COVID-19 and the Gulf States

Donald Trump has the Saudis over an oil barrel

With the coronavirus pandemic slashing oil demand as consumers and industry the world over entered lockdown, President Donald Trump presented Saudi leaders with an ultimatum. Reuters reports

In an April 2 phone call, Donald Trump told Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that unless the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) started cutting oil production, he would be powerless to stop lawmakers from passing legislation to withdraw U.S. troops from the kingdom, four sources familiar with the matter revealed.

The threat to upend a 75-year strategic alliance, which has not been previously reported, was central to the U.S. pressure campaign that led to a landmark global deal to slash oil supply as demand collapsed in the coronavirus pandemic – scoring a diplomatic victory for the White House.

Trump delivered the message to the crown prince 10 days before the announcement of production cuts. The kingdom’s de facto leader was so taken aback by the threat that he ordered his aides out of the room so he could continue the discussion in private, according to a U.S. source who was briefed on the discussion by senior administration officials.

The effort illustrated Trump’s strong desire to protect the U.S. oil industry from a historic price meltdown as governments shut down economies worldwide to fight the virus. It also reflected a telling reversal of Trump’s longstanding criticism of the oil cartel, which he has blasted for raising energy costs for Americans with supply cuts that usually lead to higher gasoline prices. Now, Trump was asking OPEC to slash output.

We defend while you destroy

A senior U.S. official revealed that the administration notified Saudi leaders that, without production cuts, “there would be no way to stop the U.S. Congress from imposing restrictions that could lead to a withdrawal of U.S. forces.” The official summed up the argument, made through various diplomatic channels, as telling Saudi leaders: “We are defending your industry while you’re destroying ours.

Trump was asked about the talks in an interview Wednesday evening at the White House, at which the president addressed a range of topics involving the pandemic. Asked if he told the crown prince that the U.S. might pull forces out of Saudi Arabia, Trump said, “I didn’t have to tell him.”

“I thought he and President Putin, Vladimir Putin, were very reasonable,” Trump said. “They knew they had a problem, and then this happened.”

Asked what he told Crown Prince Mohammed, Trump said: “They were having a hard time making a deal. And I met telephonically with him, and we were able to reach a deal” for production cuts, Trump said.

Saudi Arabia’s government media office did not respond to a request for comment. A Saudi official who asked not to be named stressed that the agreement represented the will of all countries in the so-called OPEC+ group of oil-producing nations, which includes OPEC plus a coalition led by Russia.

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