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Understanding the highs and lows of U.S.-Saudi relations

For more than seven decades, despite differences over human rights and the Arab-Israeli conflict, the United States and Saudi Arabia have maintained a close alliance based on an exchange of security for oil. Lately, this arrangement has shown signs of stress. US President Joe Biden initially chilled relations after the 2018 murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. He tried to put things right in July, in order to persuade the world’s largest exporter of crude to increase production and thus lower world oil prices. But a decision in early October by Saudi Arabia-led OPEC to cut production has put the relationship on even tougher footing than before.

1. What is the history of US-Saudi relations?

In 1945, US President Franklin Roosevelt and the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, held a historic meeting aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. They disagreed vehemently over the future of what was then British Mandate Palestine, with the Americans supporting the establishment of Israel in part of it and the King opposing a Jewish state in the Middle East. East. They nevertheless laid the groundwork for a strategic arrangement whereby the United States provided security guarantees to Saudi leaders in return for access to the kingdom’s vast oil reserves. Over the years, the United States has complained, though not loudly, about the constraints on civil rights and the unequal treatment of women and Shia Muslim minorities in the kingdom. The links have sometimes deviated. In 1973, Saudi Arabia led an Arab oil boycott of the United States and other countries that supported Israel in the Arab-Israeli war that year, contributing to a recession in the West. Still, the relationship lasted. It was deepened by Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, which toppled a US-backed monarch in a country that rivals Saudi Arabia for regional dominance, and by Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which borders Saudi Arabia.

2. Why did things go wrong between the United States and Saudi Arabia?

The 9/11 attacks on the United States, which were orchestrated and mainly orchestrated by Saudi nationals, introduced a bitter note in 2001. More than that, a broader structural change has undermined the fundamentals of the relationship in recent years. : the shale boom has made America the world’s largest oil producer and therefore less dependent on imports from the Middle East. At the same time, Saudi de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has abandoned the kingdom’s usual cautious foreign policy in favor of a self-assertion that has made Saudi Arabia a vexing ally for states. -United. He launched a disruptive blockade of Qatar, home to the largest US military base in the region, and a devastating intervention in Yemen’s civil war. US intelligence believed he ordered the 2018 operation that ended in the killing of Saudi government critic Jamal Khashoggi inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul. The crown prince has denied any involvement in the murder while accepting symbolic responsibility for it as the country’s unofficial leader.

While US President Donald Trump embraced Saudi Arabia, making it the first place he visited abroad after taking office in 2017, Biden took a different approach. During his campaign for the presidency, he vowed to make Saudi Arabia a global “outcast” following the murder of Khashoggi, who had been a US citizen and Washington Post columnist. Biden didn’t go that far after taking office in 2021, but he took a step back from the Saudis.

• He published a report accusing Prince Mohammed of Khashoggi’s murder.

• Unlike Trump, who met and spoke directly with Prince Mohammed, Biden avoided him. The White House said it was more appropriate for the president to deal with his counterpart, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, and relegated the crown prince, who is also defense minister, to liaising with the US defense secretary. Lloyd Austin. It was seen in the kingdom as an insult to the man who already effectively rules the country and will almost certainly become its next king.

• Biden ended US support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive operations in Yemen, including related arms transfers. The Saudi bombing campaign, aimed at dislodging the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who took control of Yemen’s capital and surrounding areas in 2014, has been widely criticized for disproportionately affecting civilians. Biden has retained assistance aimed at helping defend Saudi territory against Houthi attacks.

4. Why did Biden try to smooth things over?

Russia’s war in Ukraine has driven up oil prices — and therefore gasoline costs for American consumers — creating a risk that voters will punish Biden’s Democratic Party in congressional and state elections in november. So in July, the president swallowed his pride, flew to Saudi Arabia and publicly met Prince Mohammed in a bid to re-establish ties. The following month, Saudi Arabia responded with one of the smallest production increases in OPEC’s six-decade history – just an extra 100,000 barrels per day in September.

5. Why is OPEC cutting production now?

Officials from member countries have defended the cuts as necessary to protect their own economies as well as the oil industry from the risk of a global economic downturn. The October 5 agreement between OPEC members and its allies, including Russia, is to cut collective production by 2 million barrels a day from November. Since many members are already falling short of their production targets, the actual oil supply will only decrease by about half that amount. Still, it’s the biggest reduction since 2020.

6. How did the United States react?

The Saudi decision infuriated Biden’s team. In response, the United States planned to release an additional 10 million barrels of its strategic oil reserve in November to partially offset OPEC’s production cuts, and officials said they would consider releasing more. . White House officials have threatened to consult Congress on ways to reduce OPEC’s influence on oil prices. Members of Congress have called for reviving a bill called the No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act, known as NOPEC, which would empower the US Department of Justice to file an antitrust lawsuit against OPEC . Other lawmakers have suggested reducing arms deliveries to the Saudis. Both of these options, however, risked escalating tensions with the kingdom with unknown consequences.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com