US President Joe Biden reacted very clearly. OPEC’s decision on October 5 to cut November production by two million barrels a day – estimated to be around two percent of daily global consumption – was a “disappointment,” he said in a first reaction to the decision.

The decision shows that there are “problems”, he added with regard to Saudi Arabia, the traditional ally of the USA and at the same time the most important member state of OPEC.

After the decision, the news channel CNN quoted unnamed voices from the US Treasury Department that rated the cuts as a “hostile act”.

White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre criticized OPEC for “alliing” with Russia. Chuck Schummer, Democratic leader in the US Senate, described the OPEC decision on Twitter as “cynical”.

On Tuesday (October 11), the White House announced that Biden was seeking a reassessment of relations with Saudi Arabia. Biden only visited Saudi Arabia in July – and despite previous concerns, he was publicly in a good mood with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who had been internationally ostracized for a few years after the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was critical of the regime by Biden himself.

The trip to the country, which has repeatedly been criticized for its disregard for human rights, had brought him considerable criticism at home, but it was also important for him because shortly before the US midterm elections and in the midst of the energy crisis triggered by the Ukraine war and had hoped for an expansion of oil production by the Saudis in the energy policy confrontation with Russia.

With the announced throttling, however, he received exactly the opposite. Saudi Arabia thus made a decision that Biden can only understand as a snub in the current situation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who fills his war chest with oil exports among other things, is likely to see it as de facto support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Now, around four weeks before the US midterm elections, prices are rising again – a process that the curtailment could give additional impetus to. This, in turn, could significantly reduce the chances of success for Joe Biden’s Democrats in the elections.

There is already a suspicion in Washington that Saudi Arabia – once one of Donald Trump’s preferred foreign policy partners – could even be targeting an electoral success for the Republicans through its oil production policy.

The OPEC course for Biden is a nuisance, especially in terms of foreign policy. Because the throttling also puts into perspective the effects of Western punitive measures such as the boycott of Russian oil, which the EU imposed in June due to the Russian war of aggression against Moscow.

The concern is that the expected rise in oil prices as a result of the OPEC decision may give Russia more money on the world market than it loses as a result of the EU boycott.

The political scientist and Middle East expert Marc Lynch of George Washington University writes in his blog that it is now becoming apparent “that Saudi Arabia is firmly on the other side of what Washington sees as the most important dividing line in world politics.”

What is meant is the front between Russia on the one hand and Ukraine and its western partners and supporters on the other. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States had previously avoided closing ranks with the Western states and had not participated in punitive measures against Russia.

In fact, Saudi Arabia could now even have completed a “geopolitical turn”, says political scientist Ulrike Franke from the European Council on Foreign Relations in a tweet.

Bilal Saab, director of the defense and security program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute (MEI), puts it a little more cautiously in the Deutsche Welle interview. Russia will now certainly get more revenue from oil sales, he notes. “And that certainly won’t help slow Russia’s war effort against Ukraine.”

For its part, Saudi Arabia is trying to downplay the decision and justify it in terms of economic policy. “Oil is not a weapon, nor a fighter jet, nor a tank that can fire it,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Fox News.

The newspaper “Al-Sharq al-Awsat”, which is close to the Saudi government, also argues that the OPEC states followed purely economic motives in their decision. Bilal Saab also comes to the conclusion that Saudi Arabia may have wanted to send a political signal to Washington, but that the oil decision was primarily in line with its own economic interests.

In fact, for the time being, Riyadh will remain heavily dependent on continued lucrative oil sales for its extensive economic and social modernization projects and its overall stability.

Washington and Riyadh have, of course, been estranged from one another for some time. In fact, after Iranian attacks on oil industry facilities, Saudi Arabia felt abandoned by the US. The old protecting power, so the impression in Riyadh, is no longer on the side of the kingdom.

On the American side, the murder of regime critic Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul caused irritation, in which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is said to have played an important role. Saudi military action in Yemen, which was often ruthless towards the civilian population, also made Riyadh a problematic partner for Washington.

The two sides also have different views on Iran’s armaments program: while the USA under Biden are back to negotiations, Saudi Arabia did not see the nuclear agreement negotiated in 2015 as an adequate guarantee against Iran’s nuclear armament. However, the kingdom is also relying on a diplomatic solution.

The two countries have become increasingly alienated over the past few years, and the relationship is no longer as close and natural as it was for decades.

Bilal Saab assumes that the Saudis’ political alienation made their decision to cut production against American requests and interests to the detriment of Washington at least significantly easier. “It is questionable whether the decision would have been taken if the dialogue between the Americans and the Saudis had been more productive recently.”

In the long term, OPEC’s decision could also strain military relations between the two countries, says Saad. Relations between the armed forces remain close. But without a more favorable political climate, it would hardly be possible to develop them further. “The military track alone cannot support these relationships.”

But some US lawmakers, like Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, are now questioning those ties as well. “I thought that despite their human rights abuses, their senseless war in Yemen and their work against US interests in Libya, Sudan etc., the point of selling arms to the Gulf States was that in the event of an international crisis they would put America first over Russia/ could give China,” he commented on Twitter.

Bilal Saab from Washington’s Middle East Institute, on the other hand, believes that Riyadh will continue to seek to improve relations with the United States – but only after the end of the Joe Biden era and a possible electoral success for the Republicans.

Author: Kersten Knipp

The original of this post “Saudi Arabia and Oil: Farewell to the West?” comes from Deutsche Welle.