In a classified document obtained by The Washington Post, it has been revealed that last year, President Biden made a promise to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its oil production cuts during a time of soaring energy prices and approaching U.S. elections.
While the Saudi government maintained a polite diplomatic stance in public, behind closed doors, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman issued a private warning that any retaliation against the oil cuts would not only reshape the long-standing U.S.-Saudi relationship but also inflict substantial economic consequences on the United States.
The crown prince claimed “he will not deal with the U.S. administration anymore,” the document says, promising “major economic consequences for Washington.”
Nearly eight months have passed since President Biden pledged to impose consequences on Saudi Arabia for its oil production cuts, yet no actions have been taken so far.
Meanwhile, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has maintained his engagement with top U.S. officials, as seen during his recent meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.
The manner in which the crown prince’s threat was conveyed to U.S. officials remains uncertain, whether through direct communication or intercepted electronic surveillance.
Nevertheless, this dramatic incident underscores the underlying tension in a relationship that has long relied on an oil-for-security framework.
As China’s presence in the Middle East grows and the United States assesses its interests as the world’s leading oil producer, the dynamics of the U.S.-Saudi relationship are rapidly evolving.
The disclosure of the U.S. intelligence document occurred through a comprehensive leak of highly sensitive national security materials, which were disseminated via the Discord messaging platform.
A spokesperson with the National Security Council said: “We are not aware of such threats by Saudi Arabia.”
“In general, such documents often represent only one snapshot of a moment in time and cannot possibly offer the full picture,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an intelligence matter.
“The United States continues to collaborate with Saudi Arabia, an important partner in the region, to advance our mutual interests and a common vision for a more secure, stable, and prosperous region, interconnected with the world,” the official added.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
At the age of 37, Mohammed bin Salman has become the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, following his appointment as prime minister by his father, King Salman, in 2022.
During his presidential campaign, Biden vowed to isolate Saudi Arabia, but he has had limited direct communication with the crown prince. However, the president’s top advisers have gradually worked to rebuild ties with Mohammed, in the hopes of fostering cooperation on critical issues.
These include seeking a long-awaited peace agreement in Yemen, establishing a lasting ceasefire in Sudan, addressing counterterrorism challenges, and resolving ongoing disagreements over oil supply.
The warming relationship between the two nations has disappointed human rights advocates who had anticipated a more decisive break from the kingdom, particularly considering Mohammed’s involvement in the Yemen war and the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that he ordered the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
While Mohammed denies giving the order for the killing, he has taken responsibility as it occurred under his leadership.
U.S. officials argue that maintaining a robust U.S.-Saudi relationship is crucial, given Riyadh’s significant economic and political influence, as well as China’s efforts to court traditional U.S. partners in the Middle East. They assert that neglecting the relationship would be detrimental to American interests.
“Together, we can drive real progress for all our people, not only to address the challenges or crises of the moment but to chart an affirmative vision for our shared future,” Blinken said at a joint news conference in Riyadh on Thursday alongside Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan.
During his three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, for an extensive one hour and forty-minute discussion, according to U.S. officials.
The meeting was described as “candid” and “open,” covering various topics such as U.S. efforts to facilitate normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Yemen conflict, human rights concerns, and the ongoing strife in Sudan.
Despite the discussions, differences between the two nations remained evident. One point of contention was Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of nuclear power, which the United States and others view as a potential proliferation risk.
Additionally, there was disagreement over the extent to which the United States has the right to criticize the kingdom regarding its human rights record.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister emphasized that while the country welcomes U.S. support in developing its civilian nuclear program, there are alternative bidders, subtly hinting at the potential for deeper cooperation with China on this initiative.
On the topic of human rights, Saudi leaders struck a defiant tone, asserting that they do not succumb to pressure.
“When we do anything, we do it in our own interests. And I don’t think that anybody believes that pressure is useful or helpful, and therefore that’s not something that we are going to even consider,” he said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Saudi Arabia marks the culmination of a series of significant meetings between high-ranking U.S. officials and Saudi counterparts in recent months.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan, CIA Director William J. Burns, Biden’s senior Middle East adviser Brett McGurk, and senior energy security official Amos Hochstein have all made trips to the kingdom, creating a surge in diplomatic engagements.
This intensified series of meetings is seen as an attempt to counterbalance the cool personal relationship between President Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
David Ottaway, a Gulf scholar at the Wilson Center, highlighted that the two leaders have not spoken since their meeting in Riyadh last July, emphasizing the need for increased diplomatic efforts to bridge the gap and maintain communication channels.
“The Biden administration decided it had to figure out how to work with MBS even if Biden and he still do not talk to each other,” Ottaway said.
In an effort to assert its global influence independently from Washington, the oil-rich country of Saudi Arabia has embarked on a diplomatic campaign in recent months.
Riyadh has taken significant steps in various areas, including de-escalating hostilities in Yemen, mending relations with longstanding rival Iran, extending an invitation to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to rejoin the Arab League after a decade-long ban, and resolving its regional dispute with Qatar.
By pursuing these diplomatic endeavors, Saudi Arabia aims to position itself as a key global player capable of making significant regional and international decisions, demonstrating a degree of autonomy from traditional alliances and partnerships, particularly with the United States.
“Riyadh is returning to a more traditional foreign policy that avoids conflict and favors accommodation with rivals,” said Bruce Riedel, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution.
The dramatic changes in Saudi foreign policy come as Washington seeks Saudi help on some regional matters. Days before Blinken’s arrival, Saudi Arabia announced it would deepen oil production cuts in July on top of a broader OPEC Plus agreement to limit oil supply in an effort to raise prices — a move opposed by the Biden administration.
“The administration has a big agenda for Blinken to work with the Saudis: Keeping the cease-fire in Yemen, getting one in Sudan, fighting ISIS, and above all keeping oil prices from rising out of control,” Riedel said.
Most difficult of all appears to be normalizing ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, particularly as Israeli-Palestinian tensions worsen under the far-right coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Biden has put a big priority on securing Saudi public recognition of Israel. That is unlikely absent serious progress on the Palestinian front,” Riedel said. “The Palestinian issue still has deep resonance in the kingdom, especially with King Salman.”
Some moves by the Saudi government have pleased U.S. officials, including its assistance to Ukraine announced during a foreign minister’s visit to Kyiv in February and its plans to purchase a large order of Boeing jetliners.
During Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s news conference in Riyadh, the topic of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with China, a key economic and security competitor to the United States, was addressed. Blinken explicitly denied any suggestion that the U.S. was pressuring Saudi Arabia to choose between Washington and Beijing.
A leaked U.S. intelligence document from December revealed Saudi Arabia’s alleged plans to expand its ties with China, including the procurement of various military systems. However, U.S. officials downplayed the significance of these warnings, stating that they were exaggerated and did not materialize.
In response to questions regarding Saudi Arabia’s relationship with China during the news conference, the Saudi Foreign Minister emphasized that it does not pose a threat to the kingdom’s longstanding security partnership with the United States.
“China is the world’s second-largest economy. China is our largest trading partner. So naturally, there is a lot of interaction … and that cooperation is likely to grow,” he said. “But we still have a robust security partnership with the U.S. That security partnership is refreshed on an almost daily basis.”