OPEC production cut has Washington questioning the value of its Saudi alliance

During the past month, the relationship between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has fallen to its lowest ebb in a decade. After the shock decision by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (of which Saudi Arabia is a member) to cut oil production by two million barrels a day, US policymakers are calling for President Joe Biden’s administration to recalibrate America’s relationship with its longstanding ally in the Middle East.

Critics of the OPEC decision say it will increase the price of oil at a time when US consumers are already feeling the impact of high energy prices. A higher oil price will also provide a significant boost to Russia’s struggling economy.

There’s palpable anger in Washington with the decision, especially considering the Biden administration’s attempts to re-engage with Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler Crown Prince (now Prime Minister) Mohammed bin Salman. It’s unclear what long-term impact this latest deterioration will have on America’s strategic interests around the globe.

The US–Saudi relationship has had a long and tumultuous history. Despite disagreements over British-mandated Palestine and the establishment of Israel in 1948, the US and Saudi Arabia agreed that in return for access to vast Saudi oil reserves, Washington would provide security guarantees for Riyadh. The relationship deepened in 1979 when the US lost another important Middle Eastern ally with the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah in Iran. During the Gulf War in 1991, US troops were for the first time stationed in Saudi Arabia, establishing a now-permanent presence within the Arabian Gulf’s largest and most significant actor.

Nonetheless, tensions have arisen in the relationship over Riyadh’s curtailing of the rights of women and minorities, and the regime’s strict interpretation of Wahabi Islam and repression of democratic norms.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, orchestrated by Saudi nationals including Osama bin Laden, created a critical fracture, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 soured the relationship further. The creation of a majority Shiite government in Iraq after 2003 gave more power to Saudi Arabia’s strategic rival in the region, Iran.

In more recent times, the assassination of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018 and the White House’s decision to send US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin instead of Biden to meet with bin Salman have destabilised the relationship further.

So why did this happen? The collapse of US predominance in the Middle East after the invasion of Iraq has left authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia with more flexibility to pursue independent and different strategies in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia views the strategic realignment in the global order (with the rise of China and, before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia) as an opportunity to alter the region to its advantage. Saudi funding of opposition fighters in the Syrian civil war and the use of ground troops in the Yemen conflict are just two examples.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has lost much of its prestige and is in damage control to rebuild its image internationally and shore up its relations with the US. To reset the relationship in Washington, Saudi-backed lobbyists have spent millions of dollars. Biden responded by visiting Saudi Arabia, presumably as a gesture of goodwill and to attempt some recalibration.

The OPEC decision, however, has damaged whatever goodwill was established. It is likely to prove a strategic blunder for bin Salman. As fuel prices soar and inflation hits double digits in the US, any changes in oil production will have an impact on next week’s mid-term elections. There have been suggestions that the OPEC decision is a form of electoral interference, with Saudi Arabia pushing for Republican wins in the mid-terms. That the rise in oil prices will likely help Russian President Vladimir Putin continue to fund his war of aggression against Ukraine will only further sour the taste of the OPEC decision in Washington.

One indication of Washington’s outrage over the OPEC decision can be found in the calls for an immediate stop to arms transfers to Saudi Arabia by Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and fellow Democrat and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez. In the wake of the OPEC decision, there’s also growing bipartisan support for the ‘No Oil Producing and Export Cartels’, or NOPEC, bill, which would change US antitrust laws to revoke sovereign immunity from OPEC members and their national oil companies. Biden officials have also considered using US businesses as leverage by pulling back US investment in Saudi Arabia, which pressures the kingdom but doesn’t compromise security concerns in the Middle East.

This is a critical moment in US–Saudi relations, and retaliatory moves by either side will have lasting consequences. Saudi Arabia finds itself among a growing number of powerful authoritarian countries and has deepened its strategic partnership with China. Beijing is using Riyadh as a key partner in its Belt and Road Initiative, and Saudi Arabia is pursuing Chinese finance for its ambitious NEOM project near the Red Sea.

The Saudis have signalled that they may lift oil production again in December because of the EU embargo and G7 cap. However, there’s scepticism among US policymakers that the Saudis will be true to their word. December will be a decisive test for the future of the relationship.

If the relationship can’t be reset, the US risks losing one of its largest arms markets. Many US representative districts are reliant on the building of these weapons, and it won’t be easy to find a country to replace the demand that Saudi Arabia has for US weapons. It’s also not feasible for the US to completely decouple from Saudi Arabia given the level of Saudi investment in the US, as well as trade. Saudi Arabia plays a critical role in the Middle East as a strategic balancer against Iran.

But Saudi Arabia also needs the US. Despite China’s growing military power, it can’t provide Riyadh with the security guarantee that Washington does. A more balanced and pragmatic relationship may need to be established.

The OPEC decision to cut oil production will eventually be amended, but US policymakers have long memories. When the US asked for the Saudis help in a time of need, they turned their backs. The US will think twice about the reliability of Saudi Arabia as an ally in the Middle East and, even more importantly, as a strategic balance to Iranian power.