Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Elections

The American election season is rarely kind to the Saudis. In fact, it can be downright hostile when oil prices are high. In 2008, when Americans last voted for president, a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. cost $4.00 before the economy lurched into a death spiral. Today the price is closer to $3.75, which is still high given the seasonal drop in demand that comes with colder weather.

When the price of crude oil reached record highs in 2008, American politicians turned to Saudi Arabia for help. President Bush visited King Abdullah twice that year, once in January and again in May, hoping that the world’s only swing producer would cut down prices by increasing production. Saudi production increased by 300,000 barrels per day (b/d) in June but the move was quickly overcome by events.

One month later, crude oil sold for a record high of $147 per barrel. Saudi Arabia and OPEC were attacked relentlessly on the campaign trail as a result. “I’m not interested in holding hands with the Saudis! I’m interested in holding them accountable!” Hillary Clinton told rallies around the country, reminding voters that President Bush was widely mocked for holding hands with the Saudi king (see above). Lingering suspicions over 9/11 made the Saudis a convenient villain also.

A similar drama might be expected to play out in 2012. Oil prices are high again and some American politicians want the Saudis to do more. In February, Senator Charles Schumer of New York told Clinton—now Secretary of State—that Saudi Arabia should be encouraged to max out production and make the leap from 10 million b/d to 12.5 million b/d. Schumer’s call for bold action never gained much traction, however, and in spite of similarities between 2008 and 2012, this American election cycle has been much kinder to Riyadh.

For Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, it never made sense to blame foreigners for soaring gas prices. Instead, he unveiled his own energy plan and accused President Obama of failing to unleash America’s potential. He promised to make the U.S. energy independent by 2020 and create millions of jobs in the process. He also accused Obama of holding back the hydrocarbon sector and focusing too much attention—and wasting too much money—on failed alternative energy projects. To blame the Saudis, in this case, would have been counterproductive. Romney’s message was simple: voters should blame President Obama for high gas prices.

For his part, Obama has worked closely with Saudi officials over the past 4 years. Counter-terrorism cooperation–one of the cornerstones of the relationship–has resulted in a number of disrupted plots. And since the beginning of this year, when it became clear that the U.S. and EU were going to sanction Iran and slash its oil exports, Saudi Arabia has played an essential role by making up for lost Iranian crude. The Saudis now pump nearly 10 million b/d—a high not seen in 30 years.

Diplomatically, this administration has been on the same page as leaders in Saudi Arabia, excluding a brief episode in early 2011, when President Obama called for the ouster of long-time ally Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. We can safely assume the Saudis wanted that situation to work itself out differently, perhaps with Mubarak being ushered from power in a less dramatic fashion. But that disagreement was overstated at the time. And strategic interests—and bigger issues—quickly converged to accelerate cooperation again on a variety of fronts, including terrorism.

In Syria, both the U.S. and the Saudis want Assad out. The Saudis appear more eager to aid rebels, while Washington refuses to offer lethal aid at this point–but the two sides agree on the ultimate goal. Riyadh has worked hard with other Gulf Arab states to isolate the regime in Damascus by cutting it off from the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It has also offered vital aid to countries struggling from revolutions at a time when Washington is not prepared to expand programs. On both counts, the Saudis have bolstered the U.S. position.

On Iran, both Washington and Riyadh believe that the danger is real. Last year’s failed assassination plot targeting the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. made the threat even clearer.  Sanctions would be impossible without Saudi oil and the White House knows this. As prices declined in late summer, Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters on more than one occasion, “We also welcome Saudi Arabia’s continued commitment to take all necessary steps to ensure the market is well supplied and to help moderate prices.”

The 2008 election was a tough one for the Saudis but 2012 has been very different. These candidates stood to gain more by blaming each other–and they did so every day for months. During the third and final presidential debate, when the candidates sparred over national security and foreign policy, Romney claimed that Obama had not worked closely enough with our allies in the Gulf—and the Saudis in particular—to hasten the demise of Assad.

Americans have good reason to be exhausted by this election season. But it’s a breath of fresh air for Saudi Arabia.

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