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Opinion: Would a U.S. oil deal with Saudi Arabia help ease gas prices?

President Joe Biden has visited Israel and is in Saudi Arabia, with plans to participate in a Gulf Cooperation Council with other countries

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U.S. President Joe Biden waves before his departure to Saudi Arabia from Ben Gurion airport in Lod near Tel Aviv on Friday.

U.S. President Joe Biden waves before his departure to Saudi Arabia from Ben Gurion airport in Lod near Tel Aviv, Israel, on Friday, July 15, 2022.

Abir Sultan, Associated Press

A truism in foreign relations from diplomats is that nations must deal with the world as they find it, not as they wish it were. That policy prevails in Washington, D.C. as President Joe Biden is in Saudi Arabia following a visit to Israel this week.

Saudi Arabia has been the focus of United Nations activity, losing its seat on the 47-member United Nations Human Rights Council in 2020. Biden has been critical of the Saudi government’s failure to fully account for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But the Kingdom was also host of the G20 Summit of nations in 2020, albeit a virtual event from Riyadh due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regardless of what some in the international community opine, U.S. presidents from both political parties have maintained that Saudi Arabia is an important strategic partner in today’s world — perhaps as important as it was during WWII.

Ten days after that conflict began in Europe 1939, Saudi Arabia sided with the Allies and ended its official relations with Germany. While it didn’t participate militarily in the war, it allowed the United States and Britain to develop its oil fields, which provided the Allies with much-needed resources during the war. 

Today, Saudi Arabia, with its vast stores of oil, can serve to temper Russia’s aggressions by helping Europe bypass Russian oil. The Saudis are also important partners in countering Iran and its nuclear intentions. Earlier this week Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a joint pledge to deny Iran nuclear arms.

Biden will participate in a Gulf Cooperation Council, giving the trip somewhat of an aspect of a regional peace mission. But the visit with Saudi royalty is about oil and efforts to stabilize U.S. interests in the region.

We believe the United States should strive for energy independence. We disagreed with Biden’s move to revoke a key permit that led to the halting of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would tap Canada’s vast crude oil fields. Seeking energy through innovation and promoting environmental causes need not be conflicting choices.

It remains to be seen what will come from the visit. As Biden wrote in an opinion piece in the Washington Post this week, it is possible to hold true to American values and to make an issue of human rights while still maintaining a strategic partnership. American presidents of both parties have done similar things for decades.

The harshest criticism of Biden’s visits relates to the death of Khashoggi. President Biden answered it this way in his op-ed:

“I released the intelligence community’s report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, issued new sanctions, including on the Saudi Arabia’s Rapid Intervention Force involved in his killing, and issued 76 visa bans under a new rule barring entry into the United States for anyone found to be involved in harassing dissidents abroad. My administration has made clear that the United States will not tolerate extraterritorial threats and harassment against dissidents and activists by any government.”

Any partnership — with every country — must be pursued with eyes wide open, and the United States must continually insist on human rights reforms. But the Saudis and their strategic value cannot be dismissed.

Whether persuading Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Venezuela, to increase production would reduce the price of oil remains to be seen. The current oil crisis is a product of insufficient supply brought on initially by a surging post-COVID-19 economy, then exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Solving this crisis will take time, and it ought to involve an increase in oil production in the United States.

The president has made an issue of the fact that oil companies are in possession of more than 9,000 valid leases they have not yet used. But as the Poynter Institute noted recently, this is not unusual. It takes time for companies to acquire the necessary rights of way and the drilling equipment, to establish drilling plans and determine whether oil actually exists beneath the surface. Companies are reluctant to begin drilling, given the volatile nature of the current market.

Saudi Arabia, with its extraction controlled by the government, can ramp up production much faster. 

Oil prices have been the bane of many presidents since the end of World War II. Too many factors contribute to its ups and downs. Clearly the United States could benefit long-term by allowing more extraction. Just as clearly, however, the United States has more than oil to gain from maintaining careful and candid relations with Saudi Arabia.