- Biden met with the Saudi crown prince in July as gas prices in the US reached record highs.
- Three months after their visit, OPEC+ decided to cut oil production.
- Some Democrats in Congress say it’s time to examine the U.S-Saudi Arabia partnership.
Biden attracted enormous criticism in July for not only meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – whose family Biden once vowed to make a “pariah” – but kicking it off with the type of fist bump that’s usually shared between friends.
Three months later, the prince spurned Biden when the OPEC+ alliance of oil-exporting nations decided last week to cut oil production by 2 million barrels a day. The move is expected to raise gas prices at the pump, potentially delivering a damaging blow to Biden before the midterm elections, while helping member Russia navigate through a partial European ban on Russian oil.
The crown prince’s rebuff has Democratic allies questioning whether the meeting was worth it as some call for the Biden administration to cut U.S. cooperation with Saudi Arabia including arms sales to the Saudis.
How OPEC+ undercut Biden
- Biden expected a different outcome: The White House maintains the July meeting with the crown prince, also known as MBS, was not about oil. But it came as gas prices soared for months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Following the meeting, Biden told reporters that “based on our discussions today” he expected the Saudis to take “further steps” to boost oil production in the coming weeks.
- Dynamics before the fist bump:Biden faced criticism for even agreeing to meet with the crown prince – who U.S. officials believe ordered the brutal 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
- A boost for Russia: The OPEC+ alliance’s move to cut 2 million barrels of oil production a day was larger than expected. The alliance cited the “uncertainty that surrounds the global economic and oil market outlooks.” If the move drives up prices as expected, it would boost Russia’s oil revenue, helping Russian President Vladimir Putin continue to wage his war in Ukraine.
- Gas prices back on the rise: At home, the move is expected to increase gas prices at the pump, which have already started to rise again after dropping during the summer. The average price for a gallon of regular gasoline was $3.92 on Monday, according to AAA, up from $3.80 last week.
Biden told reporters last week that the administration is “looking at alternatives” following the OPEC+ decision to cut oil production.
The Biden administration announced it will deliver an additional 10 million barrels from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in November, adding to up to 180 million barrels the president ordered in March.
The White House called on U.S. energy companies to bring down prices at the pump by “closing the historically large gap” between wholesale and retail gas prices.
The administration will also consult with Congress on additional tools and authorities to reduce OPEC’s control over energy prices, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, said in a joint statement.
Biden took a major foreign policy gamble by meeting in Saudi Arabia with a leader he previously condemned.
While some allies say the president’s visit was justified given the state of gas prices, the meeting is now widely seen as a loss strategically.
The White House responded to the OPEC+ alliance’s decision with anger and disappointment. And the political blowback for Biden and Democrats could be consequential as they seek to hold onto power in the next month’s midterm elections.
Biden’s approval rating has proven to be tied to fluctuating gas prices, increasing over the summer as gas prices decreased and dipping again as gas prices have gone back up.
Rising gas prices before the election are not what Democrats want to see.
What they are saying
- Biden ‘disappointed’: Biden said he was “disappointed” by OPEC+ cutting oil production but that he didn’t regret his trip to Saudi Arabia. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said it’s “clear that OPEC+ is aligning with Russia.”
- Democrats take aim at U.S.-Saudi alliance: Top Senate Democrats called for the U.S. to pull back a more than 70-year partnership with Saudi Arabia that’s provided the country arms and military assistance. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. said the U.S. must “immediately freeze all aspects of our cooperation” with Saudi Arabia including arms sales, arguing there’s “no room to play both sides” with Russia’s war in Ukraine. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mendez has veto power over foreign weapons sales. “I will not green-light any cooperation with Riyadh until the Kingdom reassesses its position with respect to the war in Ukraine. Enough is enough.”
- ‘We have a problem’: Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich, in an interview Sunday on “Meet the Press,” said the Saudis “had a strategic decision to make about whether to help the world economy and put more oil in there or to cut it back. At best, they made a decision that didn’t help the rest of the world. At worst, they align themselves with Putin. We have a problem.”
- ‘They chose Russia’: Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Sunday on CNN he doesn’t have a problem with presidents meeting with other leaders but called the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship “broken.” Murphy said the U.S. needs to “rethink” arms sales to Saudi Arabia. “For years, we have looked the other way as Saudi Arabia has chopped up journalists, has engaged in massive political repression, for one reason. We wanted to know that when the chips were down, when there was a global crisis, that the Saudis would choose us instead of Russia. Well, they didn’t. They chose Russia.”
- Republicans push back: Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called the push to end Saudi arms sales “a short-sighted view of the problem” in an interview with USA TODAY. He said the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia should be maintained, noting they’re a “bulwark” against Iran. Graham said the best way to neutralize Russia is to export more natural gas to Europe by producing more oil domestically. “Rather than cutting off arm sales to Saudi Arabia, I’d rather open up domestic exploration,” he said.
The big picture
Overhauling the long partnership between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia would mark a major foreign policy shift with major implications in the Middle East.
The White House has not said whether it supports ending military and arms assistance in Saudi Arabia.
Before any long-term policy changes with the Saudis, Biden has a tougher challenge: make sure gas prices don’t wreck Democrats’ fortunes in November.
Contributing: Associated Press and Francesca Chambers
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.