As President Biden was planning a politically risky trip to Saudi Arabia this summer, his top aides thought they had struck a secret deal to boost oil production through the end of the year — an arrangement that could have helped justify breaking a campaign pledge to shun the kingdom and its crown prince.
It didn’t work out that way.
Mr. Biden went through with the trip. But earlier this month, Saudi Arabia and Russia steered a group of oil-producing countries in voting to slash oil production by two million barrels per day, the opposite of the outcome the administration thought it had secured as the Democratic Party struggles to deal with inflation and high gas prices heading into the November elections.
The move led angry Biden administration officials to reassess America’s relationship with the kingdom and produced a flurry of accusatory statements between the two governments — including a charge by the White House that Saudi Arabia was helping Russia in its war in Ukraine.
Lawmakers who had been told about the trip’s benefits in classified briefings and other conversations that included details of the oil deal — which has not been previously disclosed and was supposed to lead to a surge in production between September and December — have been left fuming that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman duped the administration.
This account is based on interviews with American officials and officials from Gulf Arab nations, as well as Middle East experts with knowledge of discussions between the two nations.
What happened over the last half-year is a story of handshake agreements, wishful thinking, missed signals and finger-pointing over broken promises. Far from rebuilding a relationship with a leader Mr. Biden had once pledged to treat as a “pariah” after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the outcome has been another low point in America’s tumultuous ties with Saudi Arabia.
The episode is also a revealing example of how Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of its ambitious and often ruthless crown prince, appears eager to shed some of its longtime reliance on the United States, with Prince Mohammed trying to position Saudi Arabia as a powerhouse of its own.
American officials said that, even days before the OPEC Plus decision, they had received assurances from the crown prince there would be no production cuts — and when they learned of the Saudi reversal they made a futile last-ditch push to change minds in the royal court. [Continue reading…]