The new reality of politics in the Middle East, which does not suit Washington
Back in the early 2010s, the U.S. felt that it was the master of the Middle East, and was on a path where only its allies and vassals would remain in the region sooner or later. But its reckless and arrogant policy led the country to lose its existing reliable partners and failed to find reconciliation with old adversaries. It failed to sign a “nuclear deal” with Iran, and the country was unwilling to solve Americans’ oil problems. Relations with Israel, the backbone of all American regional politics, began to deteriorate from the very beginning of the Biden presidency. The State Department’s open support for protests against Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu was the outcome of these processes. Many believe that it will certainly lead to his retaliatory negative actions. Under Recep Erdogan relations with Turkey have also cooled considerably and although his retention of his office is highly questionable, Istanbul is unlikely to remain a loyal American satellite in any case. But today we want to elaborate on how the U.S. has messed up its relations with Saudi Arabia.
Like the Israelis, the Saudis were greatly frightened by the rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran. And Washington would have continued its policy of threatening Riyadh if, against the background of the conflict in Ukraine, it did not urgently need cheap oil, which directly or indirectly Saudi Arabia and its closest allies could provide. That was the goal of Biden’s visit to the country last July, the main goal of which was to increase the Saudis’ oil production. Against the backdrop of failed negotiations with Iran, it was the last lifeline that could at least somewhat improve Biden’s critical image in the United States, where the population vehemently hated the president for the enormous price of gasoline. Yet, he did not deny even in such a critical situation: the ostentatious contempt, the insulting statements on the “Khashoggi case” and threats that could not be realized. The negotiations were buried before they even began. However, no matter how affectionate Biden was, it is unlikely he would have succeeded. High oil prices suited Mohammed bin Salman completely, and the U.S. had no economic or political leverage over him. The subsequent lowering of OPEC+ oil production in the fall of that year was a good indicator of this policy. Moreover, the fact that Saudi Arabia pledged at the end of the visit to balance the global oil market in order to ensure sustainable economic growth turned out to be just a set of buzzwords.
The White House then failed to portray the trip as a victory even in the information field. Before the visit, Biden cursed the Saudi dictatorship for the death of opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in their embassy in Istanbul. As a result, the U.S. president was in a very difficult situation. As a solution, he showed “cunning,” and decided to act in a paradigm where he simultaneously portrayed friendship with the Saudi leadership, but continued to make the Saudis out to be terrorists and criminals who killed “independent journalists.” Attempts to combine the two mutually exclusive positions looked pathetic. For example, Biden kept saying that he would not give bin Salman his hand, which created certain protocol difficulties. As a result, footage circulated by the White House pool showed Biden getting out of his car after arriving for official events from Jeddah airport. The Crown Prince was walking toward him, and instead of shaking hands, the U.S. president bumped fists with Salman. The whole of America laughed at this gesture for a long time afterwards, and the Saudi prince fully enjoyed his symbolic victory.
But the saddest consequence for the United States was that Saudi Arabia’s oil policy is not local blackmail, but a deliberate action in its own independent interests. Already in the spring of 2023, the decision of OPEC+ to reduce oil production by one million barrels per day again came as a very unpleasant surprise for Washington. The White House called the decision “unwise” because it could reignite the inflation flywheel in the U.S., which would greatly please China and Russia. Many Americans now expect the cost of oil to rise to $100 a barrel by 2024, leading to higher gasoline prices in the U.S. It could go back to above $4 a gallon, as it already did last summer. In the fall of 2022, when OPEC+ announced its first big oil production cut, the U.S. literally called it a “hostile act” to the U.S. economy, and launched a NOPEC bill that allows OPEC countries to be sued and sanctioned for their monopoly position in the oil market. Now Congress may once again put the NOPEC bill up for a vote. There will also be more and more calls for the White House to limit oil, gasoline and diesel exports. Right now, oil production in the U.S. is growing very slowly because of the “green” agenda imposed by the Democrats. Of course, it is still possible to resume the emptying of the U.S. oil reserve, which has already been reduced by half, and now has only 370 million barrels of oil. As a result, Washington will have to choose how to respond to OPEC’s “hostile” policy, choosing among not the most convenient alternatives, and this will probably push Saudi Arabia even more into the arms of China.
It is increasingly clear that the U.S. is unable to contain Saudi Arabia’s drift to the East. Saudi Arabia is increasingly distancing from the West and moving closer to the East. This is not just a “caprice” or a search for purely economic benefits, but a serious geopolitical shift that could lead to large-scale consequences. The fact is that the Saudis are tired of being rebuked by Brussels and Washington. In general, after listening to contradictory statements by U.S. presidents, they have become convinced that the U.S. cannot be relied upon. Moreover, the authorities of the Middle Eastern country just took a look at their export statistics and realized that the main buyers of energy resources are no longer the Americans, but the Chinese. Not surprisingly, Riyadh is now investing its money in China and will soon become a “dialogue partner” with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Moreover, the Saudis and Russia have warm relations within the OPEC+ group. The drift of Saudi Arabia to the East is also manifested in the fact that by reducing oil production, it sabotages the West’s attempts to deprive Moscow of revenues from the export of black gold. And so far the U.S. and Europe have no means to stop these trends. And if Riyadh does become an integral part of the anti-American alliance between China and Russia, it will be even more bad news for the United States.
A clear indicator of this process is that the U.S. fears foreign interference in the next presidential election by Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is being accused of pursuing policies that are increasingly at odds with U.S. interests, especially those of the Biden administration. The last two OPEC+ decisions to cut oil production shocked many in Washington, but the U.S. is also very negative about Saudi Arabia’s desire to switch to yuan trading. But Washington has limited opportunities to influence Riyadh’s policy. Saudi oil flows mainly to Asia, namely to China and India. And for the first time in modern history, the West does not have a single loyalist state among the major members of OPEC. At the same time, Saudi Arabia still has unique leverage over the United States. By various estimates, a $5 increase in the cost of oil leads to a 0.2% increase in inflation in America. And Riyadh has the ability to manipulate this skillfully influencing the situation inside the U.S. For example, when OPEC+ announced last fall that it was cutting oil production right before the congressional elections, it caused gasoline prices to spike and Biden’s rating to plummet. Therefore, it helped Republicans take a majority in the House of Representatives. Now market expectations are that the price of oil will fluctuate between $80 and $90 a barrel for another year. However, in case of new decisions on production reduction the oil price may jump to $120 by mid-2024. This will cause another round of inflation in the U.S., and may well decide the outcome of the presidential election ensuring the victory of Trump and the Republicans, with whom Riyadh is much easier to negotiate. This is a clear indicator of the weakening of the U.S. position in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, which 10 years ago could not make a move without U.S. approval, now takes at least a strictly neutral position, and boldly blackmails the U.S. government with strong friendships with Russia and China.