Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia next month is, arguably, as important as anything that the UK government is doing itself on cost of living. As I say in the magazine this week, only the Saudis deciding to pump substantially more is going to bring down the price of oil and, therefore, petrol.
The strains in the US-Saudi relationship - remember how Joe Biden said on the campaign trail that he wanted to turn Saudi Arabia into a pariah because of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi - meant that the Saudis have not stepped in to help in the way they did after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Rather, they have let oil prices rise significantly while they demanded not only that Biden stop shunning Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) for his role in the murder of Khashoggi but also that the US pays more attention to Riyadh’s concerns about Iran and the terms on which it may be allowed to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA).
The US position on MBS has moved, Biden is expected to meet him on the trip, and Iran going back into the JCPOA seems less likely than before; Washington has also moved away from the idea of removing the revolutionary guards' terrorist designation. Whether this is enough to get Riyadh—which has been flirting with both Moscow and China recently—to try and push the oil price down remains to be seen.
The Saudis have already got OPEC plus to agree to pump a bit more oil than previously planned; Graeme Wood, who knows the Kingdom well, argues that this is welcome present for Biden. But the Saudis would need to use all their spare capacity to make a significant difference to the price.
The West’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is deeply, morally problematic. Riyadh has been responsible for the spread of Salafist Islamist ideology around the world, which has led to a slew of terrorist attacks, and the House of Saud governs in the most autocratic of ways with no regard for human rights. The justification for the relationship has always been that it is essential to economic stability. Yet if the Saudis won’t pump now to ease the inflationary pressures that are hitting the world economy so hard, then the whole basis of the relationship will be called into question.