Several months after President Joe Biden promised Saudi Arabia would suffer “consequences” after the Saudi-led OPEC+ oil cartel unexpectedly announced it would cut production, the Biden administration has no plans to take proactive steps to punish – let alone significantly reorient its posture toward – the oil-rich Middle East kingdom, multiple sources on Capitol Hill and in the administration tell CNN.
Now almost a month into the new session of Congress, lawmakers have yet to hear from administration officials about launching a coordinated review of the US-Saudi relationship, despite repeated statements over the past few months by the White House that congressional input would be key to such an assessment.
Officials are “sidestepping the reassessment” as there is growing realization that getting the two countries’ relationship back on track is beneficial to the US, one administration official told CNN.
The lack of follow-through has begun to frustrate some lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who are worried that the Saudi leadership, including its de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS), is poised to walk away after the OPEC+ episode last fall without having paid a price.
It has also rankled critics of the Saudi government who say the Biden administration now appears willing to put on hold its promised review of the US-Saudi relationship at least in part for domestic political reasons, including the fact that gas prices have significantly leveled off since the fall.
The seeming about-face from Biden is underscoring the reality that – despite serious tensions in the US-Saudi relationship that at times spill out into public view as they did last fall – ultimately, maintaining amicable relations with the kingdom remains heavily in the US’ security interests.
“There is only so much patience one can have when you’ve been asking for a conversation for four months,” one senior Democratic aide told CNN. “Frustrated is a good characterization. We are expecting and intending to hold the administration to its word.”
A significant reversal
The decision to not pursue punitive actions against Saudi Arabia or a reassessment of the US-Saudi relationship marks a significant reversal for Biden, who told CNN’s Jake Tapper on October 12: “There’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve done with Russia.”
Top administration officials had publicly and bluntly criticized the OPEC+ decision in October to cut back production – which one source said was widely received by the administration as a “slap in the face” – as “misguided” and a “mistake.” They even went as far as accusing Riyadh of aiding Russia in its war in Ukraine. The White House also announced a course of action: A wide-ranging review of US-Saudi relations in close consultation with Congress to determine next steps.
Officials acknowledge there is little warmth between Biden and MBS, whom he once sought to ice out of his talks with Saudi Arabia’s official leader, King Salman. But at 87 years old and in poor health, King Salman has delegated extraordinary power to his son, making it virtually impossible for Biden to conduct relations with anyone else in the kingdom’s leadership.
US officials have described tense conversations with their Saudi counterparts over the course of the past several months and say ties with the kingdom remain damaged.
But a lack of good options to downgrade the relationship without sacrificing national security have led a tactic recognition that no major consequences will arise from the oil production decision.
Asked for a status update on the administration’s review of US-Saudi relations last week, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that the administration is continuing to examine whether the relationship is “in our best national security interests.”
But he also notably added: “This is about reviewing that bilateral relationship, making sure that it’s in our best interest but not rupturing it.”
A National Security Council spokesperson echoed those sentiments in an email to CNN, noting that the US has “multiple interests” when it comes to its eight-decades-long relationship with Saudi Arabia.
“We’re focused on a bilateral relationship with the Saudis that serves the interests of the people of the United States and the president’s policy objective for a more stable, integrated, and prosperous Middle East region,” the spokesperson said.
To that end, US officials plan to meet with their Saudi counterparts later this month as part of a working-group meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, according to sources familiar with those plans, with one administration official saying those gatherings are expected to serve as a test of sorts on the state of the bilateral relationship.
Gas prices and MBS give Biden a tough political conundrum
Biden’s decision to visit Jeddah last summer drew fierce backlash, even catching some of his allies off guard. The president and his advisers came under siege by questions about the upcoming trip, including whether he would meet with MBS, whom the US intelligence community said sanctioned the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Face-time with the crown prince would further make a mockery of Biden’s pledge following Khashoggi’s murder to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” critics of the visit said.
But the president went ahead with the trip anyway, defending it as critical to US security interests in an op-ed in The Washington Post. Barely alluded to in that piece was a massive political problem that Biden was facing at home at the time: Soaring gas prices, which he hoped to try to bring down by in part convincing the Saudis to increase oil production.
But just months after Biden’s controversial visit – which included an eyebrow-raising fist bump with the crown prince – came an unwelcome announcement from OPEC+: A significant cut in oil production that triggered concerns that US gas prices would go up even further.
So offended were Biden and his aides that the White House openly accused Riyadh of “aligning themselves with Russia,” an accusation that seemed designed to lump the kingdom into rogue states like North Korea and Iran, which have aided Moscow in its war in Ukraine.
The following month brought another headline that infuriated some Saudi critics.
The Biden administration determined that MBS should be granted immunity in a case brought against him by Khashoggi’s fiancée – because bin Salman had recently been made the Saudi prime minister, he qualified for immunity as a foreign head of government, a court filing by Justice Department lawyers said.
In the immediate aftermath of the OPEC+ decision, administration officials held initial discussions with congressional representatives about possible avenues for action, including the possibility of rotating the US F-16 fleet out of Saudi Arabia and halting continued US military assistance to the country.
Officials also weighed whether to support the so-called NOPEC legislation, which would prevent OPEC from being shielded from US antitrust lawsuits for colluding to fix oil prices. That legislation had gained steam on Capitol Hill among Republicans and some Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who had expressed an openness to supporting it.
Still, administration officials were wary from the get-go at taking steps that could permanently rupture what all agreed was a critical regional relationship. Biden officials consistently voiced concern at what the effects of certain steps might be, given the US-Saudi relationship is viewed as a pillar of regional stability.
Others close to the administration voiced concern that halting US arms sales to Saudi Arabia could push the country closer to Russia, which could negatively affect the ongoing Ukraine war.
Now, months after the OPEC+ announcement, gas prices have stabilized and inflationary pressures finally appear to be moderating. The midterm elections are also fully in the rearview mirror for the Biden White House, after Democrats far outperformed expectations and left the president and his advisers feeling vindicated about their political position heading into the second half of his first time.
One senior administration official, who confirmed that there are currently “no discussions” of note within the administration about imposing consequences on Saudi Arabia as Biden had pledged last fall, said simply on gas prices here at home: “That’s absolutely a factor.”