Mohammed bin Salman leverages Biden on oil after Russia invades Ukraine – and uses it

Sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine have wreaked havoc on global energy markets. Western capitals panicked over how to contain the price of oil as it soared to nearly $140 a barrel and how to wean off Russian supplies. The United States and the United Kingdom, which both announced bans on buying Russian oil, rushed to convince their traditional allies to turn on their taps and reduce world oil prices.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two of the biggest oil producers, however, have not been obliged, instead seeing an opportunity for themselves in the crisis. The message to the United States and the West in general was unequivocal: the Saudis have too much influence to be taken for granted in geopolitics or to be treated as the object of continual criticism for human rights violations. .

Even more than the Emiratis, the Saudis hold the key to the oil wells and are waiting for big concessions from the United States before turning on their taps and reversing their pro-Russian oil policy. Activists fear that human rights will once again be sacrificed on the altar of energy security. Neither the US nor the UK has publicly criticized Saudi Arabia’s mass executions of 81 people in mid-March. The West’s policy towards Saudi Arabia has been mainly to cajole to ease the pressure on consumers’ wallets.

Sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine have wreaked havoc on global energy markets. Western capitals panicked over how to contain the price of oil as it soared to nearly $140 a barrel and how to wean off Russian supplies. The United States and the United Kingdom, which both announced bans on buying Russian oil, rushed to convince their traditional allies to turn on their taps and reduce world oil prices.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two of the biggest oil producers, however, have not been obliged, instead seeing an opportunity for themselves in the crisis. The message to the United States and the West in general was unequivocal: the Saudis have too much influence to be taken for granted in geopolitics or to be treated as the object of continual criticism for human rights violations. .

Even more than the Emiratis, the Saudis hold the key to the oil wells and are waiting for big concessions from the United States before turning on their taps and reversing their pro-Russian oil policy. Activists fear that human rights will once again be sacrificed on the altar of energy security. Neither the US nor the UK has publicly criticized Saudi Arabia’s mass executions of 81 people in mid-March. The West’s policy towards Saudi Arabia has been mainly to cajole to ease the pressure on consumers’ wallets.

The Saudis and Emiratis have spare capacity of over 3 million barrels per day and could reduce oil prices even if they release some of it. Moreover, given that Russia exports around 5 million barrels per day and nearly 80% to Europe, an assurance of support from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could go a long way to allay European countries’ concerns and encourage them to reduce their dependence on Russia.

But the two Gulf states held back, citing their commitment to OPEC+1, the expanded version of the oil cartel that includes Russia. Their reasoning is that the war in Ukraine has not so far resulted in a massive disruption of oil supplies; therefore, there is no need to maximize production. But experts believe it is a political move that reflects a major shift in global politics. The choice to keep prices high, which also benefits the Russian war machine, shows how the Gulf dictatorships no longer feel the need to be on the good side of the United States and adopt new alliances with like-minded authoritarians. ideas. On several occasions in the past, Saudi leaders have increased or reduced production to please their American allies.

This time, however, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sees a chance to exact revenge on US President Joe Biden for what he sees as gratuitous insults and less than favorable treatment. While still a U.S. presidential candidate, Biden portrayed Saudi Arabia as a pariah and, when in office, released a intelligence report which implicated the crown prince in the assassination of the Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Moreover, the Saudis and the Emiratis felt that their concerns about the possible resumption of the Iranian nuclear agreement were put aside and that the United States had failed in its duty as a military ally by refusing to take action. against the Houthis in Yemen for attacking their ships and towns. Lately, even their calls to keep the Houthi movement on the list of designated terrorists have been ignored by Washington.

As fuel prices rose in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war, the White House scrambled to arrange a phone call between Biden and the dumped crown prince, but was rebuffed. However, the Saudi heir wasn’t at all worried about being seen as a closer ally of Putin, who backed him through claims he ordered Khashoggi’s murder and didn’t even whisper a word of it. condemnation when women’s rights activists were arrested and prisoners executed en masse.

The Saudi tilt towards another authoritarian began in 2015, when relations soured with then US President Barack Obama. A year later, Russia was included in OPEC. Riyadh’s relationship with Moscow has since strengthened, while ties with the United States have waxed and waned, improving during the tenure of US President Donald Trump, who pulled out of the nuclear deal. Obama era with Iran, and collapsing again when Biden took over and restarted talks to revive the deal. Under the Trump administration, Mohammed bin Salman has been portrayed as a reformer, but under Biden he was again widely criticized for Saudi strikes in Yemen that killed civilians and for human rights abuses in his country. own kingdom.

Trita Parsi, co-founder and executive vice-president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said Saudi Arabia supports Russia because the crown prince is certain of Putin’s retention as Russian president and a change of government. in the USA.

“The Saudi crown prince is betting on Putin,” he said. “Not only does he believe, but he also hopes that Republicans will win the midterm elections, turning Biden into a lame duck. By 2025, [Mohammed bin Salman] likely believes Biden and the Democrats will be out of power, while Putin will remain president of Russia.

The crisis has forced the United States to reconsider its demands for energy independence. He must either come up with a more cohesive long-term plan to better manage his domestic energy industry, which has suffered significant losses during the pandemic, or shut up and tolerate the authoritarians.

In any case, energy experts estimate that it would take months for American hydraulic fracturing companies to dig new wells. Even if the sanctions against Iran and Venezuela are lifted, it will still take time before they can supply their oil to the world market. Last weekend, Germany signed a long-term agreement with Qatar to import liquefied natural gas (LNG); Qatar holds the third largest gas reserves after Russia and Iran. Under the deal, Germany will speed up construction of two LNG terminals to be able to import Qatari gas, but even then it would be years before that gas would be delivered to German homes. Until now, Germany had relied on cheaper Russian gas transported by pipelines.

Saudi Aramco, currently the world’s largest oil producer, reported record profits in 2021, earning $110 billion, a 124% increase in net income from $49 billion the previous year. The company announced a general investment in increasing oil production but nothing to increase supply in the short term. “We recognize that energy security is paramount to billions of people around the world, which is why we continue to make progress in increasing our crude oil production capacity,” said Amin Nasser, CEO of Saudi Aramco.

The International Energy Agency has said that by the end of this year at least 1.5 million barrels of oil per day will likely be lost in Russia. This will undoubtedly lead to a further rise in prices. OPEC+ will meet at the end of this month and are expected to take stock of the situation to decide on oil production. But much depends on the extent to which Saudis and Emiratis feel heard by the United States.

They are certain that the United States will not change its position on the nuclear agreement, but could it support the Gulf countries in their war against the Houthis in Yemen and reduce criticism over human rights violations? The lowest fruit in the world of hard national interests is individual liberties. Saudi activists could end up paying the price for global oil stability and further price declines. Mohammed bin Salman, however, might want even more than that from Biden.