The White House bristled Wednesday at a top Saudi official’s assertion that the kingdom was the more “mature” partner in a relationship roiled by an ongoing spat over oil production that has seen top US officials begin exploring options to recalibrate ties to the Gulf monarchy.
“It’s not like some high school romance here,” said John Kirby, the communications coordinator at the National Security Council, when asked about a comment that Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman made this week at an investment conference in Riyadh.
The sore back-and-forth underscored the depths to which Washington-Riyadh relations have sunk in the aftermath of the oil cartel’s decision, which caught Washington off-guard after an intensive, months-long push by Biden administration officials to convince the kingdom to increase output, partly to make it easier to starve Russia of its oil profits.
Biden, when he visited Saudi Arabia in July, emerged from meetings with the kingdom’s top leaders confident that oil production would increase. Months later, he and his top officials accused the kingdom of siding with Russia in its war against Ukraine when OPEC+ announced it would cut production by 2 million barrels per day.
The President tasked his team with finding ways to “recalibrate” US relations with Saudi Arabia, a process that has already begun. And he said he would impose “consequences” on the kingdom in consultation with members of Congress.
Saudi officials responded by saying their decision was based on market conditions, not geopolitics, and insisted they were taking steps to support Ukraine in fighting Russia’s aggression.
Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States affirmed to CNN that, although Riyadh’s relationship with Washington is at a “point of disagreement,” the ties between the two long-time allies remain strong.
“Our relationship is more than the sale of arms and it is more than the exchange of oil,” Princess Reema said in the interview.
Yet at the investment summit, the energy minister suggested Saudi Arabia was taking the higher ground in the ongoing dispute.
“I think we as Saudi Arabia decided to be the more mature guys and let the dice fall,” Prince Abdulaziz told the group of international business leaders, bank executives and investors, according to Reuters.
Kirby said casting Washington-Riyadh ties as having a more “mature” partner wasn’t helpful.
“We’re talking about a significant, important bilateral relationship, a partnership that has survived over 80 years,” he said. “I don’t think talking about it in terms like that necessarily lends the gravity of how important this relationship is, to the way that we’re considering it.”
US officials were clear ahead of Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in July that energy would be a topic of discussion, although they insisted it would only be part of wider-ranging conversations that included regional issues and security.
Biden himself said during his stop in Jeddah that he was hopeful there would be a boost in oil production.
In the days and weeks ahead of the OPEC+ meeting in early October, the Biden administration launched a full-scale pressure campaign in a last-ditch effort to dissuade Middle Eastern allies from dramatically cutting oil production.
Biden’s most senior energy, economic and foreign policy officials were enlisted to lobby their foreign counterparts in Middle Eastern allied countries including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to vote against cutting oil production. The production cut amounted to the largest cut since the beginning of the pandemic.
The decision to cut production “certainly wasn’t in keeping with the conversations we were having,” Kirby said on Wednesday.
Inside the White House, Biden’s team was furious – in part because of their understanding following meetings with Saudi leaders that production would increase.
“There’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve done, with Russia,” Biden said in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper.
In initial conversations between administration officials and Capitol Hill, some ideas that have been discussed include rotating the US F-16 fleet out of Saudi Arabia, halting continued US military assistance to the country and the administration supporting legislation that would prevent OPEC from being shielded from US antitrust lawsuits for colluding to fix oil prices.
Administration officials have expressed an openness to some of the ideas on the table, sources familiar with the conversations said, although Biden has said he will wait until Congress returns after the midterm elections to make any final decisions.
Any move that the US might take could have unintended ripple effects, and the Biden administration is concerned about what those after-effects could look like, particularly because the US-Saudi relationship is seen as a key pillar for regional stability. There are also concerns within the administration about further harm to the economy if the so-called NOPEC legislation is passed, which would alter the antitrust law to revoke the kingdom’s sovereign immunity.
That legislation is gaining steam on Capitol Hill among Republicans and some Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has expressed an openness to supporting it.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States has seen “positive developments” from Saudi Arabia since the decision by OPEC+ to slash oil production, but said those developments “don’t compensate for the decision” made by the oil cartel.
Speaking at a Bloomberg event Wednesday, Blinken emphasized that the US has made it clear to Riyadh that they believe that it was the “wrong decision” to cut production.
“But having said that, since the decision we’ve seen a few interesting things,” the top US diplomat said. “The Saudis supported the important resolution at the United Nations condemning Russia’s aggression, particularly the resolution that went forward in the General Assembly condemning the purported annexations of Ukrainian territory. We’ve also seen the Saudis come forward with about $400 million in humanitarian assistance for Ukraine.”
“So these are positive developments. They don’t compensate for the decision that was made by OPEC+ on production, but we take note of that,” Blinken said.
A day earlier, a White House spokeswoman said those steps would factor into Biden’s review.
“We’ll be watching to see what Saudi Arabia does over the coming weeks and will inform our consultations and review,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
Kirby said Biden was not “in a hurry” to complete his review of Saudi relations, but said the national security team was currently looking at options.
“We felt that this was short sighted. And again, we’re going to obviously take a look at the relationship going forward,” he said.