Biden vows to punish Saudis but struggles to calibrate his response

(Bloomberg) – President Joe Biden on Tuesday expressed his fury with Saudi Arabia over OPEC+ oil production cuts, accusing the kingdom of siding with Russia and vowing to engage with US lawmakers clamoring to punish Riyadh.

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“There are going to be consequences for what they did, with Russia,” Biden said in an interview with CNN.

The president added that he believed it was time for the United States to rethink its relationship with Saudi Arabia. But he and senior administration officials also admitted that a retaliatory legislative plan was unlikely to materialize before November’s midterm elections, pointing to the complex calculations the United States faces then. that they weigh on a long-standing partnership that has rapidly deteriorated.

Earlier on Tuesday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby called OPEC+’s decision to cut oil production by 2 million barrels a day “myopic” and said “it benefited to Russia at a time when no one in any capacity should be trying to take advantage of Vladimir Putin.” “Russia is a leader of the OPEC+ alliance.

And the administration warned that the move risks undermining the Group of Seven’s diplomatic efforts to support developing countries with infrastructure investments, as these countries are the least equipped to bear the burden of rising oil prices. .

But the anger expressed toward Saudi Arabia by Biden administration officials was not immediately followed by proportionate action.

“Process” for punishment

The president only said he was “in the process” of assessing the consequences for the kingdom and indicated they were not likely until lawmakers returned from a suspension scheduled to last until November.

“I’m not going to get into what I would consider and what I have in mind, but there will be consequences,” he said.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday the administration will evaluate Congressional proposals and talk to allies about the U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia over the coming weeks and months. Kirby, for his part, said the White House would “start having conversations” when lawmakers return, while minimizing internal efforts within the administration.

“We’re not announcing like a formal policy review here with a task force or anything like that — what we’re talking about here is the president’s belief that the relationship needs to be reviewed,” said Kirby, adding that he could not provide a timeline or plan for the reassessment.

Other administration officials have repeatedly denied the chance to approve specific Capitol Hill proposals, including bipartisan legislation known as the “NOPEC” bill that would allow U.S. lawsuits against countries in the cartel for manipulating energy markets.

The mixed messages revealed the tough questions facing a West wing exasperated by the announcement of OPEC+, which threatens to raise gasoline prices just as voters head to the polls. The sting was particularly acute in the aftermath of Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia three months ago, where he met Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman despite previously criticizing the country’s de facto leader for his involvement in the murder. by Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi Arabia appeared keen to defuse the growing divide on Tuesday, with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan saying his country and the United States shared a “strategic” partnership and that the OPEC+ decision was “purely economic”.

“Military cooperation between Riyadh and Washington serves the interests of both countries and has contributed to stability in the region,” he said in an interview with Al Arabiya.

This political reality has stoked concerns among some in the administration about other White House energy policies and how to sanction Moscow — and Russia’s important energy sector — without further disrupting markets.

Target arms sales

It also prompted a flood of proposals from administration allies on Capitol Hill. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Representative Ro Khanna of California on Tuesday proposed legislation to suspend US arms sales to Saudi Arabia for a year.

“The Saudis must undo their oil supply cuts, which aid and abet the savage criminal invasion of Russia, endanger the global economy and threaten rising gas prices at American pumps,” Blumenthal said. “We cannot continue to sell highly sensitive weapons technology to a nation aligned with a heinous terrorist adversary.”

Their proposal joins others made by members of Congress since the announcement of production cuts and since Russia’s barrage of missile attacks on civilian infrastructure across Ukraine.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez on Monday called for a freeze on all US cooperation with Saudi Arabia. Last week, three House Democrats — Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, Susan Wild of Pennsylvania and Sean Casten of Illinois — said they planned to introduce a bill to withdraw all US troops and systems. missile defense companies from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, another OPEC+ lawmaker who backed the production cuts.

The White House signaled on Tuesday that it was unlikely to support legislation withdrawing its support for the integrated air and missile defense network provided to Arab partners and intended to serve as a bulwark against Iran. Kirby noted that there are tens of thousands of Americans living in Saudi Arabia, in addition to American troops stationed in the region.

And the White House has already expressed its unease with the NOPEC legislation.

“The potential implications and unintended consequences of this legislation require further study and reflection, particularly at this dynamic time in global energy markets brought about by President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine,” he said. former Biden press secretary Jen Psaki said in May.

The dilemma illustrated the difficulties administration officials face as they try to calibrate a response without hurting American interests — or voters’ wallets. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday the effort would involve all parts of the White House.

“This is something the president is going to take very seriously, and we’ll have more to share,” she said.

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