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Too late for a Saudi rethink? Critics say oil cut was a predictable blow for Biden

Powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had been "actively rewarded" by Biden for his “very bad behavior with presidential visits and fist bumps,” one activist said.
Jeddah Security and Development Summit in Jeddah
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meeting with President Joe Biden in Jeddah in July. Royal Court of Saudi Arabia / Anadolu via Getty Images

President Joe Biden’s attempts to court Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were destined to end in failure, analysts and dissidents told NBC News, after the White House and the deeply conservative kingdom clashed over cuts to oil production.

Without elaborating, the White House warned there would be “consequences’’ for the Middle Eastern powerbroker after the oil-producing alliance OPEC+ announced earlier this month that it would cut oil production by 2 million barrels a day, a move that’s likely to send gas prices higher again.

The cut is also seen as helping Russia, the world’s second-largest oil exporter, finance its war in Ukraine

And for some, the decision by the group of 13 oil exporting countries, whose de facto leader is Saudi Arabia, was a sign that Biden’s bid to reset ties between Washington and Riyadh during a visit to the kingdom earlier this year was doomed to fail.

“It failed both on blood and on oil,” Dr. Khalid Aljabri, a Saudi rights activist, told NBC News Thursday by telephone. 

Aljabri, who works as a cardiologist in Washington, D.C., added that bin Salman had “zero incentive to change his behavior.”  

The Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul pictured in February 2021.
The Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul pictured in February 2021. Lina Alhathloul / Twitter

As a presidential candidate, Biden made no bones about his stance on the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Shortly after announcing his candidacy, he declared he was going to “cancel the blank check” the Trump administration had given Saudi Arabia during its war in Yemen, in which thousands of people have lost their lives.  

He also vowed to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state in the wake of the brutal killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA has said was likely ordered by the crown prince. 

Bin Salman has long denied any knowledge or involvement in the killing of the journalist, one of his most prominent critics, which was carried out inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by agents who worked for him. A U.S. intelligence report that Biden declassified after coming to office said Khashoggi’s killing could not have happened without the crown prince’s knowledge.

In July, despite the criticism and with the war raging in Ukraine, Biden visited the kingdom, which is a vital American ally and one of the largest oil producers in the world. 

Biden, who promised ahead of his visit that he would bring up the kingdom’s rights record, famously fist-bumped the crown prince, who is Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, and held meetings with him and other senior figures.   

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi at a press conference in the Bahraini capital, Manama, in December 2014.Mohammed Al-Shaikh / AFP - Getty Images

For Lina al-Hathloul, a Saudi human rights activist, it was clear that the president would not “be getting anything out of this visit” at the time. 

Al-Hathloul, whose sister Loujain al-Hathloul was imprisoned after making global headlines for campaigning for women's right to drive in Saudi Arabia, said they had warned that Biden’s visit would empower bin Salman and that had proven to be the case.  

Aljabri agreed. He said that the crown prince had been “actively rewarded,” by Biden for his “very bad behavior with presidential visits and fist bumps.” 

“It’s been a positive reinforcing loop,” he said. “He commits a mistake, gets zero consequences, gets emboldened, pushes the line more, commits a bigger mistake, and that is going to keep happening.”  

The decision by OPEC+ to cut production was “a hostile act that is deliberate with intended consequences,” Aljabri added. 

Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, also called the decision a “deliberate kneecapping of Biden” ahead of the midterm elections

“It’s pretty clear that they’re doing this to inflict deliberate pain on the Biden administration ahead of the elections,” added Whitson, whose group is a New York based nongovernmental organization that campaigns for better governance and human rights across the Middle East.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement Thursday that the decision to cut oil production had been taken to “protect the global economy from oil-market volatility” and that the move was not “politically motivated.”

It also suggested the U.S. asked it to wait a month before it cut oil production, a move that could have staved off price rises at American pumps until after the midterm elections

National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson subsequently rejected that claim as “categorically false.”  

However, Annelle Sheline, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, said that Saudi Arabia was more in tune with the administration of former President Donald Trump, who placed the kingdom at the heart of his Middle East policy and backed its stance against Iran.

The Saudis would be “delighted” if Trump were to run again in 2024, she said. “Crippling Biden and the Dems in the midterms would certainly align with this objective,” she added. 

The U.S. has several options on how it can respond to Saudi Arabia, such as “freezing all arms sales and security cooperation, to withdrawing U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia,” Sheline said. 

“In the longer run, the U.S. must continue to invest in a less oil dependent future,” so the decisions of foreign oil producers “would no longer have the capacity to swing U.S. elections,” she added.