Dubai — For the last 75 years, Saudi Arabia's relationship with the US has been defined by oil. The world's largest exporter of crude and its thirstiest consumer are likely to remain closely entwined regardless of the outcome of the presidential race in November, regional experts have told S&P Global Platts.
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Any new administration formed by the Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris would likely have to be just as cozy with the kingdom's Saud family rulers as President Donald Trump because oil remains central to the economy, said Jim Krane, an energy studies fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute and author of the recently published book Energy Kingdoms.
"The Saudis are too important with regard to their spare capacity and leadership of OPEC," said Krane in a phone interview. "It's too important for the US economy to allow a major change in the relationship."
Under Trump's leadership, US influence over Saudi oil policy is perceived to have grown. The incumbent president has cajoled the kingdom publicly through Twitter, or privately through frequent bilateral calls with King Salman bin Abdulaziz and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman -- the heir to the throne, who controls petroleum policy -- to maintain oil prices at favorable levels for US consumers.
Trump also claimed to broker a ceasefire between the kingdom and Russia when both threatened in March to flood the market with crude and break their OPEC+ alliance just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, in a move that could have proved disastrous for US shale producers. Biden has yet to lay out his foreign policy plans in terms of Saudi Arabia.
"Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and key Saudi figures have forged ties with key Trump figures, probably at the expense of bipartisan relationships," said Torbjorn Soltvedt, principal analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. "Saudi Arabia would be starting from scratch with the Biden administration."
Despite the growth of the US shale oil industry and North American producers surpassing the kingdom in terms of total liquids output, Saudi Arabia remains a major potential supplier of crude to the world's largest economy.
US imports of mainly Arab Light oil from Saudi Arabia surged to 1.206 million b/d in June, compared with just 352,000 b/d last November, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The rebound in shipments from the lowest levels seen since April 1987 came as US shale producers reined in domestic production in response to lower prices around $40/b.
Underpinning Saudi exports to the US is its Motiva refinery, located in Port Arthur, Texas. The largest refining complex in North America, it has the capacity to process over 630,000 b/d. Saudi Aramco senior vice president of downstream, Abdulaziz Al-Judaimi, told S&P Global Platts in February the Gulf Coast plant normally sources 20-30% of its feedstock from the kingdom.
"This allows it [the US] to import Saudi crude and it keeps the US tethered to Saudi crude oil and gives the Saudis some influence in the United States," said Krane. "The Saudi government would like to maintain at least some semblance of a codependent relationship."
Ultimately, Saudi Arabia relies on its spare capacity of over 2 million b/d of crude in normal market conditions to make it a powerful ally for any US president to call on. This unwritten security for oil pact, which goes back to the Great Bitter Lake meeting in 1945 between the current king's father and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, still holds today and would likely bind Biden to Riyadh in the same way it has his predecessors.
Iran hard line
However, a change of occupant in the White House could benefit Saudi Arabia's main regional adversary Iran by dropping sanctions and restoring the long-term nuclear agreement signed in 2015 by President Barack Obama and his then deputy, Biden.
"You'll probably see the US move away from the Saudis' and Emiratis' really hard line on Iran," Krane said.
Other analysts expect a Biden administration to reverse Trump's policy toward Iran, which would anger Saudi Arabia and potentially destabilize the OPEC alliance with Russia, by unleashing over 2 million b/d of Iranian crude currently frozen out of the market by sanctions.
"A deal could bring up to 2.2 million b/d onto the market. At best, that will weaken prices, at worst it could trigger an oil price war," a Gulf-based analyst said, asking not to be named. "The Iranians would significantly discount their crude to regain market share."
A Biden administration would likely seek an interim deal similar to the 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). Combined with the possibility of less rigorous enforcement of existing sanctions, this raises the possibility that some Iranian oil returns to the market in 2021 if Biden wins, although possibly not until after Iran's own June 2021 presidential election, according to a Sept.1 report by S&P Global Platts Analytics.
"In 2022, we forecast 750,000 b/d of annual growth, on a higher likelihood of a deal under either candidate (although the odds would admittedly be much greater under a Biden administration)," the report adds.
A return of Iran to international oil markets would put pressure on prices, but it also underscores how the politics of crude will remain the cornerstone of the US relationship with Saudi Arabia regardless of who wins the presidential race in November.
Events impacting US-Saudi Relations
- 1960—OPEC formed at Baghdad conference, with founding members Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela
- 1973—Arab-Israeli war leads to Arab oil embargo on the west and Japan
- 1990—Iraq invades Kuwait, launching first Gulf War and oil price spike
- 2014—OPEC declines to cut production in face of growing US shale supplies, causing prices to slump
- 2016—OPEC agrees with Russia and nine other countries to form OPEC+ alliance
- 2018—US withdraws from Iran nuclear deal, pressures Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members to raise production
- 2020—COVID-19 crisis prompts OPEC+ to make largest coordinated production cut in history in deal brokered by President Trump