When Barack Obama sits down tomorrow with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, he’ll do so knowing the U.S. is importing the least crude in two decades, a shift changing America’s strongest relationship in the Arab world.
Five years after Obama’s first visit to Riyadh, the drilling of shale oil fields from North Dakota to Texas has put the U.S. on the path to energy independence, weakening economic interdependence between the two nations as they work through disagreements on Syria and Iran.
The U.S. energy boom that’s upended global markets is now reshaping political alliances built over decades. Almost 70 years after Franklin Roosevelt cemented relations with the Saudi royal family, the U.S. finds itself free to address policy differences with oil as less of a bargaining chip, analysts said. The shift gives the U.S. a freer hand in shaping Middle East policy, especially in seeking an accommodation with Iran while lessening Saudi influence in Washington.
“The global picture for Saudi Arabia has changed fundamentally as a result of the growth of unconventional oil in the U.S.,” said Valerie Marcel, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a think-tank in London. “Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf exporters are turning their attention eastward and that has an impact on how they see the West.”
While the U.S. stresses the closeness of the relationship on security and counter-terrorism matters, Obama’s likely to confront discomfort on his policy toward Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, Iran, where he’s pursuing a deal on the country’s nuclear program that may eventually end economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
“Because of its emerging energy independence, the U.S. may pursue policies that are not favorable to the Saudis,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. “It explains partially the overture to Iran.”
During his meeting with King Abdullah, Obama will discuss U.S. support for Gulf security, Iran, Syria and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said at a March 21 briefing.
Saudi rulers have criticized the U.S. decision to abandon plans for military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The kingdom’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t respond to a phone call and text message seeking comment on U.S.-Saudi relations.
Another area of contention is Egypt, where Obama criticized a crackdown on followers of Mohamed Mursi, the elected Islamist president. Saudi Arabia has provided support to the military-backed government that took over. Army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Seesi yesterday said he will step down as defense minister to run for president.
Though greater energy independence has altered the strategic framework, the U.S. still views Saudi Arabia as a critical player in globally linked energy markets, a senior administration official said, asking not to be identified before tomorrow’s talks.
Two facts show the scale of change in global energy markets since Obama last visited the world’s largest oil exporter: U.S. output reached an average of 7.45 million barrels a day last year, 39 percent more than in 2009. As a result, U.S. imports from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, where Saudi Arabia is the leading member, fell to their lowest level since 1996 last year to an average of 3.49 million barrels a day.
That’s a decline in trade worth about $166 million a day based on current prices. Benchmark Brent crude oil traded at $107.53 a barrel today.
And the trend isn’t expected to stop soon. U.S. production is forecast to reach 9.6 million barrels a day in 2016, more than Saudi Arabia pumped last year.
Even though Saudi Arabia remains the second-largest foreign supplier of U.S. crude after Canada -- partly because state oil producer Saudi Aramco has a refinery network that helps ensure an American market for its crude -- shipments fell slightly last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
For Saudi Arabia and other Middle East producers, the shale boom is accelerating the redirection of oil shipments toward Asia. China, which overtook the U.S. as the world’s largest oil importer in September last year, is becoming an increasingly important customer. It imported 53.9 million tons of Saudi crude in 2013, or about 1 million barrels a day. That’s 28 percent more than in 2009, according to Chinese customs data.
“Ten years ago they were very concerned about maintaining market share in Europe and the U.S. This was a high foreign policy goal” for Saudi Arabia, Chatham House’s Marcel said. “That’s no longer as important.”
Nonetheless, the U.S. realizes Saudi Arabia’s continuing role as the only major oil producer with spare capacity, allowing it to increase supply in the face of supply disruptions such as the Libyan revolution that overthrew Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, said Mike Wittner, the head of oil market research at Societe Generale SA in New York.
The kingdom has the capacity to produce an additional 3 million barrels of crude a day, or just over 3 percent of global demand, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“The Saudis will always play a key role,” Wittner said. “They are the only ones with spare capacity and the ability to increase it and willingness to cut when necessary.”
The U.S. may still need Saudi Arabia’s oil in the long term if its domestic shale oil boom peters out, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency. U.S. oil production is projected to level off and then slowly decline after 2020. The IEA estimates 2,500 new wells a year are needed to sustain output of 1 million barrels a day in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale.
In the meantime, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have a chance to reset their relationship after friction over Iran and Syria, said Ayham Kamel, director for Middle East and Africa at Eurasia Group in New York.
“U.S. energy independence won’t signal withdrawal from the Gulf region, but a reassessment of priorities instead,” Kamel said. “Obama’s visit is a golden opportunity for Saudi officials to discuss a re-framing of their partnership. This would stop the deterioration in the relationship.”