The de-facto leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have declined to arrange calls with US president Joe Biden in recent weeks as the US and it allies have sought to contain a surge in energy prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
According to the Wall Street Journal, citing Middle East and US officials, both Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan have been unavailable to Biden after US requests were made for discussions.
“There was some expectation of a phone call, but it didn’t happen,“ a US official said of a plan for Saudi Prince Mohammed and Biden to speak. “It was part of turning on the spigot [of Saudi oil].”
Last week, OPEC+, which includes Russia, declined to increase oil production despite western entreaties.
But reports of frigid communications with come as the Biden administration seeks to increase oil supply after formally banning Russian oil imports on Tuesday, pushing oil prices to $130 a barrel, the highest level in 14 years.
However, the US has for the first time in years opened up diplomatic channels with Venezuela, a Russian ally and which has the world’s largest oil reserves. Venezuela has now released at least two Americans from jail in an apparent goodwill gesture toward the Biden administration in a possible prelude to increasing production to ease the price surge.
Relations between the US and Saudi Arabia have chilled during the Biden administration over American policy in the Gulf region.
Issues include the revival of the Iran nuclear deal; lack of US support for Saudi intervention in Yemen’s civil war and its refusal to add Houthis to its list of terrorist groups; US help with a Saudi civilian nuclear program; and legal immunity for Prince Mohammed, who is facing lawsuits over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit-team in its Istanbul consulate four years ago.
During Biden’s election campaign he vowed to treat the kingdom as a “pariah” state, saying there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”
Earlier this week, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said there were no plans for the Biden and Prince Mohammed to talk soon, and no plans for the president to travel to Riyadh.
Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the US, confirmed strained relations between the two countries. “Today, we’re going through a stress test, but I am confident that we will get out of it and get to a better place,” Al Otaiba predicted.
The two Gulf nations are regarded as the only global suppliers with capacity to pump more oil to ease the price surge.
Senior US officials with the national security council and state department had reported travelled to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in recent weeks to make direct US representations.
The Journal, however, reported that Biden had spoken with Prince Mohammed’s 86-year-old father, King Salman, on 9 February. On the call they affirmed their countries’ strategic and economic partnership. The UAE’s ministry of foreign affairs said Biden and Sheikh Mohammed call would be rescheduled.