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Fist bumps don’t erase memories

Joe Biden and Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Press Agency via AP
In this photo released by Saudi Press Agency, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets President Joe Biden with a fist bump after his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 15, 2022.

The OPEC+ decision to cut oil production by 2 million barrels per day, or about 2 percent of global production, has infuriated the White House. Not only did the decision virtually guarantee another spike in inflation, but it also provided Russia with increased revenues to fund its invasion of Ukraine. National security adviser Jake Sullivan co-issued a news release stating that President Biden is “disappointed” by the “shortsighted” OPEC decision and threatening that “the Biden administration will also consult with Congress on additional tools and authorities to reduce OPEC’s control over energy prices.” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) immediately promised to introduce a bill to “mandate the removal of U.S. troops and missile defense systems” from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The OPEC decision should not have surprised the Biden administration. A mere fist bump was not going to assuage the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose unease with Democrats goes back to the Obama administration’s efforts to improve relations with Iran and its signing of the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA. That Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” during the 2020 elections hardly improved matters. It was, therefore, not much of a surprise that the Saudis did not congratulate Biden’s electoral victory, but tweeted congratulations to the president of Tanzania on his re-election and to the king of Cambodia on the anniversary of his country’s independence. The Biden team’s aggressive pursuit of a revived JCPOA has not helped matters. Nor has its seeming determination to downgrade the national security priority that the Middle East previously enjoyed.

The United Arab Emirates, once America’s most reliable Gulf ally, likewise has harbored resentments of its own against the administration. It shared the Saudis’ unhappiness with both the original JCPOA and current attempts to revive the agreement. The Emiratis also were upset by the administration’s initial indifference to the 2020 Abraham Accords, and even more  unhappy with the White House’s prolonged silence after a January 2022 Houthi missile attack on a fuel depot in Musaffah and a construction site near Abu Dhabi airport that killed three civilians.

Middle Eastern countries tend to have longer memories than Americans, and they do not forgive easily. Congressional Democrats have been vocal critics of the Saudis and Emiratis. They have lambasted both states for their roles in the Yemen civil war, accusing them of indiscriminate bombing of civilians. Democrats have also criticized both countries for human rights violations, notably the October 2018 murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Indeed, Malinowski, who served in the Obama administration as the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and and Labor, has a long history of criticizing the Gulf states, especially when he served as director of Human Rights Watch from 2001-2013.

Nor do the Gulf States forget friendships. Both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have had especially close relationships with Republican administrations dating at least as far back as the George H.W. Bush administration, when Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar was a constant and welcome visitor to the White House. The Saudis and the Emiratis also had extremely close ties to the Trump administration. In particular, Jared Kushner’s friendship with the Saudi crown prince was widely reported, and figures in Kushner’s recent book. Similarly, Kushner’s relationship with Emirati Ambassador Yusuf Al Otaiba was a major factor in the creation of the Abraham Accords.

Ultimately, the OPEC move could prove counterproductive. While the price spike will help the producing states in the short run, the economic downturn that it is certain to generate is likely to reduce demand for oil. Nevertheless, the Biden team should not be surprised by OPEC’s decision. It will take far more than a president offering fist bumps to assuage the Saudis and the Emiratis. Paying increased and more consistent attention to the fears and concerns of the two Gulf states that for years have been America’s close allies would represent a good start.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Biden Jake Sullivan JCPOA Mohammed bin Salman Oil prices OPEC+ Saudi Arabia Tom Malinowski United Arab Emirates

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