Jake Sullivan, White House national security adviser, takes a question during a news conference in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., on July 11, 2022. President Biden said his visit to the Middle East, which includes stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel, will focus on security issues rather than energy supplies. Image Credit: Bloomberg

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden wants to use his Middle East trip this week to deepen Israel’s integration in the region and will work to make progress on more normal relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the White House said on Monday.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said any normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia is likely to take a long time, but that Biden will be looking to make progress during his trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Sullivan said Biden will make the case for greater oil production from Opec nations to bring down gasoline prices when he meets Gulf leaders in Saudi Arabia this week.

Biden leaves on Tuesday night on his first visit to the Middle East as president, with stops in Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia on his agenda.

The trip comes as Biden struggles at home to bring down gasoline prices that have contributed to a dip in his job approval ratings.

Sullivan said members of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries have the capacity to take “further steps” to increase oil production despite suggestions from Gulf states that they can barely increase oil production.

“We will convey our general view that we believe that there needs to be adequate supply in the global market to protect the global economy and to protect the American consumer at the pump,” Sullivan added.

Experts say the White House understands Saudi Arabia is unlikely to move unilaterally and that Riyadh and other Gulf nations lack significant spare capacity.

I think that a surge in Saudi production seems unlikely. I expect some anodyne statements from Saudi Arabia about helping to balance the global oil market, meet global demand, support economic growth and stability among the import countries, said Ben Cahill, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Opec deal expiring

Biden’s chances could be boosted by the looming expiry of a crucial deal among the wider so-called Opec+ group to boost oil production.

Opec+ comprises the 13-nation Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries led by Saudi Arabia and its 10 partners headed by Russia.

The group had previously slashed output in 2020, when demand was decimated by pandemic lockdowns worldwide.

But since last year, countries have been gradually reopening the taps as economies rebound.

Last month, Opec+ stuck to a previously agreed output hike, shrugging off calls for bigger increases to tame elevated prices.

The deal will soon run its course once OPEC+ returns to pre-pandemic production after August.

“The expiration of the Opec+ deal in September does create an opportunity and perhaps (Biden) would not be making such a move if he had not been assured that something is possible,” said Erlam.

The grouping will hold its next production gathering in August.

Riyadh is already pumping close to maximum capacity.

In May, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan stated that the kingdom had “done what it could” for the oil market.

The industry needed to increase refining capacity instead of simply pumping more barrels of crude, he argued.

The Iran question

Iran is another major bone of contention between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh is leading a fight against the Houthi militia in Yemen, who are supported by Tehran.

Meanwhile, Washington wants to restore the Iran nuclear deal abandoned by Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump in 2018.

That could lead to the lifting of US economic sanctions on Iran - and pave the way for a return to the Opec member’s full export capacity.

Chief negotiators from the US and Iran held indirect talks in Qatar in June, in a bid to revive the nuclear deal.

A nuclear deal “appeared to be within reach several times in the recent past, particularly after the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict”, said analyst Koudmani.

“It has failed to gain any traction and would likely be passed up by the US if they were to receive assurances (of higher oil output) from Saudi Arabia after this visit from President Biden,” the expert concluded.Referring to Saudi Arabia in a commentary published in the Washington Post late on Saturday, Biden said his aim was to reorient and not rupture relations with a country that has been a US strategic partner for 80 years.

Iran is expected to be discussed on the trip in a region nervous about Tehran’s influence. Sullivan said the United States believes Iran is preparing to provide Russia with up to several hundred drones, including some that are weapons capable, for use in its war against Ukraine.

He said the United States has information that shows Iran is preparing to train Russian forces to use these drones.