When President Biden met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia in Jeddah on Friday, he was following in the footsteps of presidents like Jimmy Carter, who flew to Tehran in 1977 to exchange toasts with the shah of Iran on New Year’s Eve.
Like the prince, the shah was an unelected monarch with a tarnished human rights record. But Mr. Carter was obliged to celebrate with him for a cause that was of great concern to people back home: cheaper gasoline and secure oil supplies.
As Mr. Carter and other presidents learned, Mr. Biden has precious few tools to bring down costs at the pump, especially when Russia, one of the world’s largest energy producers, has started an unprovoked war against Ukraine, a smaller neighbor. In Mr. Carter’s time, oil supplies that Western countries needed were threatened by revolutions in the Middle East.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Mr. Biden pledged to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” for the assassination of a prominent dissident, Jamal Khashoggi. But his visit to the kingdom this week is just the latest sign that oil has again regained its centrality in geopolitics.
Mr. Biden insisted on Friday that his Saudi visit was not about oil. But he and Prince Mohammed privately reached an understanding that oil-producing states would agree to increase output in August as part of a larger decision by the OPEC Plus group of nations, and that Saudi Arabia would do more in its own right to help in the coming weeks.
Just a few years ago, many lawmakers in Washington and oil and gas executives in Texas were patting themselves on the back for an energy boom that had turned the United States into a net exporter of oil and petroleum products and made it more energy independent. With prices rising, that achievement now looks illusory.
The United States is the world’s biggest oil and natural gas producer, but it accounts for only about 12 percent of the global petroleum supply. The price of oil, the principal cost in gasoline, can still shoot up or tumble depending on events halfway around the world. And no president, no matter how powerful or competent, can do much to control it.
Those facts are cold comfort to Americans who are finding that a stop at the gas station is vastly more expensive than just a year earlier, even as they have eased in recent weeks.
And energy experts say that even Saudi Arabia, which is widely considered to have the most spare production capacity ready to be put to use, could not bring down prices quickly on its own.
“Presidents may be the most powerful figure in the American government, but they cannot control the price of oil at the pump,” said Chase Untermeyer, who was the U.S. ambassador to Qatar in the George W. Bush administration. “Even if prices do go down for reasons out of his control, President Biden probably won’t get much credit for it, either.”