One day after President Biden, in his first military action, bombed Syria over its attacks that had endangered U.S. operations in Iraq and left a contractor dead, he lightly slapped the wrist of Saudi Arabia for the government-ordered chainsaw dismemberment and murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, a U.S. resident and journalist.
Why the weak response? It’s not because we rely on Saudi oil. Not anymore.
In 2020, the value of Saudi oil imports into the United States was the lowest in a quarter century, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
We imported six times as much from our top foreign source, Canada and, for the second year in a row, more from Mexico, our other USMCA partner.
In fact, last year and the year before are almost certainly only two years in the last half century where Saudi oil imports have accounted for less than 10% of all U.S. imports. I have data back to 1992, when the percentage stood at better than 24%.
In 2019, the percentage was 8.81%; last year, the total was 9.31%.
But that doesn’t tell the full story of just how insignificant Saudi oil is to the United States.
Even as the value of oil imported into the United States has been plummeting, from a high of $336.69 billion in 2011 to $76.49 billion in 2020, a 78.36 % decline, Saudi Arabian market share has been dropping.
A smaller and smaller piece of a smaller and smaller pie.
It was the next year, in 2012, when the Saudis hit their high-water mark, with oil imports topping $54 billion, almost eight times the 2020 total.
Are the Saudis helpful in some other way? Does that explain it?
Well, isn’t it the Saudis who have worked with Russia and fellow Arab OPEC nations to trim output to keep oil prices low?
Why? One reason and one reason only. To quash the United States’ revitalized domestic oil production.
Thanks to innovations in hydraulic fracturing, the United States has been the world’s leading oil producer since 2017.
In fact, over the quarter century that Saudi imports went from about a quarter of all imports to less than 10 percent, U.S. exports went from less than 1% of the total value of U.S. oil trade — total exports and imports — to 40%.
Perhaps it’s part of a delicate diplomacy that aims to keep Saudis on our side as we oppose Iran and Syria. Perhaps. Or perhaps as a counterbalance to Biden’s criticisms of the Saudi attacks on Houthi rebels in Yemen. Perhaps.
But why release the report pointing to the involvement of the 35-year-old Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, at all?
Is there another shoe yet to fall? Did President Biden exact some promise in his call to the crown prince’s 85-year-old father, King Salman, prior to the release of the report linking MBS, as he is known, to the killing?
Geopolitics can be convoluted, even counterintuitive. But one things’s for sure: It’s not about Saudi oil. Not anymore.