The Saudis demanded an oil production cut so deep that even Russia was surprised

The Saudis The OPEC+ oil cartel’s announcement earlier this month that it was cutting 2 million barrels of oil a day – a move that would drive up the price of oil just a month before the midterm elections – upset Democrats in Washington. They accused Riyadh of aligning itself with Russia, another powerful member of OPEC+, which would indeed benefit. “What Saudi Arabia did to help Putin continue his vile and vicious war against Ukraine will long be remembered by Americans,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

But Saudi Arabia has actually pushed to cut oil production twice as much as Russian President Vladimir Putin, surprising the Russians, two Saudi sources with knowledge of the negotiations told The Intercept, suggesting Riyadh’s motives are more deeper than leading Democrats want to admit. The sources requested anonymity, fearing reprisals from the Saudi government.

Public reports have hinted at Saudi Arabia’s willingness to cut production much more aggressively than Russia and other OPEC+ members initially sought. On September 27, Reuters reported that Russia favored a cut of 1 million barrels per day – just half of what would be agreed later. Then, on October 5, OPEC+ announced that it would cut 2 million barrels per day. On Oct. 14, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said “more than one” OPEC+ members disagreed with the cut, but were forced by Saudi Arabia to accept it – but he refused to specify which countries. According to The Wall Street Journal, OPEC+ members who have privately pushed back on the cut include Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain and even the United Arab Emirates, a close ally of Saudi Arabia. These countries would have feared that the production cuts would lead to a recession that would eventually reduce demand for oil.

Saudi Arabia, a putative ally, pushed for even deeper cuts than Russia, a US adversary, even thought it could get away with, the sources said. “People in DC think MBS is on Putin’s side, but I think MBS is even more Putinian than Putin,” said one of the sources, a Saudi close to the royal family, referring to the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin. Salman.

While Saudi Arabia has argued the move was driven solely by economic interests, the White House and other senior Democrats have said the Saudis are pursuing a conscious alignment with Russia. “The Saudi Foreign Ministry may try to twist or deflect, but the facts are simple,” Kirby said, alleging that “they knew” that cutting oil production “would increase Russian revenue and mitigate the effectiveness of sanctions” against Russia in the midst of its invasion. from Ukraine.

Democratic leaders are largely consistent around this message. But experts say the cut is aimed squarely at the Democratic Party — something Democratic officials have been loath to publicly admit.

“The Saudis are well aware that the price of gasoline at the pump has been a critical political issue in the United States since 1973,” Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The Intercept in an email. “They want a big raise to help Republicans,” he added, explaining that MBS sees the GOP winning back Congress as “the first step to winning Trump in 2024 and a setback for Biden.”

In 1973, Saudi Arabia imposed an oil embargo intended to punish the United States and other countries that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Then, in 1979, Saudi Arabia again imposed an oil embargo – this time in the wake of the Iranian revolution, with the resulting high gasoline prices playing an arguably decisive role in the defeat of Jimmy Carter confronting Ronald Reagan during the 1980 presidential race. Carter placed solar panels on the roof of the White House in a symbolic plea for the importance of the United States getting out of oil dependence, a gesture for which he was ridiculed.

MBS’s reign has seen this power wielded in an extremely partisan fashion. MBS complied with Donald Trump’s oil production demands in two election years: once in 2018, by increasing oil production to drive down prices, and again in 2020 by lowering production, which Trump wanted protect America’s domestic shale industry battered by weak demand. by the slowing down of the pandemic.

“MBS had a romantic relationship with Trump,” Riedel said. “Trump supported MBS when he assassinated Khashoggi and his war in Yemen that starved tens of thousands of children; there has never been any criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses from the Trump administration.

Trump broke with longstanding presidential tradition by making his first foreign visit as president to Riyadh, where he was showered with gifts and signed a record $350 billion arms sale to the kingdom. He also vetoed three separate congressional bills that would have blocked arms sales to Riyadh and bragged about protecting MBS from the consequences of the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying, “I saved his skin.”

“You don’t have to look far to understand that MBS is deliberately and persistently acting against American interests and the Biden administration in particular. His actions are not just ‘snubs’ but punches in the face” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy in the Arab World Now, “He’s very openly using oil as leverage to try to influence the midterm elections in an effort to bring in more compliant Republicans, trying to show us all who’s boss, even in our own democracy.”

The idea that Saudi Arabia could intervene in US domestic politics, verboten in Washington, has been publicly acknowledged by senior Saudi officials themselves. In an Arabic-language interview for the Saudi state-funded talk show, “Spotlights,” in May 2004, Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, the Saudi ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2006, said aloud voice the calm party: “The kingdom oil decisions can influence the election or non-election of the president of the United States, the largest and strongest country in the world. Let this be taken into consideration, regardless of what that the kingdom decides to do, is in itself a proof of the strategic weight for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

“He’s very openly using oil as leverage to try to influence the midterm elections in an effort to bring in more docile Republicans, trying to show all of us who’s boss, even in our own democracy.”

In another interview with Bob Woodward in 2004, Bandar said, “President [Bill] Clinton asked us to keep prices low in the year 2000. In fact, I can go back to 1979, President Carter asked us to keep prices low to avoid the malaise.

In October 2018, following news of Khashoggi’s grisly murder, a column by then-Saudi state media chief Al Arabiya threatened “economic disaster” if the United States sanctioned Riyadh. “If US sanctions are imposed on Saudi Arabia, we will face an economic catastrophe that will shake the whole world,” wrote Turki Aldakhil, who is now Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. “It would lead to Saudi Arabia’s failure to commit to producing 7.5 million barrels [of oil].”

None of this is to say that Saudi Arabia under MBS did not pursue more comfortable relations with Russia. MBS’s heightened relationship with Putin dates back to June 2015, when, frustrated that President Barack Obama had rejected MBS’ requests for a meeting, the then deputy crown prince chose to meet Putin on the sidelines of the 19th Forum instead. Petersburg International Economy, as The Intercept previously reported.

Left with few options, the Biden administration announced this week that it would release 15 million barrels of oil from strategic oil reserves. The White House is also considering lifting sanctions on Venezuela to mitigate economic harm from the OPEC+ production cut, a move some experts have been calling for for years.

“The United States has artificially helped to make Saudi Arabia more powerful in energy markets by sanctioning oil from other major producers,” Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, told The Intercept. . “As [Secretary of State] Tony Blinken said the destruction of the Nord Stream gas pipeline was an opportunity for Europe to reduce its dependence on Russian gas, Biden should turn the current crisis into an opportunity to reduce his own dependence on Riyadh by rethinking his unsuccessful energy sanctions against Venezuela and Iranian.

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