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Oil price rise another reminder of Saudi Arabia’s lever over Biden

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As American motorists face soaring fuel prices, Saudi Arabia once more finds itself the focus of Joe Biden’s frustration.

When the US president bemoaned the failure of the world’s top oil producers to pump more crude to help bring down prices, he singled out two countries: traditional adversary Russia and longtime partner Saudi Arabia. Speaking at the G20 meeting last month, Biden said their failure to produce more “so people can have gasoline to get to and from work . . . [was] not right”.

So far, however, Saudi Arabia — Opec’s de facto leader, the world’s top oil exporter and the only producer with the capacity to add significant amounts of crude to the market — is not budging. Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman insisted last week that oil was “not the problem”, arguing the issue was that the “energy complex is going through havoc and hell”.

But the suspicion is that the reluctance to bow to US pressure is not solely related to market dynamics as Riyadh continues to smart over Biden’s coolness towards Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“There’s a clear view in Washington that this is probably more than just about oil, that Prince Mohammed is annoyed Biden hasn’t called him personally, hasn’t shown him enough respect and wants greater recognition before he becomes king,” one energy analyst said.

It is a dispute that underscores the complexities of the Biden administration’s relationship with one of the Arab world’s most important actors. Biden took office criticising Saudi Arabia over the brutal 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi and other rights abuses; promising to reassess Washington’s relationship with Riyadh and freezing some arms sales. The administration also made it clear that, unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, Biden would deal with King Salman, not Prince Mohammed, the ageing monarch’s son and day-to-day ruler.

But, in reality, US officials know they have to engage with Prince Mohammed, either directly or indirectly, on a range of issues, from oil and Biden’s pledge to end the war in Yemen to climate change. And realpolitik has been playing out on the ground.

Weeks after Biden’s inauguration in January, his administration backed its promise to release a damning US intelligence report that concluded that Prince Mohammed approved the operation to “capture or kill’‘ Khashoggi. The White House imposed visa restrictions on 76 unnamed Saudis, but took no punitive measures against the heir apparent.

In September, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, became the most senior administration official to meet Prince Mohammed in the kingdom. The week before the COP26 summit, John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, greeted Prince Mohammed in Riyadh as he was among the guests attending the crown prince’s launch of a “Middle East Green Initiative”.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, has had regular contact with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan. And this month, the state department approved its first large weapons sale to Riyadh under Biden — 280 air-to-air missiles.

Kirsten Fontenrose, a senior director for Gulf affairs at the National Security Council during Trump’s presidency, said the shift in the administration’s posture was apparent “right after the Khashoggi dossier was released”.

“They realised they need Saudi for a lot of their other goals,” she said. “The visit by Jake Sullivan was also a sign — they didn’t wait for someone to come here, they sent someone over. That was a bit of a capitulation, not a bad one, but it probably meant they had to swallow some pride.”

Now, with US petrol prices having risen about 40 per cent since Biden’s inauguration, Prince Mohammed controls a lever that has the power to help or hinder the White House. As the president’s frustration highlights, despite the US markedly reducing its dependence on Gulf crude over the past decade and a creeping disengagement from the Middle East, it’s not immune from global market forces. And Saudi Arabia is the key player.

“We’ve always needed them, this was the fallacy of American energy dominance,” said Helima Croft at RBC Capital Markets. “The Saudis are clearly back in the driver’s seat in the oil market, and as everyone moves on combating climate change . . . who is really going to invest in the upstream sector? It’s going to be Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait.”

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