From fist bump to poke in the eye

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The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia has always been complicated. With the recent decision by the Saudi-led OPEC Plus cartel to scale back oil supplies by up to 2 million barrels per day in order to bolster international oil pricing, the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia became downright confrontational.

President Biden pledged last Tuesday to impose “consequences” on Saudi Arabia. In explaining what that meant, White House personnel spoke of a willingness to re-evaluate the entire U.S. relationship with the kingdom and an openness to considering retaliatory measures proposed by members of Congress and others, including the curbing of arms sales and permitting legal action against the OPEC Plus cartel. Although the president was intentionally vague regarding the details of what would happen and when, he was direct and clear in his promise that “there will be consequences.”

Mr. Biden has reason to be upset. Last July, Biden made a much-publicized and highly criticized relationship-mending visit to Saudi Arabia despite a campaign promise to make the kingdom an international “pariah” for the 2018 killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Upon arrival in Riyadh, Biden avoided an embrace or warm handshake with the 37-year-old de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who the CIA says ordered the murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi, and defaulted to a fist bump — which made critics even more upset, as it was viewed as the equivalent of a brotherly embrace. Nonetheless, following discussions during the visit, U.S. officials said they reached an understanding that Saudi Arabia would increase oil production in the fall and lower gasoline prices heading into the critical, upcoming midterm elections. And now, MBS and the Saudis have done just the opposite.

To some, the move looks like an attempt by MBS to discredit Biden and influence internal U.S. politics for the benefit of Saudi friend Donald Trump and the Republican Party. To others, it represents a tilt by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in favor of oil-producing Russia, by making it more difficult for Western nations to implement a planned December price cap on Russian oil exports as part of a sanctions program in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Both are probably right.

And while the president is right to focus on meaningful consequences for Saudi betrayal, there is no need for an immediate response. Instead, Biden is properly working through numerous political, economic and military equipment-related options and considering their consequences. Virtually every proposed response will have clear intended consequences and many potential unintended ones. Moreover, it is still possible that the planned OPEC Plus production cut may not be quite as consequential as initially projected.

Biden’s challenge is to formulate a Saudi response that satisfies his domestic political needs, is careful not to aggravate the fragile U.S. economy in the run-up to the midterm elections and preserves international agreements relating to Russia and elsewhere around the world. There are a lot of moving parts. Don’t rush it.

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