Saudi Arabia would be willing to boost oil production next year in a move aimed at earning goodwill with Congress toward a normalization agreement with Israel that would include a key mutual defense pact and weapons deal with Washington, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.
According to the report, which cited Saudi and US officials, Riyadh has told the White House it would be willing to increase oil production if crude prices are high to help secure the deal.
Washington has been working for months to broker a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia that would mark a historic breakthrough in the Middle East and a diplomatic feat in an election year for US President Joe Biden, whose administration has been pushing the potential agreement. A number of senior Biden administration officials have traveled to Riyadh over the past year to advance talks.
Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, has never recognized Israel and has long insisted it would not do so without a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Riyadh did not join the US-brokered Abraham Accords, which saw its Gulf neighbors Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Morocco, establish formal ties with Israel in 2020.
In addition to the defense pact with the US and the arms sales, Riyadh has also demanded US cooperation on a civilian nuclear program on Saudi soil, as well as Israeli concessions to the Palestinians to secure the normalization deal.
On Wednesday, 20 Democratic senators penned a letter to Biden in which they expressed their general support for the normalization effort but stressed their concern over Saudi security and nuclear demands while urging the Biden administration to use the deal to advance a two-state solution.
Saudi Arabia’s offer to boost oil production if market conditions are favorable early in 2024 marks a departure from last year, when it rebuffed a US request to help lower oil prices by upping production, and tame inflation amid high market volatility following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, which has upended economies worldwide.
Last October, Riyadh, Moscow and other top oil producers decided on a deep cut in production to boost crude prices, a move denounced by the US as a concession to Russia that would hurt the global economy. In June, Riyadh announced a fresh oil output cut following a meeting of major producers aiming to prop up prices despite fears of a recession.
These decisions by the Saudi-led Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, better known as OPEC, and the wider array of aligned oil producers led by Russia and known as OPEC+, have pushed prices higher.
OPEC+ countries produce about 60 percent of the world’s oil. The next meeting of the group is scheduled for November 26.
On Friday, a barrel of benchmark US crude rose 48 cents to settle at $82.79, while Brent crude, the international standard, rose 51 cents to $84.58. US crude has been generally pulling back since topping $93 per barrel last week. That has offered some relief on the inflation front after crude had been charging higher from $70 in the summer.
In its report Friday, the WSJ said that Saudi negotiators emphasized to the US that “market conditions would guide any action on production” early next year.
Officials familiar with the ongoing normalization talks said the discussions “didn’t represent a long-term agreement to cut prices,” according to the report.
Last week, the White House said Israel and Saudi Arabia were moving toward the outline of a historic US-brokered deal to normalize relations.
“All sides have hammered out, I think, a basic framework for what, you know, what we might be able to drive at,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “But, as in any complex arrangement, as this will inevitably be, everybody is going to have to do something. And everybody is going to have to compromise on some things,” Kirby said.
In an address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 22, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was on “the cusp” of a transformative peace agreement with Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told Fox News last month that “every day we get closer” to his country normalizing ties with Israel, while clarifying that the Palestinian issue is still a “very important” component of the process.
The Palestinians have remained a sticking point in the negotiations. The Biden administration has pushed Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians as part of a potential deal, but Netanyahu is constrained by his far-right coalition partners, who oppose steps toward Palestinian statehood.
The Palestinian Authority has presented a list of potential steps it would like to see taken in the context of the normalization talks with Washington and Riyadh.
The proposed steps have included US backing for recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations; the US reopening its consulate in Jerusalem that historically served Palestinians; the scrapping of congressional legislation characterizing the PLO as a terror organization; the transfer of West Bank territory from Israeli to Palestinian control; and the demolition of illegal outposts in the West Bank.
Earlier this week, the leader of the opposition National Unity party, Benny Gantz, visited Washington to hold quiet meetings with White House officials, including on the Saudi deal. Gantz is a former defense minister and IDF chief of staff and one of the most prominent members of the opposition.
Gantz has said he would not join the coalition to help secure a normalization deal, but would be willing to back an agreement from outside the government.
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid visited Washington last month, where he met with Biden administration officials and senators to discuss the Saudi agreement and other issues.
Also over the past week, two Israeli ministers visited Saudi Arabia, the first-ever official Israeli visits to the country, marking a regional breakthrough. A third Israeli minister is hoping to make the trip next week for a climate conference.
In September, an Israeli delegation of nine staffers flew to Saudi Arabia as observers for the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting. The delegation was led by the head of Israel’s Antiquities Authority and included diplomats, according to an Israeli official.