Will Saudi Leadership of OPEC Clash with U.S. Strategic Partnership?

14 Oct

[Prefatory Note: This post is a somewhat updated and expanded version of responses to questions posed by the Iranian journalist, Javad Arabshirazi on October 12, 2022.]


#1: The White House says that President Joe Biden is re-evaluating the US relationship with Saudi Arabia after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and allies (OPEC+), in which Riyadh is a top producer, announced last week it would cut oil production. What is your take on this?

Biden and the U.S. swallowed a lot of harsh criticism for maintaining such a friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the 2018 brazen murder in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul of the respected journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who was long a Washington resident. Also, such a positive relationship had long been criticized as disregarding Biden’s supposed primary commitments to democratic values and human rights, given that Saudi Arabia has a worst record on gender issues than Iran and yet gets a pass. Furthermore, criticism had long been leveled at the U.S. military and diplomatic support for the unlawful and inhumane Saudi military intervention in Yemen mainly in the form of air attacks that have frequently struck civilian targets. 

In this sense, Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salmon, like Israel, had been shielded from official censure either by the U.S or at the UN, being considered a strategic partner and a key player when it comes to world energy markets and regional security in the Middle East. That being said, it is also true that Saudi Arabia never dreamed of having the extraordinary policy leverage in the U.S. enjoyed by Israel, lacking its lobbying prowess and willingness to use its influence when necessary to sway American voters. In addition, Biden’s visit in July of this year in the face of mounting liberal criticism was  rumored to be compensated by a private Saudi commitments to maintain  oil production levels and accept lower per barrel princes at least until December, that is, after the U.S. upcoming November elections at which higher gap pump prices would hurt Democratic Party prospects.  In addition, it was believed that any production cuts by OPEC would aid Russian energy export marketing.  

In this sense, the Saudi-led OPEC+ (13 OPEC members + 23 cooperating governments of oil exporting countries; significantly, Saudi Arabia and Russia co-chair OPEC+!) production cuts were seen as undercutting both U.S. domestic anti-inflation and foreign anti-Rissian policy, which was determined to reduce Europe’s dependence on imported Russian gas. Although not publicly commented upon, this turn toward Russia in the strategic context of energy must have outraged, or at least disillusioned, those Washington insiders who have pragmatically encouraged a human rights blindfold and a tight embrace.

To consider this production/price move from a Saudi perspective makes it seem mainly motivated by its national interest in protecting the value of their principal trading asset, as well as not wanting their compliance with Washington wishes to be taken for granted or cancel other relationship as with Russia in OPEC+. With a global recession widely anticipated in coming months, principally as a consequence of the prolonged Ukraine crisis, oil demand is predicted to fall sharply, if possibly  briefly, exerting a downward pressure on the world prices of oil and gas. Thus, from an economistic perspective an OPEC adjustment by way of temporarily reduced production seemed sensible. The Saudis undoubtedly felt that to remain a trustworthy leader of the OPEC and especially OPEC+ required that their influence not be distracted by U.S. political pressures and this depended on setting production quotas responsive only to energy market factors. Saudi Arabia formally confirmed this line of interpretation in their public written reaction to complaints from Biden, ant threats to reevaluate the bilateral relationship in manner than would be punitive toward Riyadh.

Also, at stake was the idea that a country like Saudi Arabia should demonstrate its political independence, especially when purporting to administer such an important form of multilateralism as is involved in OPEC+ operatioonas. To manifest such independence on such a crucial issue as production levels meant avoiding any impression of subservience to the regional hegemony claimed by any non-OPEC or OPEC+ external actor. In this sense, what the Saudis are doing is somewhat similar in spirit to what Turkey has been doing in recent years, which has caused some friction within the NATO alliance framework but gained wide international respect for Turkey as an independent political actor. This is also what Israel has done in its own more provocative manner by not at all hiding its sharp differences with the U.S. on important questions, perhaps most notably through various disruptive expressions of its intense opposition to the 5+ 1 Nuclear Agreement of 2015 (also known as JCPOA) with Iran and currently by way of its opposition to the revival of the agreement by way of a U.S. return as a party, which is what Biden pledged when campaigning to be president in 2016. Israel has vigorously obstructed this major diplomatic and security effort without encountering any sort of pushback by way of adverse ‘consequences’ that the Saudis are now being warned about. I would venture the opinion that absent Israel’s opposition, JCPOA would have been by now long restored,   providing greater stability to the Middle East while at the same time gradually  lifting the harsh and unjustifiable Trump sanctions that have brought great suffering to the people Iran.

#2: President has warned of the consequences. What consequences this could have?

Biden has been deliberately vague about the nature of such consequences, although he spoken publicly about reevaluating the entire U.S./Saudi relationship. It may indicate that such a public show of displeasure, also reflecting some Congressional and public pressure to rethink whether closeness to Saudi Arabia sufficiently serves American interests to offset the clash with U,S. proclaimed values relating to human rights and democracy. I believe that it is helpful at this stage to consider this flareup as  a temporary kafuffle between long-term allies joined at the hip. If this is true this incident will eventuate in nothing more consequential than a warning and a signal of disappointment, at most conveying an implicit threat that if such diplomatic defiance is shown in the future by Riyadh it might then indeed have ‘consequences,’ but even that might be a stretch unless Israel also turns away from soliciting normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia. If Republicans regain the White House in 2024, there will be even less willingness to rethink in any serious way, u.S./Saudi relations. 

More concrete options are of course presently possible and have been proposed in the U.S. media and the Congress including an embargo on arms and legal action against the OPEC oil cartel. I find it somewhat doubtful at this stage that such drastic steps would be taken, and if they were, I would predict a boomerang effect. I suspect that the foreign policy establishment in Washington is inhibited by the fear that in the event of a tangible pushback, Saudi Arabia might become tempted by the opportunity to shift its alignment in a direction more in line with China and Russia, an outcome running directly counter to the regional policies of both Israel and Egypt and quite disturbing for Europe, and of course the United States.

#3: An important question here is that on what basis and why Riyadh has decided to do this. Is Riyadh going to partner with another country? 

It is probable that Saudi Arabia’s leaders are also hoping that the storm will pass, and that it can reestablish close security ties with the U.S.. once having made its point about the autonomy of its approach to oil and OPEC+. There is little reason to think that the Saudis are ready to risk the loss of U.S. support for the security of Kingdom against internal and external adversaries. This has been the overriding Saudi goal long before MBS became the face of Saudi Arabia, and this support has critically extended to the management of its regional rivalry with Iran. 

It may take some accommodating steps by Riyadh to restore rapidly pre-crisis normalcy such as voting with the U.S. in the UN to condemn the Russian annexation of four areas of Ukraine following the sham referenda that Moscow insisted exhibited a popular preference for reintegration with Russia. It has been rumored that the Saudis have given secret reassurances that current OPEC oil production quotas will be reconsidered at the next cartel meeting in light of any changes in the world economic situation that might lead increased oil production by OPEC members.

I would think that both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia will downplay the apparent tensions of the moment, and nothing concrete will happen to diminish the strategic level of mutual cooperation between these two countries. I further assume that behind the scenes, Israel is exerting strong pressure encouraging such an approach for the sake of its regional ambitions  and to undergird its continuing  efforts to confront and destabilize Iran. Nevertheless, it is a turbulent time in international relations, and anything is possible. So what seems most plausible at this moment may look quite different in a month or two.

10 Responses to “Will Saudi Leadership of OPEC Clash with U.S. Strategic Partnership?”

  1. Beau Oolayforos October 15, 2022 at 12:44 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    Would it be fair, or plausible, to say that OPEC, and MBS, and Russia are feeling their oats once again, flexing their stewardship of an indispensable (in the short run, at least) resource? Could Russia’s influence therein be some silver lining that eventually brings NATO to the bargaining table?

    Disappointing to hear you call the eastern Ukraine plebiscite a sham. I was hoping that the media accounts were, as usual, slanted; but your assessment of course carries much weight. They weren’t watched, evidently, by Jimmy Carter or other neutral observers; like e.g. the ones in’06, won by Hamas.

    • Richard Falk October 17, 2022 at 12:25 am #

      You are right, Beau, to call attention to my use of ‘sham’ for the referenda. I paused to consider whether to
      use such a slanted word, and probably decided wrongly not to contest the point. It may not have been sham but
      the Russians did so little to establish the bona fides of its annexation moves.

  2. Sara October 16, 2022 at 6:28 am #

    {{I further assume that behind the scenes, Israel is exerting strong pressure encouraging such an approach for the sake of its regional ambitions and to undergird its continuing efforts to confront and destabilize Iran.}}

    One of the tool the zionist mass murderers are using to topple governments around the world for the interest of the Israel’s EXPANSIONIST policy during the protest for destabilization purpose, is to create FAKE death body and put it on internet and social media to brainwash the ignorant and illiterate people in the WEST. But the zionist media do not cover and report actual DEATH BODIES produced by the Israeli’s bullets. The latest is the killing of the Palestinian doctor by the Israeli soldiers in Jenin, an apartheid entity.

    The latest FAKE death body in Iran fabricated by the terrorist organization of NATO is the following:

    Seyed Mohammad Marandi
    @s_m_marandi 28m
    Persian media based in NATO capitals along with thousands of NATO trolls (many based in Albanian) & “human rights” groups, have been churning out fake news about young women being killed in Iran. In 2009 they claimed ‘Tarane Mousavi’ was raped & killed. Be aware of it.

    No such person existed.

  3. sami October 17, 2022 at 3:00 pm #

    Seyed Mohammad Marandi
    As the US and its EU allies continue their rapid and disorderly decline, US backed despots in northern Iraq are becoming increasingly vulnerable. If those in charge of Erbil don’t end their support for terrorists, the price that they’ll soon have to pay will become unbearable.

    Sharmine Narwani
    Over 1,000 US-backed ‘terrorist bases’ spread across Iraqi Kurdistan: Tehran https://thecradle.co/Article/News/16938

    Top general: Iran will not tolerate thousands of terrorists close to its borders in Iraqi Kurdistan

  4. sari October 17, 2022 at 3:03 pm #

    Sorry, I meant to send the following video not a picture:

  5. sari October 17, 2022 at 3:06 pm #

    Top general: Iran will not tolerate thousands of terrorists close to its borders in Iraqi Kurdistan

  6. Sara October 17, 2022 at 8:07 pm #

    The Iran destabilization project that intends to bring Syria and Iraq to Iran partitioning the country for Israel’s expansionist policy, is NOT supported by Biden or other US president like George Bush and Obama. This policy has been designed by Israel and its lobby, funded by Saudi Arabia and is supported by the secessionist Kurdish terrorist groups that Israel trains and funds. This project, like Iraq war, is a zionist project and is AGAINST American interest. A CIA/Mossad asset, Roya Hakakian, is a zionist propagandist who is spreading lies in her twitter account, asking Iranian to topple their government for the interest of Israel and she is not blocked by twitter. She and Mark dubowitz, a zionist activist from a terrorist foundation FDD who pushed the ‘maximum pressure’ on Trump against Iran, doing the propaganda campaign to help Israel. These zionist agents are using the influence of other zionists in the Biden regime to bring more sanctions against Iranian children and workers, but their main goal is to mobilize American troops to attack Iran. Mark Dubowitz and Roya Hakakian are so arrogant and violent that number of times have suggested bombing Iran like Iraq, on the air, to topple the government that is against the international law where Israel, an apartheid entity, violates every single day.
    Hakakian wrote the following rubbish in her twitter account and has met with other zionists, Jake Sullivan and Blinken, to do MORE against Iran. Iranian people have not given the right to any zionist agent to represent them for the benefit of Israel.

    Roya Hakakian
    @Roya 7h
    [[“The Iranian people want their regime to go. All America has to do is provide them with all kinds of support that would strengthen the hands of the people against the tyrants that they have to overthrow.”]]

    In the following picture, Hakakian is meeting with Blinken, begging for more actions. She should control her mouth and pen, not to make a clown out of herself. The Iranian people support their government 100% and will destroy its enemies. You are NOT Iranian people representative. Shame on you.
    you make the use of ‘regime’ when you are talking about your country.

  7. Sara October 19, 2022 at 7:18 am #

    The Israel lobby and and the butcher Mohammad Bin Salman’s agents send thousands of messages where majority of them are LIES. The following is posted in Mark Dubowitz, a zionist liar, twitter acount written by Boniadi, an Iranian connected to zionist lobby, where recently along with Roya Hakakian met Blinken and Jake Sullivan at the state Dept. begging for more SANCTIONS against Iran. The twitter does not block these lies but anything with the name Qasem Soleimani is BLOCKED.
    This LIE that says this killing happened in the ‘NW Iran’ coming from the terrorist Pan-Turkish. These liars do not give the name of the city to allow people to do valid search. It is a piece of cheap propaganda that Mark Dubowitz, Boniadi, and the agent of the butcher MBS are involved in.

    Mark Dubowitz Retweeted
    Nazanin Boniadi
    @NazaninBoniadi 9h
    80 schoolgirls were taken by ambulance to be treated at the hospital after Islamic Republic security forces raided a high school in NW Iran. 3 girls died, and 1 is in a coma.

    Those who spread LIES should be arrested.
    But the following is a FACT about Israel killings:

    300 Palestinians, including 111 women and 620 children, have been arrested by Israeli occupation forces since the beginning of 2022.

  8. Nadim October 19, 2022 at 8:14 am #

    Seyed Mohammad Marandi
    Israel is a rogue regime that ignores international laws & norms, because western regimes allow & even encourage it to do so. Not only does it murder Palestinian teenagers on a daily basis as well as regularly bomb Syrian infrastructure, but it kidnaps people in far-off Malaysia.

    Prof. Walid Amer
    @DrWalidAmer1 Oct 18
    Watch the Israeli Mossad members who fell into the hands of the Malaysian security after they kidnapped a Palestinian whom they claim that he is linked to the resistance in Gaza.*

  9. Nadim October 19, 2022 at 5:02 pm #

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