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Biden admin asked Saudi Arabia to postpone OPEC cut by a month, Saudis say

US President Joe Biden being welcomed by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Alsalam Royal Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 15, 2022.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The Biden administration asked Saudi Arabia, the de-facto leader of oil producer group OPEC, to delay its decision on oil output by a month, the kingdom said in a statement.

The Saudis declined, and in early October OPEC+ — which includes non-OPEC oil exporters like Russia — announced its largest supply cut since 2020, to the tune of 2 million barrels per day starting from November. That means tighter supplies and higher prices at a time of already high inflation and worries of global recession, which angered U.S. lawmakers who are now calling for a “reevaluation” in relations with the Saudi kingdom.

Notably, Biden’s request would have delayed the decision until after the U.S. midterm elections.

In a statement dated Wednesday, the Saudi government defended its move and said all OPEC decisions are based on economic forecasts and needs.

“The Government of the Kingdom clarified through its continuous consultation with the US Administration that all economic analyses indicate that postponing the OPEC+ decision for a month, according to what has been suggested, would have had negative economic consequences,” the statement read.

Responding to the Saudi claims, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby reframed the exchange and accused the kingdom of aiding Russia’s revenues and hampering the impact of Western sanctions on Moscow for its war in Ukraine.

“In recent weeks, the Saudis conveyed to us – privately and publicly – their intention to reduce oil production, which they knew would increase Russian revenues and blunt the effectiveness of sanctions. That is the wrong direction,” Kirby said. “We presented Saudi Arabia with analysis to show that there was no market basis to cut production targets, and that they could easily wait for the next OPEC meeting to see how things developed.”

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Kirby said, without giving examples, that other OPEC members opposed Saudi Arabia’s move, and reiterated the Biden administration’s vow to reexamine its relationship with Riyadh.

“Other OPEC nations communicated to us privately that they also disagreed with the Saudi decision, but felt coerced to support Saudi’s direction,” he said. “As the President has said, we are reevaluating our relationship with Saudi Arabia in light of these actions, and will continue to look for signs about where they stand in combatting Russian aggression.”

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden said that there would be “consequences” for Saudi Arabia’s oil production cut, which the kingdom is carrying out in coordination with other OPEC members and non-OPEC allies like Russia. Many in Washington saw this as a snub and a blatant display of siding with Moscow.

U.S. lawmakers have urged the cutting of military sales to Saudi Arabia, America’s top weapons buyer, and are encouraging the passing of anti-trust legislation that would go after OPEC.

Riyadh rejected the accusations of making any politically-motivated moves.

“The Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would first like to express its total rejection of these statements that are not based on facts, and which are based on portraying the OPEC+ decision out of its purely economic context. This decision was taken unanimously by all member states of the OPEC+ group,” the Saudi government statement said.

“The Kingdom affirms that the outcomes of the OPEC+ meetings are adopted through consensus among member states, and that they are not based on the unilateral decision by a single country. These outcomes are based purely on economic considerations that take into account maintaining balance of supply and demand in the oil markets.”

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The developments spotlight the growing tensions in the nearly 80-year-old U.S.-Saudi relationship, as both parties suggest the other is failing to uphold their end of the bargain in a friendship broadly based on the principle of energy for security.

They also highlight how little control Washington has on Saudi and OPEC energy policy.

“The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US has soured after OPEC+ opted to cut oil quotas – Saudi Arabia is clearly leaning away from the US orbit,” James Swanston, Middle East and North Africa economist at London-based consultancy Capital Economics, said in a client note Thursday.

Still, the Saudi government stressed the continued importance of its relationship with the U.S.

“The Kingdom affirms that it [views] its relationship with the United States of America as a strategic one that serves the common interests of both countries,” it said in its statement.

“The Kingdom also stresses the importance of building on the solid pillars upon which the Saudi-US relationship had stood over the past eight decades. These pillars include mutual respect, enhancing common interests, actively contributing to preserve regional and international peace and security, countering terrorism and extremism, and achieving prosperity for the peoples of the region.”

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