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What caused the unusually public rift between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia


The United States and Saudi Arabia have been allies for decades. And when they do have their differences, they usually keep them behind closed doors. But this week marked a dramatic breach in their relations, and much of that has to do with oil. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam joins us now.

Jackie, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: This et tu seemed to have been touched off by OPEC+ announcing that it's cutting back oil production. Remind us why this is such a problem for all concerned.

NORTHAM: Well, there are a few reasons, and certainly one is the size of the cut - 2 million barrels per day. And this is at a time when the Biden administration wants to keep output high in order to keep prices at the gas pump under control, and especially important, you know, with these midterm elections coming up. And let's face it. Gas prices can have an effect on voters. But, also, those higher prices for oil will put money in Russia's coffers, which in turn will help the Kremlin execute its war in Ukraine. Russia's co-chair of OPEC+.

What's interesting, Scott, is it became clear after the meeting that the Biden administration had put on a full-court press with Saudi Arabia, which is the de facto leader of OPEC+, as well as other members of the cartel, not to do this, not to make this move. But those appeals were ignored. OPEC slashed oil output, and members of Congress were outraged. Also, the Biden administration said on Tuesday, it's going to be reviewing the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

SIMON: Do we know why Saudi Arabia didn't go along?

NORTHAM: Well, you know, the country's not known for transparency. The government there doesn't often explain things. But after the Biden administration objected to this cut and tied the move to the Ukraine war and said the producers were aligning with Russia, the Saudis did respond. The foreign ministry issued this extraordinary statement. It was several paragraphs long defending their decision. They said it was based purely on economics; it had nothing to do with American politics or Ukraine; and that, you know, roughly the two dozen members of OPEC agreed with the decision.

The Biden administration turned around and dismissed those comments. John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, issued this sharply worded, almost angry statement saying the kingdom was trying to spin the story and deflect the facts. And he accused Saudi Arabia of helping Russia fund its war in Ukraine by pushing up oil revenue and basically strong-arming other OPEC members to go along with the decision. And, again, Scott, all this was played out in the open, which is highly unusual.

SIMON: Yeah. And what happens now?

NORTHAM: Well, some Democrats in Congress want the U.S. to freeze weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. But, you know, those represent a lot of American jobs. And I spoke with one analyst, and he said that the U.S. has to recognize that there's a new leader in Saudi Arabia. This is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who's very powerful. And he sees relations with the U.S. as more transactional than strategic, and that the U.S. has to decide if it wants to spend, you know, time and money trying to rebuild that strategic relationship or become more transactional itself. And that could affect the security arrangement, which Saudi Arabia has depended on for decades - so, you know, maybe not sell the kingdom the most sophisticated U.S. weapons or maybe rethink U.S. troop sizes in the kingdom.

But, Scott, what the U.S. could lose in doing that is, you know, a stable, reliable ally in the Gulf region, especially when it comes to energy. But after this week, it seems that may have already happened. And certainly the U.S.-Saudi relationship is on a different path now.

SIMON: NPR's Jackie Northam.

Thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
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