US President Joe Biden is trying to figure out how to placate Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and get his country to produce more oil.

Biden, under domestic criticism for high inflation, needs to somehow lower the price of oil. Saudi Arabia has more on hand than anyone.

But getting Saudi help will be hard. Biden once called the kingdom a “pariah.” A US intelligence report effectively labeled Prince Mohammed a murderer for overseeing the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Nonetheless, Biden’s spokesperson said it is the president’s duty to keep communications open. Never mind that Khashoggi, who wrote for the Washington Post, was murdered in a Saudi consulate in Turkey and that his killers chopped up his body into pieces for easy transport out.

Or that the Saudis oppose Biden’s efforts to cut a nuclear weapons deal with Iran.

“The president will meet with any leader if it serves the interests of the American people,” spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday. “That’s what he puts first.”

A demonstrator holds a picture of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a gathering outside the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul on October 25, 2018. Photo: AFP

It’s a conundrum at the collision of two competing foreign policy desires: to be tough on Russia and tough on Saudi Arabia. The two goals have turned out to be incompatible. Each has stumbled over complications from using oil as a pressure tool.

There are two difficulties with Biden’s oil diplomacy. First, it’s far from certain that the Saudis and the other 12 members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will want to increase supply or even can.

Saudi Arabia and petroleum powerhouse United Arab Emirates will not want to boost production by themselves. Doing so would effectively steal market share from their OPEC partners.

Moreover, several OPEC members, including Libya, Venezuela and Nigeria, cannot meet cartel quotas set months ago; their wells, equipment and refineries fell into disarray during the Covid crisis.

According to Argus, a commodities media company, OPEC is underperforming its quotas by more than 1 million barrels per day.

China, which has imposed no boycotts on its Russia trade, cannot ramp up purchases of Moscow’s oil. If it could, that would effectively rebalance the global market by freeing up oil it usually imports from elsewhere for sale to someone else. But, China lacks the pipeline capacity to increase purchases directly from Russia.

Finally, oil traders generally are skittish about financing Russian sales.

The Saudis recently bent a bit on production by getting OPEC to agree on slight increases. But experts say the gesture is not enough to reduce spiraling prices. “Unless the Russian petroleum supply shortfall can be contained, it appears necessary for the price of oil to increase substantially and to remain elevated for a long period,” the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas wrote.

The other complication with Biden’s effort to squeeze Russia out of Ukraine is his hostility to the Saudi regime. That animus was in evidence even before he took office. In his mind, Saudi is a regional, autocratic troublemaker, not simply a source of petroleum.

Animus antecedents

During a presidential campaign debate, not only did Biden label Saudi Arabia a “pariah”; he also attacked the government for human rights abuses and unwarranted military involvement in Yemen’s civil war.

Asked what he would do about it, Biden responded, “I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price.”

He added that there was “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.” It was a clear swipe at Prince Mohammed.

US presidential candidates often say things during campaigns that represent slaps at opponents.

On the one hand, the hard-line was a critique of Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, who had overlooked the Khashoggi case and maintained uncritical, realpolitik-style relations with Riyadh.

By way of contrast, Biden’s harsh words about Saudi Arabia reflected a new appraisal among some advisors.

In June 2020, five months before Biden’s election, Daniel Benaim, an advisor to Biden when he served as vice-president under Barack Obama, wrote an essay entitled “A Progressive Course Correction for US-Saudi Relations” for The Century Foundation, a liberal think tank.

Daniel Benaim, US deputy assistant secretary of state for Arabian Peninsula affairs, meets Muslim World League MWL Secretary-General Mohammed bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa in Riyadh. Photo: SPA

In it, Benaim labeled Saudi involvement in the Yemen civil war and the Khashoggi murder “ill-considered choices that have undermined US interests.” He proposed “a course correction in US-Saudi relations.”

His recommended changes included improvements in Saudi human rights performance and a reduction of negative attitudes towards Iran, with which Biden was trying to cut a nuclear weapons deal. “If Riyadh fails to do this, it can expect to see strategic cooperation with Washington grow increasingly limited,” Benaim wrote.

He also advised that Washington had an opportunity to pressure Saudi Arabia to change because the US “is not beholden to Saudi oil.” At the time, the US was self-sufficient.

In January 2021, when Biden took office, he chose Benaim as his deputy assistant secretary of state for Arabian peninsula affairs.

Soon, the administration began to act on Benaim’s convictions. Biden released a scathing report written by the US Office of National Intelligence that concluded, “We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

Biden’s spokesperson noted that Biden was not taking telephone calls from the crown prince. Then Russia invaded Ukraine. Suddenly, it was Mohammed who was not returning Biden’s phone calls, the Wall Street Journal reported last March.

Biden is promising to visit Saudi Arabia – likely in July, officials in Washington said.

The question now is whether Biden will have to effectively bow to Prince Mohammed. It’s unlikely he will follow Trump’s effusive lead by performing in a traditional Saudi sword dance at a reception in the Saudi capital.

Trump’s saber dance in Riyadh.

Trump got a medal from the crown prince after saying that the Saudi leader “maybe” had nothing to do with Khashoggi’s death.

In any event, Biden’s outreach will be difficult to sell to critics who think the US has coddled autocratic Saudi Arabia for too long. Even a handshake with Prince Mohammed might prove controversial.

 “A presidential trip to Saudi Arabia right now is going to be confirmation, validation, not just that it’s business as usual but that bin Salman got away with murder,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert who worked at the State Department under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.