US President Joe Biden is caught in a tight situation. Inflation in the US is hitting historic levels. Crude has breached $120 per barrel and is expected to go above and beyond $150 per barrel. The average gasoline rate in the United States has breached 2008 recession levels to hit $4.17 for a gallon. The mid-term elections are knocking on the door. The rising oil prices predate the Russian invasion of Ukraine, so blaming Russia is really not serving as an airtight defence. And the only people that can stop this carnage and rescue Biden are the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But here’s the interesting part: they don’t want to talk to him. In fact, over the last few months, they have sat back to enjoy the sight of this inflationary bloodbath.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the UAE Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan do not want to speak to President Joe Biden and have dismissed overtures made by his administration for a phone call.
Now, it was obvious why Joe Biden reached out to MBS and MBZ. The Biden Administration desperately needed Saudi Arabia and the UAE to let loose their oil taps and “stabilise” the markets, in other words, help the US offset the bloodletting in USA’s domestic markets. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US doubled down on the hope that the Arabs would also strip Russia of the current energy supply leverage it holds over the USA’s allies in the West. Venezuela’s autocratic regime is too close to Russia, and pleading with it for oil as if the last few years of heightened sanctions on Caracas did not happen— is not a good look. The possibility of a new nuclear deal with Iran is still hanging in the balance and that too will come with a lot of pain if Israel and USA’s Arab allies are asked. Only Saudi Arabia and the UAE can seize oil’s uncontrolled spike and let the White House walk out of this crisis with dignity. Unfortunately this time, MBS and MBZ had an axe to grind with the American President who not long ago opted for a series of sharp turns to discard the USA’s old Middle Eastern allies. Keeping Biden in the waiting room has been their revenge.
Until UAE’s latest icebreaker— an OPEC proposal to increase oil production reportedly without discussing with allies, the two OPEC leaders spent months dismissing the USA’s requests and even suggested that the USA drill its own oil to help itself. By refusing to pump more oil and stonewalling the United States, MBS and MBZ were united in teaching President Biden a lesson— one that could not have come at a more terrible time given that the 2022 mid-term elections are around the corner, a crucial precursor to 2024. The fact remains that for Russia, which pumps about 10% of the world’s oil and is an OPEC+ member, sanctions will never do the kind of immediate economic harm that free-flowing, dirt-cheap oil in the markets would. And only Saudi Arabia has demonstrated that capability when in 2020 it drained billions of dollars by pumping oil beyond its storage capacity— all to prove its point in a production-related standoff with Russia. Sure it brought some momentary self-harm, but it also harmed Russia and soon enough Moscow caved into that spiralling madness that Riyadh put OPEC+ countries through. What followed was an agreement with Russia on oil production.
That was then when Saudi Arabia had a reason to bleed Russia, even if it meant bleeding itself. But why would it do that to bail out the Biden Administration? Why would it do anything at all to hurt Russia’s interests even at the slightest? The United States is expecting too much— “drop the oil price to save our economy and then drop it a little more to help defeat Russia.”
Now had it been any other time of the decade, this could have been considered. After all, the US is an ally for Saudi Arabia and the UAE and under the Trump administration, the ties only went from strength to strength. Surely Biden would have built further on those gains, yeah? No. In fact, one of Biden’s many poll promises was to reassess ties with ‘to be global pariah’ Saudi Arabia. Once the new administration took the reins, the Middle East saw the US dump its two best friends in the Arab world.
Biden dragged MBS on journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and may have hoped that MBS would be removed. He wasn’t. The new administration withdrew its support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the Yemen war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, and to add salt to injury, it began vehemently batting for a new nuclear deal with Iran— which among other things would raise Arab and Israeli concerns on regional security and obviously bring back Iranian oil in a sanctions-free space. What’s more, in a snub to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Biden quickly granted Qatar the status of major non-NATO ally making it the third Middle Eastern state after Bahrain and Kuwait to be designated as such. And finally the most barbed bit— holding back arms sales. The Biden administration suspended the F35 jet sale that the UAE signed with Trump right after the historic Abraham Accord and before the 2020 US election. Disregarding the Trump era agreement, the Biden administration sought to revise the terms of the deal which was not taken kindly by the UAE. Months later, the UAE dumped the 50 F35s for 80 Rafales from France— a $19 billion mega-deal and pulled out of talks with the US altogether. Interestingly, France seemingly had its own revenge in mind after Biden’s AUKUS plan stole a submarine deal with Australia.
Perhaps it was not anticipated by the Biden administration that it would need them so badly or perhaps they were taken entirely for granted and were expected to crawl at the first opportunity they got, but either way, the moment they had the chance, Saudi Arabia and the UAE made sure that they had the last laugh as the world watched.
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