Saudi Arabia Is Better Than America at Realpolitik
Riyadh is playing a realist game in support of its rational self-interest far more effectively than the United States.
The United States has a problem with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh’s recent decision to spearhead a substantial oil production cut across the twenty-three--member Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries Plus (OPEC+) marks a major stress test of U.S.-Saudi relations. It also represents a slight against U.S. president Joe Biden and his administration just months after a major diplomatic visit to Riyadh and multiple follow-on diplomatic efforts to temper crude prices and repair the diplomatic relationship. The move should serve as a lesson to Biden’s team and Washington insiders—Riyadh is playing a realist game in support of its rational self-interest far more effectively than the United States.
The OPEC+ decision to cut 2 billion barrels per day (mb/d) of crude oil production, beginning in November, stems strictly from a desire to reap the benefits of high oil prices. To be sure, the real cut will be near roughly 1 mb/d, as many OPEC+ states have been unable to meet their production quotas under a tight crude market. Saudi Arabia has benefited from crude price surges since the supposed end of the Covid-19 pandemic as many oil-producing states have either met their production capacity or managed oil exports to their benefit, especially following attempts to remove Russian oil and gas sales from global markets after its illegal invasion of Ukraine. Riyadh has relished instability and uncertainty since 2021, tempering oil exports and purchasing cheap Russian energy products to maximize profits on its crude sales. This has resulted in massive oil sector expansion and GDP growth for the country nearing 8 percent.
Both OPEC+ and Saudi officials have attempted to deflect accusations against Riyadh and other major oil producers, claiming the cut comes in response to a worsening global economic outlook and decreasing oil prices. United Arab Emirates (UAE) Minister of Energy Suhail al-Mazroui rejected claims of politicization surrounding the decision, arguing “the decision is technical, not political.” Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the Saudi minister of energy, could barely hold back anger at accusations that OPEC+ weaponizes oil, calling it a “very provocative question” and telling reporters to “show me where is the act of belligerence.” He added that “we are providing security, stability to the energy markets. Everything has a price; energy security has a price as well.”
However, it is exceedingly difficult to view such a move in strictly economic terms. While there are credible arguments for an approaching global economic recession, alongside an incoming European oil embargo against Russia in December, oil market experts correctly point out that the decision to drastically cut production a month before the embargo comes with geopolitical implications. These analysts correctly note that OPEC+ has arguably never made such a cut in as tight of an oil market as today.
In this context, an energy market shock stemming from the embargo will have major impacts on global markets that likely increase crude costs substantially while forcing Russia to sell to third countries at an increasingly cheap rate. As noted, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states will have further opportunities to benefit from cheap Russian energy products, explaining the interest in decreasing production to invoke a global price increase.
Such a move reflects a quid pro quo deal between Moscow, Riyadh, and other major oil-producing states. It is a brutal form of self-interest that rejects accountability for Russian actions in Ukraine and spits in the face of the so-called strategic relationship between Washington and Riyadh. OPEC+ has actively decided to benefit at the expense of the average person across the globe, who will now face worsened energy costs because of a desire on the part of these states, led by Saudi Arabia as the largest oil exporter in the world, to turn a profit.
This is not how strategic partnerships operate and offers yet another example of why Washington must re-assess its relationship with Riyadh. Simply put, Saudi Arabia regularly receives more than it gives concerning U.S.-Saudi ties. This is not limited to massive and unquestioned arms sales, diplomatic and security cover for its war in Yemen and excesses across the Middle East, and political appeasement via inaction against human rights violations inside and outside of the country. One need only look at the now-notorious fist bump from the administration’s visit to the Kingdom in July and the subsequent actions taken by the latter to understand the true nature of Saudi leader Mohammad bin Salman’s (MBS) intentions.
Indeed, as I wrote following that ill-fated trip, Washington continues to misunderstand its leverage over the Saudis. Direct commercial and foreign military U.S.arms sales neared $2.5 billion in 2021 alone. The Saudi military is entirely reliant on American contractors to maintain its war machine in Yemen—a bloody quagmire MBS launched to the detriment of his own reputation, his country, and his poor southern neighbor. This says nothing of the human rights violations MBS continues to commit following his brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, nor the lengthy prison sentences for Saudi women on shaky grounds.
Instead, U.S. administration after administration chooses to excuse Saudi intransigence, believing in a mythical reality in which the country will eventually cooperate on energy and human rights. Washington policy spaces choose to believe that massive oil production cuts, one month before particularly consequential U.S. midterms elections, are not political and do not reflect a Riyadh that prefers the no-questions-asked approach of the former Republican administration that blocked all criticism of the kingdom for four years. Fears of a Saudi turn to Russia or China are offered as a justification for blind support—as if the entire Gulf is not already hedging in such a manner—and are based on the assumption that the Saudis will operate as a better partner for these states in the future.
As many Democratic members of Congress are already arguing, it is far past time for a strategic shift that centers pressure against one of the most brutal autocracies in the world. Threatening to cut arms sales—and doing so if necessary—is a start. The Biden team should also move forward with oil price caps to stabilize the market and support The No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act (NOPEC) in Congress, which aims to apply U.S. anti-trust legislation to OPEC+. A price cap, while imperfect and likely to warrant a tough response from the Gulf and Russian president Vladimir Putin in the form of production cuts in Russia, can work if Putin’s move frustrates China and other Asian states currently purchasing cheap Russian energy products.
Consistently balancing values and realism in foreign policy across all international partnerships, starting with Riyadh, must become the norm in Washington. This begins by understanding that the United States, and not Saudi Arabia, is the superpower—especially if that stance supports energy policy outcomes that are good for societies around the world and not brutal monarchies and their oil executive allies.
Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service. Follow him at @langloisajl.