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Oil and morality

Written By: - Date published: 10:08 am, October 23rd, 2018 - 44 comments
Categories: energy, International, sustainability, transport, us politics - Tags:

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.

44 comments on “Oil and morality”

  1. Bill 1

    Not buying the oil = autocracy line.

    The top 23 oil producing nations include the US, UK and Norway. Now sure, I know you wrote of “a large part of their income” as opposed to actual output. But I’d have said Norway probably gets a fair whack of its gdp from oil/gas and is a bit more than democracy in anything but name – unless you’re experiencing a bit of a ‘Damascus’ moment about representative parliaments and democracy 😉

    Saudi’s Crown Prince will survive because he knows where the bodies lie when it comes to US drone strikes on Yemen (since 2002), and general western support for Jihadists in Syria etc. Oh. And then there are those lucrative arms sales.

    Morality? Where’s the morality in present day geopolitical circles? There is none.

    Occasionally some vacuous rhetoric will spill out (as with Khashoggi), but that’s never meant to be taken seriously – never meant to be seen as anything that will lead to any action being taken on the basis of “rights” and “wrongs”.

    • SPC 1.1

      The Crown Prince knows his support for

      1. the Sunni-Shia divide and conquest of the ME programme (made manifest in Syria and confirmed by the more recent isolation of Qatar) and
      2. the economic destitution of the Palestinians to facilitate a bribe offer to accept a vassal arrangement.

      means he can suppress critics internally and externally (including rendition, imprisonment and murder of political dissidents and religious refugees) and still do business with the Americans.

      All without anything as crass as a threat to oil supply, or even more open bribery of a corrupt American elite.

      The play by Turkey (a known supporter of Qatar) is designed to send a shot across the bow of this perfidity. Thus the entrapment of the Riyadh regime into lie after lie and then taking them down for the cover up.

  2. If we are judging/questioning the morality of Saudi Arabia and Islam, then where does that leave the moral compass of countries, organisations and individuals that take and will continue to take money and do business with them?

    Lets face it, we are, apparently, not morally outraged by the American backed Saudi war in Yemen, or the richest country in the world providing medical care more like that of a dysfunctional developing nation, or our biggest new trading market running re education camps….

    Quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to start judging the ‘moral compass’ of any particular country and its leaders, be they Islamic, Christian, Jewish or atheist..




  3. Adrian Thornton 4

    You seem to forget that we all operate under the economic ideology of free market liberalism..so there is no moral order, only two thing matter, profit and growth…end of story.

    • Indeed. And that hasn’t changed since the days of the East India trading company or the Knights Templar and their banking system. Different times, different people, – but the same old greed and avarice.

  4. Dennis Frank 5

    As usual, I’ll swim against the flow. Realpolitik has prevailed since it first prevailed over the residue of christian morality several decades back, but I suspect younger generations are feeling that pragmatism only gets you so far. When a moral deficit breeds corruption, things keep getting worse until a collective reaction emerges to eliminate it. There will have to be opinion leaders driving a moral crusade – I see this as inevitable, just a question of how soon.

  5. bwaghorn 6


    This is how you corner the oil barons out of geopolitics.
    Get these scaled up and on every country and you neuter the mongrels

  6. RedLogix 7

    Solid state lithium ion batteries are within a few years of full commercialisation. The technology is proven; they’re into the product phase now. Billions of dollars are being spent optimising materials, chemistry, packaging and life cycle testing.

    A range of 700km, re-charge within minutes, operate from -40 to over 70 degC, with 10’s thousands of cycles. That’s just the first generation.

    A whole new generation of perovskyte enhanced solar PV’s with efficiencies over 30% and totally printable at low cost, look achievable within a decade.

    Oil is a dying industry and the smart money knows it. Saudi is looking down the barrel of that generation which will ride camels again; but for the time being they have a massive bucket of money to spend. What they spend it on and to what purpose will define the fate of the Middle East and with it the whole of Islam.

    • SPC 7.1

      Yes. What Saudi Arabia would like is to be able to transfer its oil wealth into ownership of such future economic activities, reduce the risk of holding oil reserves falling in value and living off fund earnings (or worse running them down) while the population is rising.

    • KJT 7.2

      Meanwhile New Zealand and Japan have signed up to investigate hydrogen technology. The possible answer to low carbon transport.
      Has the extremely dangerous by product, dihydrogen monoxide, of course.

  7. Stuart Munro 8

    NZ has failed to come to grips with the twin realities of oil and global warming.

    Bedhopping and property speculation have been our MPs’ prime concerns, and these issues have been left to look after themselves.

    Had we made a decent fist of supplying the Haj with sheep, one of the vanishingly small number of sectors in which our expertise remains competitive, we might have been in a position to be a modest moderating influence on the Kingdom.

    Had we developed expertise in alternative and sustainable fuel technologies like algal biodiesel we might have alternatives to trading with objectional regimes.

    Mind, we do a lot of trade with Australia too, and they run tropical child rape camps. And we do a lot of trade with China, which is involved in a few mighty dubious practices involving human body parts, and the US, whose offending pretty much covers the field.

    We need oil, and so we shall buy it from whomever we must. We will make pious noises at Saudi, like our allies, with no expectation of being heard.

    Like the grasshopper, we shall sing away the summer, and hope some smarter nation or their foreign investors will solve our problems for us, as we concentrate on building a legacy of ruin for subsequent generations.

    • In Vino 8.1

      Using your grasshopper analogy, what should we virtuous would-be ants be doing?
      Thought a bit, and came to no easy answer: even if we few practice what we preach, the grasshoppers will take us all down. Not very like the nice fable..

      • Stuart Munro 8.1.1

        The grasshoppers might struggle if we had our act together. The logistics of long range invasion make it pretty unattractive, and a healthy biome is not quite as lootable as traditional resource curses. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resource_curse

        We always come back to Voltaire, I think, Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

        Neoliberalism may be reduced to the childish proposition that commercial interests will deliver social goods, the stodgy and innutritious truth of which pudding we are presently choking on. Migrants and foreign investors are not disinterested magic fairies either.

        The garden of a state is its people and its environment – ours is rank with weeds and invasive species. Our people are not thriving.

        Consider algal biofuel – It has potential. The technological requirements lie within our traditional areas of expertise – light engineering and genetics. The ongoing demand for the product, and the technology if we developed it is strong. No action whatsoever – not only in that field but in any of the many related alternative fields. The plan, if there is one, seems to be to hit the wall as hard as possible.

        • the other pat

          well said………the big money makes sure nothing of any REAL value gets progressed.

    • RedLogix 8.2

      tropical child rape camps

      This is what happens when all categories are conflated together; you cease being able to tell the difference between the imaginary and the real thing:


  8. SPC 9

    The old bring China into the global market and they will adopt the rule of law and by the time Hong Kong becomes part of the whole it will be all democratic “wishful thinking”, here dressed up as realpolitic …

  9. Bill 10

    Martin Chulov at The Guardian… (my additional commentary in italic)

    The two men [Erdogan and bin Salman] have vastly different visions for the future of the region: Erdoğan has been a champion of political Islam (as was Khashoggi) both at home and abroad, particularly since the rise and fall of Mohamed Morsi, the ill-fated former president of Egypt who hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood. […] But he has remained on the losing end of the struggle for regional power and influence.

    The prince, meanwhile, has been attempting to remodel Saudi Arabia, eschewing its deep links to the Wahhabi, Salafi religious establishment and turning it into an Arab nationalist police state. Abu Dhabi and Cairo are models here. And with Riyadh, the triumvirate had been in the ascendant regionally, ever since Morsi fell.[…]

    [According to] Soner Çağaptay, the director of the Turkish programme at the Washington Institute. – “Erdoğan sees an opportunity in the Khashoggi murder – in that he realises MbS has become the weakest link in the anti-Erdoğan, anti-Muslim Brotherhood corner of the region. This is really thin ice that MbS is dancing on and I think Erdoğan is attempting to make it even thinner.

    • SPC 10.1

      Sure, the attempt by the Crown Prince to break Qatar to the programme – shut down al Jazeera and stop funding Palestinians/popular Moslem causes sans permission from Riyadh (MbS in a cartel of strongmen across the region). And so Turkey has troops in Qatar (as it too is no longer a satellite of Sunni vs Shia order of the ME)

      But it also goes beyond that. The cozy relationship between Jerusalem, Riyadh and POTUS which is connected to the US sanctions on Iran. This is not popular in Turkey, the EU or Russa. Turkey is no longer in the Sunni vs Shia game and is looking to straddle the divide, and thus have multiple offers and options.

      • Bill 10.1.1

        Stepping back from the minutiae for a second.

        What are we actually looking at here?

        A few hundred men (more or less) and their enablers creating living hells for some millions? Odd why we conscience it.

        If it was a few hundred men running around using the same justifications as the Pharaohs used ‘back when’, we wouldn’t be giving them so much as the time of day.

        And yet, here we are.

        So are their justifications any more solid or logical or intelligent than those rolled out by Pharaohs (whatever they might have been)? No.

        Or to put it another way. It would be insane if someone today was willing to run out and die for something a Pharaoh assigned great importance to. And really, it was no more sane back then – how could it have been?

        And it seems to have been the same the world over, in culture after religion after civilisation after empire – most of which are gone and forgotten. Humanity. Fucked in the head since forever. 🙂

        • SPC

          It’s built from the ground up, the popular masses are born into the culture – the natural order. With Russia it was the GD of Moscow surviving invasion and then taking back land. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it was back to the beginning (uniting Arab tribes in Arabia under Islam), an Arab tribe conquered Arabia and so the house of Saud and the Wahhabi mob. The rest is the idolatry of the masses raised up to revere their overlords – consider the reaction of people on Stuff to the idea of ending our connection to the UK throne.

          Obedience to authority, under cover of nationalist patriotism covers/excuses a lot. The Patriot and Homeland Security Acts and related private security contractors and technologies for population control make the future of democracy in that nation dubious (what has not already been controlled by money and control and use of information).

          Then there is our involvement – via the father of oil, Major Frank Holmes.

          • Bill

            Well yeah. I get (or would argue) that deference to authority holds up all the nonsense of the Pharaohs (of whatever time and place).

            But my question is to do with why we keep doing it ourselves.

            Yes, there’s the fact of inculcation or acculturation, but those dynamics don’t explain it all. If they did, then neither I nor anyone else could ever even begin to formulate the type of question that’s being asked and we’d still be mired in whatever nonsense it was that constituted the first socio/religious/ political expression of it.

            • SPC

              There is no us (as per domestic or inter-national politics), we are not in union.

              Randolph Churchill explained to fellow Tories that extension of the franchise would do them no harm as the new middle class (who voted Whig) would soon be voting Tory once the working classes formed their own party.

              Thus those advantaged under the order of rule preserve it, because it offers them their standing and place (above others). This covers the internal structure of governance of nations (post fuedal order), but in the modern (post colonial) world has become inter-connected with global hierarchy (conformity networks) and related economic, political and or military, cultural and or religious security power.

              People are easily bought off in service to the 1%. The House of Saud has had the oil money to put everyone on the payroll, or not.

              More generally this forms the basis of democratic society construct. Aristotle observed the consequence of resistance (Socrates) and the reward for apologetic for government (Plato) and so his class had to consider whether they were Stoic enough to resist power, or were too Epicurean so they were left with compliance and reward. The former do Arts degrees and become teachers the latter serve capital but are “easily manipulated to support authoritarian security imperatives” (“lacking much depth to their education but aware they do want their personal wealth kept safe”).

              The Hindus call it the duality of (balance to) rule Vishnu in government Shiva in the opposition holding it to account, lest it go corrupt. So in a sense can the political order allow for a we, except in all being under government?

              • Bill

                When I say “we” as in why we keep doing it ourselves. , I’m simply referring to “us” as opposed to cats and dogs, narwhals or any other animal.

                That aside, there’s nothing of consequence in the rest of your comment that I’d disagree with.

                One of us is looking at the trees and one of us is looking at the wood. It happens.

                • Pat

                  bugger,,,what about those of us who look at trees and see both?

                • Pat

                  have read the post from the beginning……my comment flippant and irrelevant.please disregard.

                • SPC

                  So you were confusing me for Attenborough were you … not a common mistake.

                  • Bill

                    Attenborough? You lost me 🙂

                    Anyway. You asked So in a sense can the political order allow for a we, except in all being under government? as though that’s a problem. I can’t see how it is. Governance is simply how we organise ourselves and the things we do.

                    The question I’d ask is can we govern ourselves without recreating all “the Pharaoh” nonsense (ie – the rigid or stuck beliefs, cultures, and social mores, hierarchies… ) and all that that stuff entails?

                    • Pat

                      lol..think the Attenborough reference was for me Bill…..and not far from the mark at that.

                    • SPC

                      When a group of male lions (big cats) take over a territory they kill off all the local males and cubs and thus the resident pride (female lions) and land resources belong to them.

                      It’s like an invasion of conquest, or a corporate takeover (the pride being workers).

                      The strong supercede the weak.

                      We are just a more complex society, but it’s not that different.

                      Those with privilege will organise to see off new organised group threats (such as a workers party) taking over their turf. Even build heirarchies the common folk are indoctrinated to revere as the order under God, tradition, culture and what is an order of rule good for them (if not for all), private ownership and competition, easy hire and fire laws and generally less regulation of labour working conditions, facilitating foreign investment and ownership as part of free trade, low inflation as a priority over employment, low debt before fully funded public services

                      And the middle class buying into the regime of the 1% is doing just what Randolph Church said they would do, associating with the wealthier landed gentry celebrity – being in association with winners and not the underclass losers shows they are part of the established successful pride.

                      Then there is simply fearful compliance with those in power – as occurs very readily in the primate world and in nations with autocracy. It’s all on show in the world around us.

                    • Bill

                      Here’s some complexity… 😉

        • WILD KATIPO

          [ Humanity. Fucked in the head since forever. ]

          Pheromones and the drones in the bee hive.

          So there we have it. We are insects.

    • Erdogan wants a united Arab league with him at the head of it.

  10. AsleepWhileWalking 11

    The cost of energy was always going to rise dramatically. Taxes just sped this process up.

    On the bright side Venezuela might be able to feed her people again with the increased oil price.

  11. [ Such a plan is possible, is necessary, and is currently at stake. It is the abiding moral question of our time.Can we still question the morality of Saudi Arabia? ]

    1/ ‘ Those who criticize Saudi Islam and Saudi governments meet with murderous death ‘…

    2/ ‘This aggressive and reactionary form of Islam ‘ …

    3/ ‘ Saudi Arabia’s binary moral core of conservative, repressive Islam ‘…



    Yet the woke Left want them all to have free access to NZ and shriek ‘RACISM ‘ !!! , at any mention of not wanting those influences here ( I can hear the screams and feel the thermonuclear heat of the sun from where I sit right now ) . Personally ?, – I don’t give a tuss about what they think , never have and never will . But Murray McCully does, hes good mates with the Saudis and a few businessmen over there. ( They don’t have businesswomen because they are Islamic conservatives … )

    I think you’ve answered your whole article with the statements above. But apparently in recent decades Israel has developed large oil resources in their own country and it is tipped that in their territory’s they are sitting on the largest global deposits . That may shift the whole emphasis somewhat.

    Roll on Armageddon if Russia wants a slice of the pie and the conservative Islamic’s see the price of their commodity drop and hence less global relevance…

  12. Brutus Iscariot 13

    Saudi and Israel run the US, but the dopes on both left and right have been focused on Russia.

    • Bill 13.1

      Russia-gate – a “privilege reinforcement” racket. (Aaron Mate just before the 17min mark). He’s got a point.

      Anyway. Here’s the link to 30 min interview that begins with some commentary on a ridiculous interview of Luke Harding (The Guardian) by Aaron Mate on his book “Collusion” that’s well worth searching out to view in full on RealNews if laughing your socks off strikes your fancy.

  13. Ad 14

    I’m beginning to think that the worst is over for Saudi Arabia and the Khashoggi affair.

    The 18 arrested for the crime will at minimum be trialled and jailed – probably in Turkey. Erdogan’s speech had no smoking gun and makes it look like the Head of the CIA who flew in to ensure the message was softened appears to have done the job.

    The great Saudi investment conference went ahead.

    The Prince appears just fine in the public realm.

    And no sign that the Saudis are going to go weaponizing the oil price to harm the U.S. would penalize American efforts to pressure Iran by sanctioning its oil sales – a core Saudi interest.

    Very hard to see US weapons sales to the U.S. stalling when Trump has gone out so hard on them. Their airforce is built around a core of 170 U.S. F-15 and 150 European Tornado and Typhoon planes. Western sanctions that cut off parts for maintenance would be crippling; the Saudi air campaign in Yemen could, for example, quickly stall.


    I like to look for little windows of possible change; so far Saudi Arabia has proven that you can be the pinnacle of murderous ruthlessness, and be a reformer, at the same time.

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