Outraged Biden Team Vows Consequences for Saudis Over OPEC+ Cut

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(Bloomberg) — Top aides to President Joe Biden voiced their fury with Saudi Arabia over OPEC+ oil production cuts Tuesday, saying the administration was undertaking a sweeping reevaluation of its relationship and planned to engage with lawmakers clamoring to punish the kingdom.

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(Bloomberg) — Top aides to President Joe Biden voiced their fury with Saudi Arabia over OPEC+ oil production cuts Tuesday, saying the administration was undertaking a sweeping reevaluation of its relationship and planned to engage with lawmakers clamoring to punish the kingdom.

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But officials also conceded that a legislative plan to retaliate was unlikely to materialize until after November’s midterm elections, underscoring the complex calculations the US faces as it weighs a longtime partnership that has quickly soured.

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“The decision last week on the part of OPEC to align itself and to align its energy policy with Russia’s war aims went against the interests of the American people,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby called the OPEC+ decision to slash oil production by 2 million barrels per day “short-sighted” and said “it benefited Russia at a time when nobody in any capacity should be trying to benefit Vladimir Putin.” And the administration warned that the move risked undermining the Group of Seven’s diplomatic efforts to support developing countries with infrastructure investment, since those nations were least equipped to bear the burden of higher gas prices.

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But the anger expressed by administration officials was not necessarily met with commensurate action. Price said that the administration would evaluate proposals from Congress and speak to allies about the US partnership with Saudi Arabia over the coming weeks and months. Kirby, for his part, said the White House would “start to have conversations” when lawmakers returned from a recess scheduled to last into November, while downplaying internal efforts within the administration.

“We’re not announcing like a formal policy review here with a special team or anything like that — what we’re talking about here is the president’s belief that the relationship needs to be reviewed,” Kirby said, adding that he could not provide a time frame or blueprint for the reevaluation. 

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

The conflicting messaging revealed the difficult questions facing a West Wing infuriated by the OPEC+ announcement, which threatens to elevate gas prices just as voters are headed to the polls. The sting was particularly acute in the aftermath of Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia three months ago, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite having previously criticized the country’s de facto ruler for his involvement in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

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Saudi Arabia appeared eager to deescalate the growing rift Tuesday, with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan saying his country and the US shared a “strategic” partnership and that the decision by OPEC+ 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.

That political reality has fanned concerns by some in the administration over other White House energy policies, and how to sanction Moscow — and Russia’s significant energy sector — without further upsetting markets. 

It’s also prompted a flood of proposals from administration allies on Capitol Hill. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Representative Ro Khanna of California proposed legislation Tuesday to halt US arms sales to Saudi Arabia for one year, calling their bill a message to the Saudi leadership after a move they see as aiding Russia in its war with Ukraine by propping up oil prices.

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“Saudis must reverse their oil supply cuts, which aid and abet Russia’s savage criminal invasion, endanger the world economy, and threaten higher gas prices at US pumps,” Blumenthal said. “We cannot continue selling highly sensitive arms technology to a nation aligned with an abhorrent terrorist adversary.”

Khanna said the measure would force the crown prince to reconsider.

“There is no reason for the U.S. to kowtow to a regime that has massacred countless civilians in Yemen, hacked to death a Washington-based journalist, and is now extorting Americans at the pump,” he said. “There must be consequences for fleecing the American people in order to support Putin’s unconscionable war.”

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

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Senate Foreign Relations Chair Robert Menendez on Monday urged a freeze on all US cooperation with Saudi Arabia. Last week, three House Democrats — New Jersey’s Tom Malinowski, Pennsylvania’s Susan Wild and Illinois’ Sean Casten — said they planned to introduce a bill to remove all US troops and missile defense systems from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, another OPEC+ member that supported the production cuts.

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

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“It’s not only in our interests, that missile defense in the region become more integrated and cooperative,” he said. “It’s in the interest of our allies and partners in that part of the world as well.”

And the White House has previously expressed unease with the NOPEC legislation.

“The potential implications and unintended consequences of this legislation require further study and deliberation, particularly during this dynamic moment in the global energy markets brought about by President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine,” Biden’s former Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in May.

The dilemma illustrated the difficulty administration officials face as they attempt to calibrate a response without harming US interests — or voters’ pocketbooks. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that the effort would involve every part 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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