The Oil and the Glory

What Saudi’s king has learned from Libya

Libya has bared an uncomfortable truth to Saudi King Abdullah (pictured right above), Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, Kuwaiti Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (left), and the rest of the petro-autocrats of the world: When politically expedient, Washington will help to push you out of power. This sounds obvious, but it’s not how it was supposed ...

Yasser al-Zayyat   AFP/Getty Images
Yasser al-Zayyat AFP/Getty Images

Libya has bared an uncomfortable truth to Saudi King Abdullah (pictured right above), Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, Kuwaiti Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (left), and the rest of the petro-autocrats of the world:

When politically expedient, Washington will help to push you out of power.

This sounds obvious, but it’s not how it was supposed to be. The United States has been allies with many such leaders as part of Pax Americana. For the most part, this hasn’t seemed cynical, but realistic — factually speaking, the United States and the rest of the West and the world require oil; there are diplomatic missions that only an Arab king or sheikh can fulfill; and the balance of power includes the support of autocratic leaders. Even the peace with Col. Moammar Qaddafi was well-intentioned — he has considerable blood on his hands, but  back in 2003 there was hope he had opted to reform; the most prevalently voiced opinion was that he was a potential template of the new possibilities of the age.

Much of this portrait is different now because of the Arab Spring, under replacement by an as-yet unestablished new set of rules. In the United States, there is an understanding that petro-realpolitik must change because one can no longer be sure that the Emir sitting confidently before you will be there next year, or even next week. In the petro-states, there is an understanding that the long-standing alliance-of-interests underpinning one’s relationship with the United States can be much shorter-lived than one originally thought. Hence, no one should be surprised when hearing of an unprecedented breach between the United States and Saudi Arabia — as we’ve discussed, the Saudis have played a highly constructive role on behalf of U.S. economic and political interests around the world, but the truth is that there simply is not much support in the United States for families that treat their nation’s wealth as a personal treasure trove. From the Saudi side, why should one go out of one’s way for a superpower that so rapidly discards its friends?

But another reason for the transformation is local politics. Real-life diplomacy attempts to put nuance in relationships. Diplomats try to advance their nation’s strategic interests — such as the need for oil — and leave their personal opinions about other leaders’ political predilections unstated. But for American diplomats, this practice has been made untenable by partisan politics, in which a wing of elected leaders is eschewing the wink-nod-and-arm approach to siding with rebel causes — not to mention ignoring the unique localized nature of the Arab Spring — and demanding that the United States itself forcibly remove Qaddafi.  The Arab themselves do not like Qaddafi, and voted publicly in favor of a no-fly zone. But that is different from the actual materiel support for Libyan rebels being discussed in western capitals. The blunt public language being used by American politicians has lifted the veil on the fiction that the U.S. actually prefers rapacious, power-hungry, megalomaniacal and delusional leaders. It has made it harder to calibrate U.S. interests among the various petro-leaders according to their very differing set of circumstances. This simply is not a nuanced age.

What does this mean? One thing is that the United States is now viewed with quite a bit of suspicion among the world’s petro-autocrats. It will be more difficult to establish quids-pro-quo of security for oil, which could strengthen China’s hand. This will be the case for quite some time, as the whole stretch of leaders is not going to fall at once.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola