Partnerships and expectations

October 16, 2022

Biden angry as OPEC announces oil production cuts ahead of US mid-term elections

Partnerships and expectations


nited States President Joe Biden has said there will be “consequences” for Saudi Arabia after the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) decided to cut production. US government fears a rise in global oil prices that can benefit Russia.

In July 2022, President Joe Biden had visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) with the apparent objective of persuading the Saudis to pump more oil.

Nonetheless, the KSA, led practically by Mohammad bin Salman, took time to consult with other OPEC members. The OPEC + held a crucial session last week and decided to go against the Biden agenda by slashing oil production by two million barrels per day.

The Biden administration clearly disliked the outcome. Reactions from the corporate sector, which relies on carbon resources for its profits, were similar. Importantly, the American media, particularly the CNN, viewed the Saudi-led OPEC Plus decision extremely negatively. David A Andelman wrote for CNN, “[S]o much for cozying up to the Saudis – President Joe Biden’s much-hyped fist bump with Mohammed bin Salman during a trip to the Middle East back in July has turned into something of a slap across the face from the crown prince.”

Some right-wing politicians in the US have called for tough measures against the Kingdom for behaving so independently. Some of them have recalled that since 1945 the USA has protected the KSA against all sorts of threats. The US has provided its troops and missile defence systems for the purpose. The Saudi state has responded by keeping the American market provided with cheap oil.

In the Cold War period, the bilateral relations had remained cordial except during the 1973 oil embargo that Riyadh-led OPEC imposed on countries that supported Israel. In the post-Cold War era, the Saudis started opening up to countries like India with they had not had sustained ties earlier. Relations with Washington were at a low ebb in the wake of 9/11 when Saudi nationals were found involved in planning terrorist attacks against US interests and executing those. The relations improved in the following years reflecting American energy needs and geopolitical interests like countering the Russian and Chinese interests in the Middle East.

However, since the Obama years, the US seemed to have revisited its foreign policy goals as far as regional security and economic cooperation are concerned. Under President Donald Trump, the US enacted a new strategy called Asia Re-assurance Initiative Act (ARIA) of 2018. This shifted American foreign policy focus from the Middle East to what is now called Indo-Pacific. Nonetheless, the US still continued its security and energy cooperation with Saudi Arabia despite the fact the that it meets less than 4 percent of its energy requirements from the carbon resources acquired from the Gulf countries. The US has, over the years, come to rely more on Canada and Mexico for its energy needs.

For decades, the KSA has been procuring American weapons to boost its security profile. The Saudi state has ‘otherised’ Iran which it sees as a major threat and is normalising relations with Israel. Over the last two years, some Arab countries, including the UAE, have established diplomatic ties with Israel ostensibly at the behest of Riyadh. The KSA has also allowed Israeli planes use of its airspace for the so-called civilian purposes. The US views Israel as its key ally in the Middle East. How Riyadh engages with Tel Aviv over the coming years will be interesting since Washington may now see the bilateral engagement from a different angle.

Partnerships and expectations

Some right-wing politicians in the US have called for tough measures against the Kingdom. 

The question arises: why did the Saudi-controlled OPEC + refuse to increase oil production as requested by the Biden administration? The common man in the US is facing the inflationary pressures due to the rising petroleum prices owing to the Covid-19 disruptions and the Ukraine war. President Biden needs a reduction in oil prices that could have resulted from an increase in oil production. The Saudis were expected to provide what he needed. The KSA, however, has its own policy calculus. One, the MBS-led Kingdom wants to project itself as a confident actor insofar as regional geo-economics is concerned. Riyadh has maintained energy and economic cooperation with major powers including Russia and China.

Indeed, China has enhanced its bilateral trade with the KSA under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Chinese authorities view Saudi Arabia as a means to expand its trade and investment outreach in Africa as well as other countries of the OPEC Plus. Besides, the Saudi-Russia trade is has been increasing over the past couple of years; Russia exported refined oil and food items worth about $2 billion to the KSA in 2021. According to Reuters: “Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, more than doubled the amount of Russian fuel oil it imported in the second quarter to feed power stations to meet summer cooling demand and free up the kingdom... [It] imported 647,000 tonnes (48,000 barrels per day) of fuel oil from Russia via Russian and Estonian ports in April-June this year. That was up from 320,000 tonnes in the same period a year ago.” This reflects, on the one hand, growing Saudi-Russia engagement and, on the other, Riyadh’s efforts to seek more trading partners and strategic allies to reduce its reliance on the US.

The US is still the largest economy of the world. It is also the biggest military power and has more than 700 military bases around the world – including some in the KSA. Importantly, the US is a major weapons supplier to the Kingdom.

Some US senators have hinted at legislating what is commonly called No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act (NOPEC). If passed by the Congress, the law could be invoked to initiate anti-trust proceedings against the OPEC Plus for controlling oil production and affecting crude oil prices.

Besides, the US may malign the Saudi authorities, particularly MBS with reference to Jamal Khashoggi – the dissident Saudi journalist killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. When Biden assumed office, he vowed to make KSA a ‘pariah’. However, geo-economic compulsions made him soften his stance during his visit to the Kingdom in July this year.

Partnerships and expectations

The US government may also urge its corporate partners not to sell military technology to the KSA. This could drastically affect KSA’s regional military designs since the American military technology is considered superior to Chinese or Russian technologies by multiple datasets such as the Military Balance.

Last, but not the least, the US can withdraw its troops and missile defence systems. It is already engaging Iran in a nuclear dialogue through the European Union (EU).

In other words, the US has several options to pressure the KSA to change its behaviour.

For their part, the Saudi authorities, have countered the American argument on oil production in terms of the market principles. They foresee a global recession and are not straining their own economy in order to help the American economy.

If the US pulls out from Saudi security, China or India may step in. China controlling Saudi defence and extending its maritime outreach can be a nightmare for the American policy makers. So, each player has interests, choices and strategic context for its Lasswellian practice. The US may not get what it wants through hard power and may need to employ its soft power too. Saudi Arabia has the options to replace Washington with Beijing and/ or Moscow, if not New Delhi, as far as its physical security is concerned. In addition, it can further strengthen economic cooperation with these countries. However, this is easier said than done.

Can the KSA forgo the American military technology and prowess? Will China be willing to replace the US given the recent episode in the US-China trade war? Will there be implications for Taiwan? Will Russia, already fighting a war, be willing to help Riyadh? Can India be the next guarantor of Saudi security? These are crucial questions that both the Biden administration and the Saudi authorities need to ponder over. For its part, Pakistan needs to stay vigilant.

The writer has a PhD in political science from Heidelberg University and a post-doc from UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and an associate professor at the Lahore School of Economics (LSE). He can be reached at

Partnerships and expectations