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Will the OPEC decision to cut oil production further hurt U.S.-Saudi relations?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

When OPEC Plus countries, led by Saudi Arabia, voted to cut oil production this week, the U.S.-Saudi relationship took another hit. The move will drive oil and gas prices up as people around the world struggle with energy prices in the face of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. And domestically, that doesn't bode well for President Biden and the Democrats just weeks before the midterms. Biden called the move shortsighted and said this about Saudi Arabia.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It is a disappointment, and it says that they're a problem.

FADEL: But the move is good for Russia. With us now to discuss all this is Gerry (ph) Feierstein, who is a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and a distinguished senior fellow for U.S. diplomacy at the Middle East Institute. Good morning, Ambassador.

GERALD FEIERSTEIN: Good morning Leila.

FADEL: So, Ambassador, with this decision by OPEC Plus to cut production, should the U.S., as some congressional Democrats are asking - should the U.S. be reevaluating its relationship with Saudi Arabia?

FEIERSTEIN: Well, I think that the bottom line is that when President Biden visited Saudi Arabia in July, he laid out a vision for a much more strategic relationship with the Saudis that would go beyond the traditional twin pillars of defense and energy. It's clear from this decision that the Saudis are neither willing nor able to respond to President Biden's vision. And I think that the correct response for the U.S. is that we should be very clearsighted, very coldblooded in how we evaluate our interests in Saudi Arabia. And we should do the things that we believe are in the best interests of the United States and the American people.

FADEL: What does clearsighted and coldblooded look like?

FEIERSTEIN: Well, I think that we should evaluate each of the steps and each of the aspects of our relationship with the Saudis on the basis of whether or not we think that this advances U.S. interests. I know that there are some Democrats, for example, who are talking about a cutoff of arms supply to the Saudis. I'm not sure that that's the right answer. We have a U.S. national security interest in ensuring that the Saudis are able to defend themselves. But there are other things that we should be advocating on human rights, on other areas where we should be pressing our own vision, our own views on what the correct strategy is, what the correct position is. And we shouldn't be concerned or careful about taking positions that are at variance with Saudi preferences.

FADEL: You mentioned that visit in July, and that was criticized because it came after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and after U.S. intelligence concluded that the crown prince approved that killing. Do you think that the visit and what the White House's approach has been at this - at the cost of human rights, of taking a stand on human rights in Saudi Arabia without getting any benefit?

FEIERSTEIN: I think that the president made the correct decision in July that he should try to move the relationship to a different level and to try to balance out all of these various aspects. We have a number of core issues and interests in Saudi Arabia, and it's never going to be easy to find the right balance. But the human rights issue and the question of the responsibility, accountability for the Jamal Khashoggi murder is still out there. It's not resolved yet. And I think that the United States has opportunities to be more forceful and direct in how we deal with those issues.

FADEL: But does the U.S. have the influence anymore when it comes to Saudi Arabia and really in the Middle East? Is the U.S. influence waning here?

FEIERSTEIN: I think that the U.S. interest is - and influence is there. We are still the No. 1 defense and security partner for all of the states of the GCC. And that's not going to change. And I think that we should be using our influence as we have it. And it's not going to go away any time soon.

FADEL: Gerry Feierstein of the Middle East Institute, thank you for taking the time.

FEIERSTEIN: It was a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.