US-Saudi relations nearing ‘breaking point’ – media

Washington and Riyadh officially insist everything is fine, but Wall Street Journal report suggests otherwise

Relations between the US and Saudi Arabia that go back to 1945 have never been this bad, according to a report published Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal’s print edition. Insiders in Washington and Riyadh that spoke with the paper blamed the situation on a personal rift between US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Both the White House and the Kingdom officially denied any trouble, however.

According to the outlet, the crown prince has sought recognition from Washington as the incoming head of state, which would give him immunity from prosecution for the 2018 killing of dissident Jamal Khashoggi. The Biden White House has refused, bringing up Khashoggi in the first meeting with national security adviser Jake Sullivan and treating with the prince – known by his initials MBS – in his official capacity as Saudi Arabia’s defense minister.

The WSJ story opens with a description of MBS “wearing shorts at his seaside palace” and seeking a “relaxed tone” for his first meeting with Sullivan in September 2021, only to end up “shouting” at the American and telling him to forget about an increase in oil production.

Sullivan didn’t discuss oil production with MBS at their September meeting and “there was no shouting,” national security council spokeswoman Adrianne Watson told the WSJ after the article appeared online on Tuesday. 

An official at the Saudi embassy in Washington called the meeting “cordial and respectful,” adding that over the past 77 years the US and the Kingdom have had “many disagreements and differing points of view over many issues, but that has never stopped the two countries from finding a way to work together.”

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The Saudi-US relationship goes back to the 1945 meeting between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud aboard a US warship in the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal. In exchange for US military protection, the Saudis pledged to maintain a steady flow of oil and sell it in dollars, providing for the eventual emergence of the “petrodollar.”

Saudi Arabia led the 1973 oil embargo against the US, citing Washington’s support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War. It resulted in the worst US economic crisis since the Great Depression. Yet relations between Washington and Riyadh have never been as difficult as they are now, according to Norman Roule, whom the WSJ described as a former senior US intelligence official in the Middle East who maintains ties to senior Saudi officials.

Khashoggi, a dissident who wrote columns for the Washington Post, went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 but never came out. An investigation later showed he was killed and dismembered, blaming security officials close to MBS. While US President Donald Trump sought to maintain a cordial relationship with the Saudis despite the gruesome incident, Biden publicly denounced Riyadh as a “pariah” during the presidential campaign in 2019, and has since reportedly refused to offer any major concessions to the Saudis, according to the WSJ.

Riyadh initially responded to Biden replacing Trump by ending the three-year feud with Qatar and releasing several imprisoned high-profile activists after his inauguration. Within months, however, the Kingdom lost patience with too many US demands, the WSJ said.

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FILE PHOTO: A photographer takes pictures of the Khurais oil field during a tour for journalists, 150 km east-northeast of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 28, 2021 © AP / Amr Nabil
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Last July, Prince Khalid bin Salman cut short his trip to Washington when his request for more air defenses got nowhere. The US had removed several Patriot anti-missile systems from Saudi Arabia the month before, citing maintenance needs. Meanwhile, the Houthi rebels increased the number of missile and drone strikes against the Kingdom and the UAE, seeking to force an end to their involvement in Yemen. One of the Biden administration’s earliest actions was to revoke the designation of the Houthis as terrorists, made by the State Department under Trump.

Since then, Riyadh has canceled the planned visits by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. MBS also reportedly refused to take part in the February 9 call with Biden and his father King Salman.

The Saudis ware “dismayed” at the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, disapprove of efforts to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, and “bristle” at Washington’s presumption that they will fall in lockstep with whatever the US decides, according to the WSJ. 

The Kingdom has refused US demands to increase oil production in order to lower the global price and make up for Washington’s embargo on Russia. Oil prices spiked after the US announced sanctions against Moscow in early March, over the conflict in Ukraine. Biden has since tried to blame the pain at the pump on the “Putin price hike,” though most Americans remain unconvinced.

Meanwhile, Riyadh has not raised objections to Russia selling its oil to China and India in their own currencies, casting doubt on the long-term survivability of the petrodollar. The US has since scaled back its demands as well, asking the Saudis only to not do anything that would hurt the Western efforts to help Kiev, the WSJ reported citing a senior US official.