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The west's fossil fuels problem is strategic, too



When discussing the looming climate catastrophe, it's easy to depict the world's reliance on fossil fuels as primarily a technological problem, to be resolved by new methods for harnessing renewable energies. But that's only part of the story, as the example of Saudi Arabia shows.

US President Donald Trump speaks with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a family photo session at the G20 summit on 28 June 2019 in Osaka, Japan. (Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon - Pool/Getty Images)The BBC recently reported on Australia's support for Saudi efforts to weaken UN reports on the necessity of keefping global temperature rises below 1.5c. Saudi Arabia, of course, possesses something like 18 per cent of established petroleum reserves. That gives it a material interest in fighting decarbonisation, and tremendous resources with which to do so. It also makes the Saudi regime a crucial ally for the United States and other western powers.

Last month, UN human rights investigator Agnes Callamard published a report describing the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as a premeditated extrajudicial killing for which 'the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible'. Her report cited audio from inside the consulate where Khashoggi was murdered, in which Saudi operatives discussed the techniques for disposing of his dismembered body.

In the transcript, a man called Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb — a close associate to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) — wonders if it would be 'possible to put the trunk in a bag'. The forensics doctor Salah Mohammed Abdah Tubaigy replies in the negative before reassuring the assassination team: 'Joints will be separated ... If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished. We will wrap each of them.'

Callamard called for an investigation into MBS's responsibility for the killing. But that almost certainly won't happen, even though American intelligence reportedly says he ordered the murder. Last week, MBS attended the G20 Summit in Osaka, where he was photographed sitting next to a smiling Scott Morrison at the plenary session. Donald Trump shook the prince's hand and called the prince 'a friend of mine, a man who has really done things in the previous five years in terms of opening up Saudi Arabia'. In reality, of course, MBS heads perhaps the most repressive autocracy in the world, a regime currently scheduled to behead and crucify Murtaja Quereiris for joining a protest when he was ten years old.

If you've read the dialogue between MBS's agents — that calm discussion about using a bonesaw on Khashoggi's corpse — the images from Osaka stick in the craw. But they're in no way anomalous. Indeed, in a few months time, all the major leaders will enjoy MBS's hospitality as Saudi Arabia hosts the next G20 meeting in November.

It might also be noted that the Saudis have been engaged for five years in a murderous war in Yemen, where the death toll has now reached a hundred thousand, with the majority of the civilian casualties attributed to the Saudi forces. Yet Trump vows to continue the military support provided to the kingdom. Between 2012 and 2017, nearly 20 per cent of American weapons exports went to Saudi Arabia — and in 2017, Washington authorised $18 billion in new deals to the regime.


"There are, in other words, strategic as well as economic reasons for politicians in America and elsewhere to defend fossil fuels."


Similarly, before he left politics and quickly reinvented himself as a shill for arms companies, Defence Minister Chistopher Pyne spent years lobbying the Saudis on behalf of the Australian defence industry, a campaign that bore fruit when Electro Optic Systems recently signed a contract to provide remote weapons systems for the Saudi Ministry of Interior.

Obviously, Saudi Arabia's wealth opens up economic opportunities for corporations in the west. But it would be wrong to understand the relationship as one in which democratic governments hold their nose for the sake of profits. On the contrary, maintaining the stability of Saudi autocracy has long been a strategic priority for the United States and nations in its camp (such as Australia). Yes, the Khashoggi assassination spurred condemnations from within the political class. But such protests pertained more to the blatancy of a public murder than to the fundamental nature of a long-term US ally.

A militarised and authoritarian Saudi Arabia might occasionally produce headaches for Washington (by, for instance, murdering dissidents with bone saws). But it assists the United States in maintaining access to the fossil fuels that power the world. Hence John Hannah's call in Foreign Policy for Trump to salvage the relationship with the kingdom, on the basis that public criticism of MBS might push the Saudis to align with the Chinese.

Precisely because of the centrality of fossil fuels to the international economy, control over oil means geostrategic power, with the current American dominance in the Middle East allowing the White House to check the ambitions of potential rivals like China and Russia.

And that's something about which environmentalists need to think carefully. For, if the American (and thus Australian) relationship with Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing nations helps maintain American dominance, why would the United States and its allies want to see the emergence of fossil fuel alternatives? A diminution of the importance of oil (by, say, the development of cheap renewables) would fundamentally undercut the current basis of American hegemony, not a prospect that any president would welcome. There are, in other words, strategic as well as economic reasons for politicians in America and elsewhere to defend fossil fuels.

The early phases of the Arab Spring revealed that the United States regarded any real democratisation of the Middle East as a nightmare scenario, precisely because of the prospect it would raise the question as to who benefits from the region's oil wealth. But the same might be said about a movement to solve the environmental crisis since, by tackling the big polluters, such a movement would throw the economic and political status quo into disarray.

To put it another way, the struggle for climate justice will, whether we like it or not, raise profound questions about justice of all kinds. Fossil fuels have shaped the entire global order — and ending our reliance upon them will mean building a very different world.



Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Main image: US President Donald Trump speaks with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a family photo session at the G20 summit on 28 June 2019 in Osaka, Japan. (Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon - Pool/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, Saudi Arabia, Jamal Khashoggi, climate change



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Existing comments

Up until reading Jeff's article here I had thought of fossil fuelled climate change as a profound issue that affects every aspect of life on earth. But here is yet more food for thought as we are stimulated to think about how the politics of climate change versus fossil fuels' business as usual quest is linked in to the geopolitical struggle between the USA, China, and Russia, and no doubt other players. The focus on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi helps to bring these ideas into a gut wrenching reality check.

John McKeon | 10 July 2019  

But, of course, if China completes its race to renewable energy, who will be left holding the stranded assets? What a crash that will be.

Peter Horan | 10 July 2019  

You raise many legitimate criticisms of the Saudi state and its rulers which are all perfectly legitimate and spot on. To those could be added several more, such as the diabolical effect the official Saudi Wahabbi religious stance has on that nation, and, through Saudi money, Islam worldwide. The Saudis want war with the major Shi'ite nation, Iran, as do the Americans and the current Israeli government. If this happens, and we are into the dangerous brinkmanship stage here, the resulting conflagration will make the carnage and destruction of the Syrian Civil War seem small bikkies. It will devastate the Middle East and have worldwide consequences. We are a very small player in the obscene and diabolic international arms trade but seem to be intent on getting a larger slice of that pie. Countries like Sweden do sell arms, but they seem to exercise some moral judgement here. We need to emulate them. Saudi Arabia is toxic. The Ottoman Empire had all sorts of problems but they kept the Saudi Wahhabis isolated in their desert fastness. The discovery of oil in the country and the development of its vast wealth have done nothing for the average Saudi nor the world.

Edward Fido | 12 July 2019  

From the time of Standard Oil (now Exxon/Chevron) owners such as Rockefellers and their ilk have endeavoured to influence and/own govt. policy on energy, etc. promoting/protecting both their business and pet interests. Their strategic business issue is how to maintain, or grow, future income streams based upon generations of global investment, infrastructure, footprint (monopolies/oligopolies), being preferred source and political influence, against the wave of environmental awareness, regulation and renewables.

Andrew J Smith | 13 July 2019  

A well reasoned yet alarming article Jeff. There is no doubt that the human rights record of Saudi is stuck in the dark ages to say the least. Human life is cheap. The "Royal Family" is sacrosanct. Wealth and Power are the privilege of the elite. Possession of oil is still the modern holy grail. Trump, the Crown Prince ally, was also fawning on the Royal Family in UK a few weeks ago. Kashoggi's grisly death cant be measured by Western human rights standards. And perhaps the war in Yemen could also be described as an ideological clash. The Houthi slogan is: "God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam". No wonder Trump supports the Crown Prince. Ironically the Saudis also believe in Islam and their airstrikes and port blockade have killed more civilians than military personnell. Religion again is the cause of more wars than any other factor. The geopolitical balance point is well made Jeff as the US strives to keep China's and Russia's power ambitions in check. Unfortunately Yemen is a convenient pawn in the game and civilian casualties appear to be of no consequence to either protagonist.

Francis Armstrong | 17 July 2019  

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