The Biden administration and its supporters have reacted angrily to the Opec+ decision to cut oil production, seeing it as a rebuff to the US president’s efforts to improve relations with Saudi Arabia.
The White House made clear that it viewed the decision by the oil production cartel, in which the plus sign represents the inclusion of Russia, to reduce daily production by 2m barrels, as a geopolitical move, and a slight to Biden who is seeking to cut Russian revenues and keep the petrol price down before November’s congressional elections.
He angered his supporters by visiting Jeddah in July where he was pictured greeting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with a fist bump, in the hope of increased production and lower oil prices, despite US intelligence findings that the kingdom’s de facto ruler was behind the 2018 murder of the Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
White House spokesperson Karin Jean-Pierre said: “It’s clear that Opec+ is aligning with Russia with today’s announcement.”
A statement from the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and the director of the National Economic Council, Brian Deese, said the president was “disappointed by the shortsighted decision … while the global economy is dealing with the continued negative impact of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine”.
“I think it is a mistake on their part. And I think it’s time for a wholesale re-revaluation of the US alliance with Saudi Arabia,” the Democratic senator Chris Murphy told CNBC.
Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democratic congressman introduced legislation that would withdraw US troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“Our message to MBS should be: “If you want to side with Putin, then ask Putin to defend you. And good luck with that,”” Malinowski said on Twitter.
Khalid Aljabri, whose father, Saad, is an exiled senior Saudi intelligence official, argued that whatever the impact, part of the intention behind Riyadh’s participation in the Opec+ decision was about US politics.
“Previous monarchs were able to optimise between maximising Saudi oil revenue while aligning production policy with the interests of their western security guarantors, mainly the US,” Aljabri said.
“[Prince Mohammed] is different. Unlike his predecessors, he is an astute observer of domestic US politics and completely understands that high gas prices and inflation can swing the result of an election away from an incumbent president and his party.”
He described the move “as an assault on democracy and election interference while allowing Putin to perpetuate his assault on Ukraine”.
Despite the anger in Washington, experts on Saudi Arabia and the oil market questioned how much impact the decision would have on a bilateral relationship that has already become threadbare.
“I don’t think the Saudis think there’s much that the US administration can do to register their discontent in a meaningful way, and I don’t think the US expects that Saudi is going to go against Opec discussions for their interests,” said Kirsten Fontenrose, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council and a former senior director for the Gulf in the national security council. “So I think the Saudis know that the US isn’t going to be pleased with this, but they don’t much care.”
As part of his overtures to Riyadh over the summer, Biden had approved significant arms sales to Saudi Arabia but after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Nato allies that have provided arms to Kyiv and hope to replenish their arsenals have jumped ahead in the queue under alliance rules. So Biden’s promise of arms sales has not been fulfilled.
Ed Hirs, an energy expert at the department of economics at the University of Houston, also said that the west did not provide the vaccines that Saudi Arabia was seeking at the height of the pandemic and the country suffered a high death rate.
“If you step back, the United States does not have much to offer at this point and the Saudis don’t see any reason to provide any help,” Hirs said.
It is possible that the production cut will not have a big impact on prices. Despite surpassing predictions earlier in the week of cuts of 1m to 1.5m barrels, several Opec producers are already producing below their quotas, so the actual cut could be closer to 900,000 barrels.
“The Opec nations do not want to be in a position of providing too many barrels to a global economy that goes soft on them,” Hirs added. “It’s not a break with the west because relations were broken already. We didn’t help them very much through very difficult times.”