses Prince Mohammed of sending a hit squad after him and arresting two of his children in 2018 to force his return. Prince Mohammed denies any direct wrongdoing, although he says that as Saudi leader he takes responsibility for events under his watch.

Khalid al Jabri, now in exile like his father, made an argument that was picked up by lawyers, democratic lawmakers and others:

“It’s a big mistake in Biden policy so far that it was unilateral in this kind of US-Saudi rapprochement, it was unilateral concessions. And that doesn’t work at MBS.”

He cited President Donald Trump’s handling of the oil market upheaval in 2020, when Prince Mohammed and Russian President Vladimir Putin flooded the world market with cheap oil and brought US producers of more expensive shale oil to their knees. Trump ended it with a few phone calls and, according to some news reports, an indirect threat to Saudi Arabia’s US-provided security.

“Trump didn’t have to take the plane to Saudi, he didn’t like having to sell arms. He didn’t have to throw fist punches,” said Khalid al Jabri. “He’s a bully who knew how to deal with another bully.”

Saudi Arabia has made some moves that have benefited the US since Biden’s visit. Saudi Arabia was among the mediators who recently secured the release of two Americans and other foreigners captured by Russia while fighting for Ukraine. And OPEC-plus slightly increased oil production shortly after the visit.

However, much sharper cuts in oil production since then have offset this, even ahead of this week. Prince Mohammed and other Saudi officials have also outwardly maintained cordial relations with Russian officials.

And lawyers point to a string of decades-long jail sentences imposed on Saudi men and women for the mildest freedom of speech, particularly tweets, since Biden’s visit.

By November, the Biden administration must decide whether to make another major concession to the prince. A US court has given the US that deadline to determine whether or not it will agree with Prince Mohammed’s attorney that the prince has legal immunity from a lawsuit in US federal court over the killing of Khashoggi.

Lawmakers are expected to be away from Washington until after the Nov. 8 midterm elections and when they return they will focus on federal agency funding for the full fiscal year through September 2023. Chances of a lame Congress taking up the bill introduced by Malinowski and the other two lawmakers are slim.

Rising gas prices would be bad news for Democrats heading into the final stages of midterm elections, while Republicans continue to look to capitalize on decades of inflation and the rising cost of living, with high gas prices a constant reminder as voters fill up their tanks .

Sen. Dick Durbin, the second highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, had one of the most scathing reactions to the OPEC announcement.

“From unanswered questions about 9/11 and the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi to conspiring with Putin to punish the US with higher oil prices, the Saudi Royal Family has never been a trusted ally for our nation. It’s time for our foreign policy to imagine a world without their alliance,” he tweeted Thursday.


Chris Megerian in Washington and Jill Colvin in New York City contributed.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. Saudi oil cut hits back at Biden’s reach

Sarah Y. Kim

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