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US relations with Saudi reach breaking point amid oil standoff

Saudi Arabia is reportedly upset with US President Joe Biden's cold-shouldering of Mohammad Bin Salman and criticism of human rights abuses by Riyadh. (HuffPost/Getty)

Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have hit their lowest in decades over Riyadh’s reluctance to increase oil production to bring down gasoline prices in the global market.

Biden administration had urged Riyadh to boost production and bring down prices after it banned imports of Russian oil and gas in the wake of the Kremlin’s military operation in Ukraine.

But the request was turned down by the Saudi regime, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Arab country’s de-facto ruler, reportedly snubbing President Joe Biden's phone calls.

A report in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday said Washington has given up asking Riyadh to produce more oil after being repeatedly rebuffed by the Arab kingdom.

The report cited a senior US official saying that after abandoning its efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia to scale up its oil production, the Biden administration is now asking Riyadh to refrain from doing anything that would hurt the Western campaign against Russia in Ukraine.

The Saudi regime is reportedly miffed with Biden's cold-shouldering of MBS, criticism of the kingdom's human rights records, and gradual decline in support for the Saudi-led coalition in war-ravaged Yemen.

The murder of dissident Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on the direct orders of MBS has figured prominently in talks between the two sides, fueling tensions.

After the US spy agency CIA concluded that the young crown prince had ordered the murder of Khashoggi in 2018, the White House in February effectively downgraded his status to the defense minister, while recognizing his father King Salman as Biden's counterpart.

The report said MBS is annoyed by the claims that he ordered the killing of Khashoggi as well as the Biden administration’s decision to take out Yemen’s Ansarallah resistance movement from the list of terrorist organizations.

MBS shouts at Sullivan

It referred to a recent meeting between the Saudi crown prince and US national security advisor Jake Sullivan at the former’s seaside palace, which ended on a sour note.

The prince, according to the report, shouted at Sullivan when he brought up the assassination of Khashoggi, insisting that the topic must not be raised again.

Biden, who took office early last year, is yet to meet MBS or King Salman in an official capacity.

His approach has been in contrast to his predecessor, Donald Trump, who refused to criticize MBS over the dissident journalist’s murder and also green-lighted US involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

During Trump’s presidency, MBS shared a close friendship with Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor, who relentlessly persuaded the kingdom to normalize ties with Israel.

After announcing his presidential campaign in mid-2020, Biden called for recalibrating the US relationship with the Saudis.

“We will make clear that America will never again check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons,” Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations. “America needs to insist on responsible Saudi actions and impose consequences for reckless ones.”

However, more than a year into his presidency, Biden has failed to keep his promise of punishing Saudi Arabia and its prince. 

In February 2021, the Biden administration identified MBS as the mastermind of Khashoggi's killing but said it would not target him with financial sanctions or a travel ban.

Months later, Biden approved $500 million in US military aid to the Saudis, which was followed by another $650 million deal for Riyadh to purchase American missiles.

MBS, however, isn't happy with Biden, which was evident in an interview he gave to The Atlantic magazine last month, saying he didn't care what the US president thought of him.

Saudi's China-Russia tilt

The WSJ report noted that the strategic relationship between the two countries has never been in such a difficult state as it is now, citing former senior US intelligence official Norman Roule.

Saudi Arabia’s commercial and political interests have altered after the kingdom became the biggest oil supplier to China and stopped selling as much oil to the US, the report said.

China brought in 87.58 million tonnes of crude oil from the kingdom, or an equivalence of 1.75 million barrels per day, in the year 2021, up 3.1 percent over 2020, and increased its share to 17% of total Chinese imports, according to customs data.

On the other hand, Riyadh has decided to side with Russia in Ukraine, snubbing US pleas for help as the price of oil soars dramatically.

As an indication of how relations have deteriorated between Riyadh and Washington, Saudi Arabia’s state broadcaster last week lampooned Biden in a move deemed unprecedented.

In a comedy sketch broadcast by MBC, a media network owned by the Saudi regime, Biden was shown as an aged man unaware of his surroundings, ushered by his deputy, Kamala Harris.

Mocking his mental and physical health, the clip showed the character playing Biden unaware of the topic he is supposed to talk about at a news conference, while the person in the background, who plays the role of Harris, whispering in his ears to correct his mistakes.

Israelis seek US-Saudi patch up

Meanwhile, the growing rift between the two long-time allies has sparked concern in Tel Aviv, which has long eyed normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia, with Washington’s help and facilitation.

In a statement last week, the Israeli envoy to the US, Michael Herzog, said it would be "very important for our region" if the two countries "fix" their relationship.

Herzog said a patch-up with Riyadh would be particularly critical if the US plans to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, which both Israel and Saudi Arabia oppose.

The US Democrats, however, are mounting pressure on the Biden administration to "recalibrate" its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

A group of House Democrats, including Reps. Gregory Meeks and Adam Schiff — chairs of the foreign affairs and intelligence committees, respectively — earlier this month wrote to Secretary of State Tony Blinken, urging him to be tough on Riyadh.

"Our continued unqualified support for the Saudi monarchy, which systematically, ruthlessly represses its citizens, targets critics all over the world, carries out a brutal war in Yemen, and bolsters authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa, runs counter to US national interests and damages the credibility of the United States to uphold our values," they wrote.

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