The decision by Opec and some of its allies substantially to cut oil output in a tight market represents a significant setback to European Union states and to the US in their efforts to rein in inflation and to curtail the flow of revenue to Russia to fund its war. Despite concerted attempts by both in recent months to rehabilitate and restore relations with Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi and Gulf states’ backing for a cut of two million barrels a day has emphasised the latter’s worrying strategic embrace of Vladimir Putin.
The production cut will jeopardise EU-US efforts to cap the receipts Russia receives for its oil. It will help Russia to raise prices to offset steep discounts it has been forced to give China and India in return for their willingness to ignore efforts to isolate the country.
While Saudi Arabia – at President Biden’s urging – boosted production significantly in July and August, it has now backed away from a promise to sustain those levels for the rest of 2022. Its leaders worry that a global recession may drive prices down, from $120 a barrel over the summer to below $80, threatening social spending and internal stability.
Saudi officials insist that bin Salman’s elevation last week to the prime ministership in place of his father King Salman was just a technical move addressing protocol problems. His de facto roles become de jure, easing the way, for example, for meetings with foreign leaders. The decree recognises the long-recognised path of his succession. Successful diplomatic overtures had already wooed Biden to meet him this summer.
After four years of global fallout from his approval of the murder of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, the heir to the Saudi throne is in the middle of a carefully orchestrated global comeback. His promotion to prime minister is part of that and is key to a legal defence of a US civil case on the issue.
The US court, in the case brought by Kashoggi’s widow and which is due to be heard imminently, asked the state department whether it recognises bin-Salman’s “sovereign immunity” – legal protection granted to foreign leaders for the acts of their agents, normally only granted to heads of state, prime ministers, or foreign ministers. The formal elevation of the crown prince to prime minister may thus help his defence
But the kingdom’s abysmal human rights record, ranging from torture and executions of political dissidents and members of religious minorities, to the imprisonment, in some cases for decades, of women’s rights activists, must not be forgotten. Nor must bin-Salman’s willingness to cosy up to Putin. Attempts at rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, in this context, appear to be both dangerous and futile.