Oil politics is going to dominate New Zealand politics once petrol gets to $3 and $3.50 a litre. Oil politics has poisoned not only geopolitics, but the way human moral judgement operates. Saudi Arabia perversely envisages a cure.
They want to start this at the Future Investment Initiative summit, which starts today in Riyadh.
Bluntly, oil is the enemy of freedom. Thomas Friedman calls it the First Law of Petropolitics from a conclusion to his systematic study of the relationship between the fluctuating price of oil and political change. His ‘law’ states that the higher the price of oil, the more likely an oil-producing country is to turn autocratic. Oil autocrats get popular support from the rentier income flowing into the country, and then so empowered feel free to ignore what opposition groups may say and indeed what the rest of the world thinks too. Saudi Arabia will not care a whit that Fox News is no longer covering this summit. What will matter is that all other petro-autocrats are there as well, determining the energy – and hence economic – future of the world.
There are 23 countries which get the large part of their income from oil and gas; not one of them is a democracy in anything but name.
The morality of Saudi Arabia is Islam. Thomas Friedman once said that when historians look back at our era, they might well conclude that one of the most important geopolitical trends was the influence of oil wealth over the changing centre of gravity of Islam (see “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”, 2008).
In early post-war years, the centres of Islamic gravity were located in Cairo, Istanbul, Beiruit, Casablanca, and Damascus – all in their way cosmopolitan cities offering modernization and engagement.
The growing global dominance of oil, and the dominant position which the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia hold in its production, enabled conservative interpretations of Islam to dominate. Saudi Arabia is the guardian of two of the holiest mosques of Islam, in Mecca and Medina. Those who criticize Saudi Islam and Saudi governments meet with murderous death. This aggressive and reactionary form of Islam, though originally shaped in poverty, is led by the same country that continues to control the world’s petroleum energy.
So the Khashoggi crisis has forced this petro-ethics into public discourse more clearly than any of the current regional wars. Perhaps due to its timing next to the Future Investment Summit it’s as clear as the morality of the first Gulf War. The differing reactions of the United States, Europe, and others to their attendance at this conference put clear differential prices on Saudi power. A really credible investigation would question the judgement of the Saudi Prince and ultimately the ability of the Kingdom to make the difficult – but absolutely essential – transformation of its economy and society.
It’s the same transformation test New Zealand faces, writ large and in blood.
Should the Saudi reform initiative fail, Saudi Arabia will likely be a more desperate, even more conservative, and certainly less stable place than it already is.
Perversely, Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth constitutes one of the world’s largest levers to diversify global economics away from petroleum reliance. It’s won’t be on a timescale of too much use to climate change. But it has the capacity to use its wealth to get itself and surrounding states out of its own strategic predicament. Arguably it is only Saudi Arabia that understands the scale of change needed to pull the world away from oil – hence the Investment Summit. Where the danger lies, there the saving power also grows.
With such oil-authoritarian states always come the creation of an elaborate system of police, security services, surveillance, and diplomatic and military patronage. Khashoggi had been a resolute questioner. Saudi Arabia’s investment summit – called to accelerate the oil transition – has been partly undone by its own authoritarian instruments.
Saudi Arabia’s binary moral core of conservative, repressive Islam and petropolitics will continue to grow in power as the price of oil continues to climb again. If the plan of the current Saudi Prince falters, fails, or falls, there will be no shaping the growth of that force upon the world. Perhaps it will take the martyrdom of more than one man, and the leadership of more than one petro-despot, to confirm the possibility of such a grand plan.
Such a plan is possible, is necessary, and is currently at stake. It is the abiding moral question of our time.
Mr Khashoggi’s legacy in death is to insistently ask: can we still question the morality of Saudi Arabia? At some risk, we must.