The Oil and the Glory

How I learned to stop worrying and love the Saudis

How I learned to stop worrying and love the Saudis

One of our most prevalent current canards is the mantra that we must "get off foreign oil," by which we invariably mean Saudi Arabian crude — and that we must generally distance ourselves from the kingdom and its leaders. Here is a rare issue that finds bipartisan traction. Last summer, for example, the comedian Jon Stewart looked and found that eight consecutive U.S. presidents starting with Richard Nixon, rolling through Ronald Reagan, both George Bushes, and finally Barack Obama have used the phrase in more or less the same formulation. Usually, the mantra is stated in the context of either the environment — promotion of green industries — or national security, meaning a way to confound terrorists who, it is said, are largely financed by Saudi and other Middle Eastern oil receipts. But ultimately they mean the same thing — Saudi Arabia is bad, bad, bad.

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I become suspicious of phrases that roll off the tongue and get me riled up, because often they are intended to accomplish just that outcome. Such is the case with the get-off-foreign-oil sloganeering, as I write in the latest issue of Foreign Policy. News from the Middle East and elsewhere exhorts the United States not to distance itself from Saudi Arabia, but in fact to more fully embrace this definitively central relationship. The reasons include top-tier U.S. strategic priorities regarding Iran, terrorism, Afghanistan, and of course oil.

WikiLeaks showed that the Saudis, unsurprisingly, have been in lock step with Western policy on containing Iran’s nuclear program. The most dramatic recent example of the Saudi alliance paying off came in October, in the form of abortive terrorist attacks that were halted in Europe before they could reach the United States. Last summer and fall, U.S. intelligence agencies received three progressively more unnerving warnings from Saudi Arabia, all suggesting that al Qaeda was preparing to set off bombs in either Europe or the United States. The final alert, sent Oct. 28, was the most explicit, providing tracking numbers for two suspected explosives-laden packages on their way to Chicago from Yemen. A day later, police intercepted the packages at FedEx and UPS facilities in Dubai and Britain and defused bombs containing enough of the explosive PETN to take down the cargo planes on which they were to be shipped. Al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate claimed responsibility and warned of more such attempts. The take-away: Short of Saudi Arabia’s insistent calls to the Central Intelligence Agency, there is almost certainly no chance that the bombs would have been detected.

What about the other main theater of current U.S. strategic interest, Afghanistan and Pakistan? With its long close ties to all parties in the region — Pakistan, including the Army’s jihadi-linked Inter-Services Intelligence directorate; Afghanistan; and the Taliban — Saudi Arabia was asked early last year by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to help mediate a political settlement with the Taliban. In February, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, agreed to receive a delegation of former Taliban, but in November he froze contacts after the Taliban refused to repudiate Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Riyadh’s position is not new: The Saudis adopted a similar posture position prior to 9/11, when they severed ties with the Taliban after its leader, Mullah Omar, refused to force bin Laden out of Afghanistan. Yet it is yet another example of crucial alignment in U.S.-Saudi policy.

All the while there is oil, although many people seem to suggest that as a source of strategic importance it is a temporary artifice. What are the facts? Not only will Saudi Arabia’s predominant oil market position not shrink over the coming decades — it will grow. Consider the current activities of Chevron, the original developer of Saudi oil, in the partition zone that the kingdom shares with Kuwait. Vice Chairman George Kirkland told me about Chevron’s findings in the Wafra field, a reservoir of highly viscous, heavy oil in which the company is using a method of steam-injection drilling to recover an expected 10 billion to 15 billion barrels of petroleum. (For perspective, the industry regards a 1 billion-barrel field as a supergiant.) Saudi Arabia, Kirkland says correctly, is "at the top of the mountain as it is. [Wafra] reinforces a longer future delivering liquid hydrocarbons to the world economy." Meaning probably far into the second half of this century, adding up to another pinion of U.S. strategic interest. Here, Bloomberg’s Wael Mahdi reports on Chevron’s current progress at Wafra.

Those who suggest getting off Saudi oil are violating the basics of economics. As the pithy Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies expressed it to me: "What is the benefit for the U.S. of ‘deplete America first’?"