President Biden is hopping mad that Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and, since last month, prime minister, refused his request not to cut oil production—or at least to wait a month before doing so. Biden is threatening “consequences” in retaliation.
What is MBS thinking? Let’s hazard some guesses.
Cutting production will keep prices up if demand falls due to a global recession, an eventuality many economists predict. If you were MBS, would you forgo that benefit to please Biden?
During his presidential campaign, Biden declared: “I guarantee we’re going to end fossil fuels!” Since occupying the White House, he has been aggressively pursuing that goal. If you were MBS, might you think: “If Biden despises fossil fuels—the primary source of Saudi wealth—shouldn’t he thank me for producing less of them?”
MBS has also surely not forgotten Biden’s vow to make him a “pariah” for his role in the murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.
His reasoning might run along these lines: “The rulers of Russia and Iran kill those they regard as traitors by the score! They’re responsible for more than 500,000 deaths in Syria! China’s ruler is committing genocide—according to Biden himself! But I’m the guy he wants to make a ‘pariah’? On what basis?”
To recognize that this a valid question in no way condones the heinous crime that was committed.
We may assume MBS is familiar with the history of Washington’s relations with Riyadh. Is Biden? In case he’s reading this—and since I know you are—I’ll summarize.
In February of 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled to the Middle East to meet with Saudi King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud. That was a curious decision considering that World War II was not yet over, and the American president was mortally ill.
But FDR understood that oil was the world’s most strategic commodity. Thirst for oil was the primary reason Hitler invaded both North Africa and the Soviet Union in 1941. “Unless we get the Baku oil,” he told one of his commanders, “the war is lost.”
He was correct. In the Battle of the Bulge, a Panzer assault literally ran out of gas. Fully fueled American aircraft destroyed the tanks where they were parked.
Japanese imperialists invaded Southeast Asia to obtain the fossil fuels they needed. The United States responded by declaring an oil embargo against Tokyo. After Pearl Harbor, American submarines in the Pacific hunted two primary targets: aircraft carriers and oil tankers.
FDR understood, too, how essential oil would be for America’s post-war prosperity: to provide electricity and transportation, and heat homes in cold weather. In 1933, air conditioners were first installed in the White House. He didn’t need a crystal ball to foresee that middle-class households would soon crave this luxury as well.
So, FDR struck a deal with the monarch. The Saudis would keep the oil flowing at a reasonable price to provide stability for the American-led global economy. In exchange, the United States would guarantee the kingdom’s security. This understanding persisted for more than six decades.
Then came Barack Obama. He envisioned a realignment of the Middle East, one in which the Islamic Republic of Iran would “share the neighborhood.”
His talks with Iran’s rulers, leading to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, violated the diplomatic principle that, when it comes to allies and partners, “nothing about us without us.”
He excluded the Saudis and others existentially threatened by Iran’s rulers: the Bahrainis, the Emiratis and the Israelis. He offered to provide Iran’s rulers with billions of dollars they would be free to spend to undermine those nations.
All Obama asked of the theocrats in return was a promise to delay—not end—their nuclear weapons program. If you were in MBS’s sandals, what would be your reaction?
You know what happened next. President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, imposed stiff sanctions on Tehran, and took pains to restore America’s partnership with the Saudis. However, Trump took no serious actions in response to Iranian drone and cruise missile attacks on two key oil installations inside Saudi Arabia in 2019. MBS cannot have been pleased.
President Biden has been attempting to revive the Obama approach, but Iran’s rulers have so far rebuffed offers of a deal that would restrain them less and enrich them more than the original JCPOA.
Biden now says he will punish MBS. “There’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve done with Russia,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper. Note: He’s implicitly denying that he asked MBS for a favor linked to the midterm elections and accusing MBS of cutting oil production to help Russian President Vladimir Putin finance his war against Ukraine.
MBS must be thinking: “If Biden objects to helping Putin, why is he still courting Iran’s rulers, who are sending Putin drones to slaughter Ukrainians?” Not just coincidentally, MBS this weekend announced $400 million in aid to Ukraine.
Should Biden impose “consequences”—for example, cutting off sales of American weapons to the Saudis—what will MBS do? Maybe buy weapons from other nations. Russia sells plenty.
China is an important Saudi trading partner, one not interested in eliminating fossil fuels. MBS knows that Xi Jinping, at the 20th Communist Party Congress that opened on Sunday, is almost certain to become the most powerful Chinese ruler since Mao Zedong.
With all this in mind, President Biden ought to be asking himself: “Does it serve America’s interests for me to further weaken relations with MBS and push the Saudis closer to Xi and Putin?”
It’s a consequential question. And, truthfully, it answers itself.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times.