In the wake of the OPEC decision to cut oil production, there has been an outpouring of anger at Saudi Arabia in the US and the West, as politicians and commentators express concern over oil price increases and their implications for US midterms as well as Russia-Saudi ties.
The larger picture in the Middle East and Washington is a sense that Russia has made "inroads" with Saudi Arabia, according to an article at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"The US position that Russia's war against Ukraine is actually a war of autocracy against democracy has highlighted the overlapping interests of Russia and GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states," the article said. "For their part, the GCC states have displayed little desire to comply with demands from US officials that they do not flirt with Russia or China."
The US was pressuring Saudi Arabia to not cut production, according to reports. Nevertheless, OPEC members went ahead and cut production. The New York Times claimed that "OPEC and Russia" aim to raise oil prices. Biden administration officials consider this as being a slight and see it as "aligning with Russia," according to The Guardian. But "Saudi Arabia and Russia may find their oil pricing power limited," according to the Times.
Indeed, there are other oil producers out there. The US, Russia and Saudi Arabia are the top three oil producers, with some 30 million barrels per day total in 2021. Canada, Iraq, China, Iran, the UAE, Brazil and Kuwait also produce between about two and four million barrels per day. Norway, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Qatar, Libya, Mexico and several other states also churn out more than a million barrels per day.
Nevertheless, it's clear that when it comes to the biggest producers, Saudi Arabia matters. With the OPEC cut, the consensus in some media outlets, think tanks and commentator circles is that Riyadh is the problem. A Bloomberg opinion piece, for instance, claimed that the "Saudi-Russian oil axis" has snubbed Biden. This is an attempt to make this issue very personal. And it's not the only piece at Bloomberg slamming Saudi Arabia. Another report claimed that "Putin finally finds a true friend: Saudi Arabia."
In Congress, members are angry as well. Reports say Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) suggested the US should pull troops and missile systems from the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
THE THEME of the critique is clear. It runs the gamut from "Saudi is not an ally" to claims that the kingdom is trying to influence the US midterms; that Riyadh is an ally of Russia; that the US and others, such as Germany, should cut Riyadh off from arms and defense supplies; and to recognition that US pressure didn't work, and now Washington has few friends inside OPEC these days. The corollary then is to wonder about America's role in general in the Middle East.
One politician slammed Saudi Arabia after the news broke, saying: "Who do they think they are?" This conjures up the teaser for The Economist's 1843 magazine article that read, "Meet Muhammad bin Salman, the millennial autocrat who controls our oil."
These kinds of comments, portraying Saudi oil as "our oil" or wondering who do "they" think they are, probably won't result in closer US-Saudi ties. The anger at think tanks, some of them connected to Qatar or funded by isolationist lobbies that have been in favor of the Iran deal – and the anger among politicians who fear this will influence the midterms – can have real-world effects.
If Saudi-US relations suffer, there is always going to be someone to fill the vacuum, meaning that if the Saudis feel they have fewer ties in the West, they will find ties elsewhere. Similarly, this can impact the Abraham Accords because the UAE is a close partner of Israel, and there may be some blowback regarding the Emirati position.
Overall, this would tie in well for Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu if he performs well in the next election, because he was skeptical of some of the partisan anti-Israel views in the US anyway. But it may not bode well in general for the region. There is a sense that the US is teetering on a fault line here, that it has wanted to "leave" the Middle East for the last decade and that this has resulted in Iran being empowered, and chaos being unleashed.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine is also part of the chaos that happens when the US is seen as weak. But in the Middle East, the repercussions of the US flip-flopping on ties to the Gulf will have effects on Israel because the Gulf states see Israel as a partner these days.
That could mean closer ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia because Riyadh isn't really becoming close to Moscow – it's just trying to forge its own way and deal with the knowledge that there is growing critique in Washington.
Overall, the OPEC, US and Saudi controversy will impact the Middle East, as it could encourage closer Israeli partnerships with the Gulf and show that Jerusalem is a reliable partner of Washington at the same time. It could also embolden Russia, Iran and Turkey, which could lead to blowback in the region and instability in Syria or Iraq.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.