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OPEC Plus oil production cuts could signal a rift between Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we mistakenly refer to Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan as Farhan bin Faisal.]

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

President Biden is reevaluating the U.S.-Saudi relationship after last week's decision by OPEC+ to slash 2 million barrels a day of oil production. That's according to John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, speaking today.

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JOHN KIRBY: In light of the recent decision by OPEC and Saudi Arabia's leadership, he does believe that this is a good time to reevaluate and see what that relationship ought to look like going forward.

PFEIFFER: Analysts say the breach created by these production cuts could be a turning point in U.S.-Saudi relations. NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: It wasn't just the sheer size of the cut in oil production by OPEC+. It was also the timing - coming about three months after President Biden visited Saudi Arabia to lobby against such a reduction and just ahead of the midterm elections here in the U.S., where prices at the gas pump could have an effect on voters. Jonathan Panikoff is director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

JONATHAN PANIKOFF: It feels punitive against the Biden administration, and I think it's hard to think it's otherwise because the Saudis aren't naive about the U.S. political situation. It may not have been the core reason for doing it, but they absolutely were happy to do it.

NORTHAM: Firas Maksad, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, says Saudi Arabia has legitimate business reasons for the cut. They're seeking higher prices now in case a global recession reduces demand later. And he says that despite concerted U.S. attempts to talk them out of a production cut, all 24 members of OPEC+ were on board with it.

FIRAS MAKSAD: This is a decision that was not just Saudi. It was unanimous, and it was driven by economics and market dynamics rather than politics.

NORTHAM: Russia is co-chair of OPEC+. Its deputy prime minister, Alexander Novak, who is sanctioned by the U.S., sat at the table when the cuts were announced. The production cuts mean higher revenue for Russia to support the war in Ukraine. Jason Bordoff is director of Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy.

JASON BORDOFF: Many in D.C. view the Saudis now as aligning themselves with Russia at a time when Russian troops are killing Ukrainians and the reduced Russian energy exports are plunging much of the world into an energy crisis.

NORTHAM: The Atlantic Council's Panikoff says this incident represents a profound shift in U.S.-Saudi relations, and much of that has to do with Saudi's de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

PANIKOFF: I don't think we've fully accepted the notion that he is a different leader than we've ever dealt with, and so we're going to have to have a different relationship.

NORTHAM: Panikoff says the crown prince is a transactional leader and that the U.S. will have to decide if it wants to spend time and energy rebuilding its strategic relationship with the kingdom or become more transactional as well. Panikoff says that could affect Saudi Arabia's security guarantees.

PANIKOFF: Maybe we don't sell the more advanced aircraft, or maybe the training exercises are on older generation hardware. And maybe, yes, we remove some Patriot Batteries and say, look, we recognize your security. We're not trying to diminish it. We have to balance our security goals as well.

NORTHAM: Some members of Congress want to freeze weapon sales to Saudi Arabia or to initiate price fixing cases against OPEC+. But Maksad with the Middle East Institute says the Gulf region is no longer beholden to the U.S. and has the right to look for other options.

MAKSAD: And so they are building bridges to China - which, by the way, accounts for over a quarter of oil exports from Saudi Arabia - and also with Russia that had been sort of expanding its role in the Middle East.

NORTHAM: Today, the Saudi foreign minister, Farhan bin Faisal (ph), said Saudi Arabia's ties with the U.S. are strategic and have advanced the security and stability in the region, and that the oil cut was made purely for economic reasons.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 11, 2022 at 9:00 PM PDT
In this report, we mistakenly refer to Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan as Farhan bin Faisal.
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.