Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is enacting revenge on Democrats in general and President Joe Biden specifically for the party’s increasingly standoffish attitude toward the kingdom — by driving up energy prices and fueling global inflation.
Biden himself seemed to allude to this at a town hall event with CNN last month, during which he attributed high gas prices to a certain “foreign policy initiative” of his, adding, “There’s a lot of Middle Eastern folks who want to talk to me. I’m not sure I’m going to talk to them.”
Biden was making a not-so-veiled reference to his refusal to meet with the crown prince and acknowledge him as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler due to his role in the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October of 2018. The move came after Biden vowed during a debate with President Donald Trump to make MBS, as he’s known, “a pariah” and represented a stark departure from Trump’s warm relations with the desert kingdom and the crown prince.
In 2017, Trump broke with tradition by choosing Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, for his first foreign visit and soon announced a record arms sale to the kingdom. Later, after Khashoggi, a contributor to the Washington Post, was brutally dismembered in a Turkish consulate, Trump cast doubt on MBS’s involvement, saying, “Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.” After his own CIA director briefed Congress on MBS’s culpability, Trump reportedly boasted about his efforts to protect the crown prince, saying, “I saved his ass.” Since then, a senior adviser to Trump’s campaign, Tom Barrack, has been indicted for allegedly working as an unregistered agent of the United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia’s closest ally.
In June 2018, heading into the midterms, Trump requested that Saudi Arabia and its cartel, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, lower energy prices by increasing output, and the kingdom complied. Prices bottomed out in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, and usage sank to record lows. Prices surged once the pandemic waned and the economy reopened, and this August Biden requested that OPEC again increase output.
This time MBS refused, angry at having yet to be granted an audience with Biden and contemptuous of the U.S. pullback from the war in Yemen. As one of his first pieces of business, Biden had ordered the end of American support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s war, though caveated it by barring only the backing of “offensive operations.” Saudi Arabia nevertheless received it as a grievous blow.
Ali Shihabi, a Saudi national who is considered a voice for MBS in Washington, made that clear in October, tweeting, “Biden has the phone number of who he will have to call if he wants any favours.”
Biden has the phone number of who he will have to call if he wants any favours: @CroftHelima "OPEC will come under increasingly intense pressure from Washington to open the production release valve and cap the upside” https://t.co/d09aml1JcT via @markets— Ali Shihabi ??? ??????? (@aliShihabi) October 2, 2021
Shihabi wrote in a statement to The Intercept, “Saudi has put a lot of work into getting a cohesive OPEC+ to work over the past 15 months since the crisis that dropped oil futures below zero so will not break ranks with the consensus or Russia on this. Also the Kingdom resents being blamed for what is essentially a structural problem not of its own making in the US which has hampered its own energy production. Finally, I hear that the price of Thanksgiving Turkeys has doubled in the US so why can oil prices also not inflate?” Shihabi added a winking emoji to the end of his comment.
The American economy is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, and on top of the prices consumers pay directly at the pump and for energy at home, the costs of food and manufactured goods are also heavily susceptible to swings in energy prices.
“Gas prices relate to a foreign policy initiative that is about something that goes beyond the cost of gas,” Biden said at the town hall last month. “And we’re about $3.30 a gallon most places now when it’s up from — it was down in the single digits — I mean single digits, a dollar-plus. And that’s because of the supply being withheld by OPEC. And so there’s a lot of negotiation that is — there’s a lot of Middle Eastern folks who want to talk to me. I’m not sure I’m going to talk to them. But the point is, it’s about gas production.”
Since the town hall, gas prices have risen further, now standing at around $3.40, a seven-year high.
“There’s a possibility to be able to bring it down,” he continued. “[It] depends a little bit on Saudi Arabia and a few other things that are in the offing.”
Biden made similar comments at the G-20 summit in October, saying that Russia, Saudi Arabia, and others were withholding their capacity to produce more. “It has a profound impact on working-class families just to get back and forth to work,” he said.
“The United States, through our own policies, has essentially empowered MBS to impose economic sanctions on us,” a senior Senate aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told The Intercept.
MBS’s refusal to bail Biden out by opening the spigot is calculated, said Jon Hoffman, a Middle East analyst who recently penned a critical article on the UAE and Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of UAE capital Abu Dhabi and the country’s de facto ruler, in Foreign Policy. “They definitely know what they’re doing, and those who play innocent and act like this is not a coordinated strategy are either just ignorant or in the pockets of MBS or MBZ,” Hoffman said.
The politics of oil, the economy, and foreign policy played out this week as the Biden administration moved ahead with a major arms sale to Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen while taking heat from a leading Saudi critic, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.
Agree. Selling weapons to Saudi Arabia while they continue to slaughter Yemenis is unacceptable. If we truly believe in putting human rights at the center of our foreign policy we would not be arming human rights abusers. Working on legislation to stop this sale this week. https://t.co/b0b33Eyasz— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) November 10, 2021
The arms sale underscores Biden’s Saudi dilemma, as MBS doesn’t just want the arms — he wants a thank you, without a word of dissent from any Democrat.
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute and a critic of Saudi Arabia, said the move by MBS is aimed at boosting Republicans, whom the crown prince sees as a more reliable ally. “As I see it, it is part of a broader Saudi strategy to favor the GOP as MBS calculates that a Republican president will reinvest in the idea of dominating the Middle East militarily, which makes the relationship with Saudi Arabia critical once more,” Parsi said.
Regional political realignments have led many key leaders in the Middle East to favor Republican leadership. Following former Democratic President Barack Obama’s pursuit of the Iran nuclear deal in the face of opposition from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel, an alliance tightened between the three nations.
Parsi said MBS wants to return to the days when Saudi Arabia was fully immune from any criticism and had U.S. support with no questions asked. ”While Biden has clearly not broken fully with these policies, despite his rhetoric, the Dems — particularly progressives — are adding friction to it and are more hesitant about rehabilitating MBS,” said Parsi. “So for MBS specifically, as well as the Likud [a right-wing Israeli political party] and the leaders in Abu Dhabi, a Republican president and Congress is much preferred. And all three of these states have already shown a significant propensity to interfere in American politics.”
The Saudi intervention in U.S. politics on behalf of the GOP could have profound implications for clean energy policies, as Democrats increasingly have powerful incentives to move away from an oil-based economy that can fall victim to puppeteering by political adversaries. “The answer ultimately is — ultimately meaning the next three or four years — is investing in renewable energy,” Biden said during his town hall, outlining an unrealistically optimistic time frame but describing the direction Democrats plan to go.
Republicans, meanwhile, could have a steady grip on a lever — oil output — that can easily move approval ratings or congressional generic ballots up or down at will. All it takes is looking the other way.