Saudi Arabia and the United States

Written By: - Date published: 10:17 am, October 17th, 2018 - 21 comments
Categories: iraq, israel, Syria, uncategorized, us politics, war - Tags:

You’d wonder sometimes why we talk about international affairs at all here. After all we’re an insignificant little country with insignificant politics and policy. Why exercise our minds at all about this stuff?

The quick answer is that the mice always need to know where dancing elephants are placing their feet.

Saudi Arabia is preparing to admit that the U.S. resident and investigative reporter did indeed die in their embassy in Turkey.

There will be some future agreed price to pay that is well calibrated between Turkey, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. Oil will be pumped, armaments will be sold, international investment shows will continue. And no one will try and investigate them ever again after that.

But it’s a tough deal to keep a compact alive. That shows the United States really wants this relationship. There’s no certainty that the United States shale oil and Canadian tar sands oil can enable them to run independent of Saudi oil. So the United States is not withdrawing from the Middle East. Sure their troops are well down on the Iraq war peak, but they still have roughly 25,000  military personnel across different bases. There’s the Bahrain naval thing, the Qatar base, bunches of Special Forces – they’re still there all right.

Trump is so way-cool inviting Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, moving the U.S. Embassy into Jerusalem, loving Netanyahu, embracing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and going out super-hard on Iran. No retreat.

But all of this doubling-down on U.S. commitment occurs when each one of them is going nuts at various levels. Ain’t no mediated punishments going on with any of them.

Egypt’s Sisi has crushed any hope of democracy, killed protestors, and smashed dissent and freedom of expression.

The Israeli Prime Minister’s wife is in for corruption charges, and Netanyahu is in the frame as well. Even longtime supporters of Israel are increasingly alarmed by its current trajectory.

And Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, despite giving women the right to drive, is really no positive reformer. He’s stuffed up relations with Lebanon and Qatar and got bogged down in a brutal war in Yemen.   He’s “paused” his plan to float a chunk of Aramco, and is otherwise scaring investors off. He is so far a disaster.

Sure, greed matters. The U.S. wants to ensure that Saudi Arabia gets its armaments from them and no one else. The Defence Security Cooperation Agency – the U.S. federal agency that overseas arms sales to foreign governments, reported recently that the U.S. saw a 33% rise in total arms sales in fiscal 2018, for a total of $55.6 billion. Trump signed a nearly $110 billion defense agreement with King Salman in May 2017.

Trump chooses Saudi Arabia over the Iran deal, over the E.U. (the secondary sanctions), over in fact everybody. There is no strategic or moral sense to this other than greed unbound.

What is chilling for New Zealand is where this is heading in terms of the supply of oil to New Zealand. Saudi Arabia said on Sunday that it would retaliate against any punitive measures linked to the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi with “even stronger ones”. In an implicit reference to the kingdom’s petroleum wealth, the statement noted the Saudi economy “has an influential and vital role in the global economy.”

The subtext to that is: you don’t want another 1973-1979 oil crisis, do you? So don’t criticise us. Until the world’s developed economies can operate without reliance on Saudi oil, Saudi Arabia will continue to be the moral and military bog that slides many of its surrounding states down in with it.

The last time we had a genuine oil crisis from the Middle East, the government instituted the largest whole-of-government development programme seen since the Great Depression, in the form of Think Big projects designed to decrease petrochemical dependence on OPEC.

Economist Brian Easton wrote a nice piece way back in 1990 stating that it’s not certain that they were all a bad idea, particularly given the scale of national threat that they were reacting to.

I’m not proposing yet that there will be an oil crisis of that scale. The barrel price rises are going precisely the way OPEC wants it – and price is still the fastest latent transition away from global oil reliance.

This same region appears to be where the elephants’ feet are dancing at the moment. Far from disengaging, the United States continues to engage with the Middle East and continues to make things worse. Trump’s near-uncritical support is diplomatically useless: it gives up all leverage the U.S. would otherwise have to get policy improvements. So no, the Middle East is not going to hell in a handbasket because the United States is withdrawing.

The Middle East is getting worse in no small part because the United States is going at the Middle East like a pitbull in a meat truck – but this time it’s through leader-to-despotic-leader relationships at all cost rather than primarily through invasion.

Time to watch closely how the feet of the elephants dance.

21 comments on “Saudi Arabia and the United States”

  1. Dennis Frank 1

    That’s a good overview, and this seems the key bit: “What is chilling for New Zealand is where this is heading in terms of the supply of oil to New Zealand. Saudi Arabia said on Sunday that it would retaliate against any punitive measures linked to the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi with “even stronger ones”.”

    I’d like Aotearoa to call their bluff. Complicity in a morally-corrupt world order isn’t necessarily the good idea everyone seems to think it is. Someone, at some point, has to take a strong moral stand in favour of a better future. Why wait?

    How much leverage does the devil have on us, lurking there in the details of our oil imports? Are we really too dependent on the bad guys?

    • Draco T Bastard 1.1

      I’d like Aotearoa to call their bluff.

      So would I.

      Complicity in a morally-corrupt world order isn’t necessarily the good idea everyone seems to think it is.

      Such complicity will always result in the destruction of society.

      Are we really too dependent on the bad guys?

      According to Tricledrown – yes.

  2. Kevin 2

    The hypocrisy from governments over the Kashoggi affair has reached an all time sickening low.

    Embassies are supposed to be neutral venues, almost a place of safety. To lure, interrogate and then murder a US resident in a foreign ‘friendly’ embassy is just fucking sickening. But Trump wont let that get in the way of a US$110 Billion arms deal.

    And where is the UK on this?

    After all the posturing over the Skripal affair, they should have been front and centre on this one. If they had any fucking bollocks that is.

    Where are the sanctions? Where are the Saudi embassy staff being sent home?

    Oh, thats right, those sorts of measures are saved for aggressors like Iran…

    • Draco T Bastard 2.1

      After all the posturing over the Skripal affair, they should have been front and centre on this one. If they had any fucking bollocks that is.

      You mean if they weren’t a bunch of fucken hypocrites.

      Where are the sanctions?

      Sanctions only ever get placed upon countries that don’t do what the US tells them to. Happened to us after we declared ourselves nuclear free.

      • JohnSelway 2.1.1

        “Happened to us after we declared ourselves nuclear free.”

        Ahhhhh, you sure about that?
        Citation needed because I’m pretty sure the US just made a lot of noise and froze us out of ANZUS but there were no sanctions.

    • Stuart Munro 2.2

      There is the matter of location and citizenship.

      The Skripals seem to have British citizenship, and acts against them to have occurred within British territory.

      How much responsibility the UK have to protect a US resident Saudi citizen in Turkey is not readily quantifiable. No doubt they will express their distaste, which will amount to little more than US “thoughts and prayers”.

      If they are particularly moved they might pass a law requiring persons entering embassies to leave in no more pieces than when they entered. But if they wouldn’t bend diplomatic conventions over Yvonne Fletcher, it’s hard to see them doing so in this case.

    • Adrian Thornton 2.3

      @Kevin + too right, there has been a deafening silence from all the Red fear mongers on this site over this too I notice.

  3. Jack Ramaka 3

    The World is not a pretty place these days the “Rule Book” has been tossed out the window IMHO.

    • Bill 3.1

      I don’t think the “rule book” has been thrown out the window, so much as the glossy cover designed to suggest civility or rectitude is shabby, stained and tattered.

      Nothing of substance has really changed though.

  4. Stuart Munro 4

    Saudi has enjoyed a period of relative calm unusual in monarchies lacking constitutions, through a combination of wealth and social spending, and a relatively orderly gerontocracy.

    https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2015/01/08/ail-the-king

    Most of the progressive initiatives, like the building of multiple new universities with free places for women, and the odd but nevertheless progressive woman free woman’s rights conference https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-39264349 are policies going back to the previous king.

    The current prince, ruling by proxy in place of his Alzheimer’s stricken father, is a departure from the carefully cultivated stability of the gerontocrats. In a country no less riven by sectarian and tribal division than was Iraq this is positively dangerous. And a sense of that danger is partly behind responses to challenges like Yemen, which at least linguistically is the senior culture.

    The Khashoggi assassination was a spectacular blunder, and the way things are shaping up some of the team that performed it are likely to take the fall for it, for the Prince certainly will not.

    NZ’s dependence on imported oil has not diminished in the meantime – and Saudi remains one of the few viable alternative sources to the conflict phosphate we presently obtain from Morrocco. So we are not in a position to throw a moral tantrum however distasteful not doing so may be. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/11/the-desert-rock-that-feeds-the-world/508853/

    As has been the case for the last several decades, one of the best economic investments NZ could make would be, not foreign property speculators, but developing a viable alternative to imported oil like algal biodiesel or cellulosic biobutanol. The carbon footprints of these are negligible – and the balance of payments impact would be enormous. They would also give us sufficient independence to express distaste for excesses on the part of our current oil suppliers, should we wish to do so.

  5. adam 5

    Ad, what the hell are you doing defending oil and the consumption of carbon.

    This is why we can never get a top of climate change, and I’m thinking reading this piece, we never will. This fetish is a devotional attachment to burning carbon and it’s bed fallow military hardware.

    • Ad 5.1

      You missed the bit about the time New Zealand had a comprehensive plan to decrease its reliance on fossil fuels. Just relax and read a bit more carefully. Maybe some research of your own on it.

      You could even do a whole post on Bill Birch and his plans both good and bad. If you felt inclined.

      That would help prepare commenters for this current governments’ next steps.

      You may also notice this post is just a pair with the post I did this week on how rising petrol prices are affecting New Zealand. This is inevitably about the politics, which are inescapable.

      This isn’t the post analysing the oil transition, because until Minister Shaw starts showing his hand on an actual carbon reduction plan – one which ideally has the agreement of both sides of the House so that it endures and permanently alters the direction of New Zealand – there’s no point.

      • Molly 5.1.1

        ” until Minister Shaw starts showing his hand on an actual carbon reduction plan – one which ideally has the agreement of both sides of the House so that it endures and permanently alters the direction of New Zealand – there’s no point.”
        Except that from a clear and unequivocal stance, would come media attention, public discussion and increased public awareness. That is a salient point, often missed by politicians whose focus is to be re-elected for the next term.

        There seems to be a disconnect between reality and emotions here, Ad.

        We don’t need the government to ‘prepare’ to do something effective, we just need it done. And take that media training that we have all paid for, and use it to inform the public and make any politician that bleats otherwise look foolish.

        Too much of politics this days is about dealing with the supposed emotions of the electorate, and not about providing for them. Enjoyin the game of politics – and disregarding the reality of physics.

        • Ad 5.1.1.1

          I appreciate that many readers here are impatient for that plan, and that there are good reasons for doing so.

          Between “the reality and emotions” is politics itself. That’s the stuff that brings governments down. As you can see from the behaviour of the National Party, that dynamic can change within 24 hours.

          Politics in our kind of system exist somewhere between democracy and markets. Both have facts and both have emotions that go with them. Luckily Minister Shaw understands that basic law, and is concentrating his early engagement with market leaders.

          Don’t worry – the emotion will come – as we saw this week with the many petrol-price related stories. There will be a bit more as the bill enabling scrutiny of petrol companies goes through its 3rd reading. But that is but the start.

          • Molly 5.1.1.1.1

            Politics should be a process, not a goal. And definitely not the main event.

            None of your concern seems to be for those that are continually paying for ill-thought out policies. Very little column inches are given to talking about the back breaking straw of high fuel prices on those who have no reasonable access to reliable and affordable public transport.

            Your breakdown is all theoretical over the coffee cup banter, but many of your fellow NZ’ers will be making tough decisions over what bills to pay, and no provision or plan is even being attempted to be made for them.

            If your vaunted “start” continues on from the middle of the situation, it will be ineffective and out of touch, and will demonstrate once again why many become disillusioned with politics as she is currently spoken.

      • adam 5.1.2

        I did read what you said, and what you said was decrease it’s reliance of fossil fuels. Not stop the consumption of oil or carbon. Indeed you whole piece supported the continuation of that fetish, that was what I was pointing out.

        Just so you know Bill Birch, seriously stuffed with my family – so I think he is a low life Tory scumbag – who did nothing for NZ – he only ever lined his own back pocket. So your suggestion was offensive, I know you didn’t know that – hence why I’m letting you know.

  6. Bill 6

    …despite giving women the right to drive..

    Yup. That’s the way he prefers it to be seen. His initiative. His majesty’s munificence.

    And the women who fought to be allowed that small thing were told not to comment on the “granting” of the right to drive and….well, it seems a number of them are free to think about driving any time they like from whatever jail cell or “disappeared” place it is they are now.

    https://theintercept.com/2018/10/06/saudi-arabia-women-driving-activists-exile/

  7. Ross 7

    Hmmm I can’t say Brian Easton was a fan of Think Big, if that’s what you’re referring to.

    https://www.pundit.co.nz/content/a-return-to-‘think-big’
    https://www.pundit.co.nz/content/responsibility-and-policy (see comments)

    There’s also this from the link you provide:

    “It is true that the projects have both substantially reduced imports and increased our exports, thus improving the trade balance, but this needs to be offset against the debt-servicing costs that the investments have incurred.

    There is also confusion as to the overall impact of the projects. There was a construction and a production phase. During the construction phase the economy was lifted by the extra jobs and activity the investment generated. Claims were made that there would be a further lift during the production phase, but some crude figures I did at the time suggested that the production lift would be offset by the construction slump, so there would be no additional economic benefits after the construction phase (and indeed they have not been noticeable).”

    • Tricledrown 7.1

      Ross you tell only 1/2the story Cost blowouts the Clyde Dam original cost $250 million for 2 low Dams made them economically unviable just the road built for the high Dam cost $200 million then because the Road construction caused the destabilisation of the massive slips in the Cromwell gorge cost $250 million to stabilise.$450 million to stabilise all slips unnecessary for 2 low Dams.
      The Clyde high Dam only produced slightly more power than Labour’s 2 low Dams because the power house being built on a fault line was unable to cope with the vibration of 2 more generators and the requirement to build a further Dam at luggate.
      Muldoon and Warren Cooper made the decision to build the Dam on a fault site against the Senior Engineers advice who an international expert in building Dams in mountains who was sacked for going against Muldoon, That cost another $1.5 billion to Build a Dam on the fault line.
      The National Party were going ahead with a simple concrete Dam directly over the fault line until letters to editors exposed the Dangers of the High Dam failing or overtopping from unstable massive landslip from the construction of the Road without proper ground engineering investigation.
      Then the Aromoana Aluminium smelter was canned after wind direction research showed poisonous gases and chemicals would be dispersed over Dunedin.
      Motonui was another disaster never economically viable made even worse by fall in oil prices and the amount of Natural Gas to make Petrol was never going to stack up
      Glenbrook more cost blowouts.
      Ross you are full of it.
      If the figures of the original cost to benefit claimed by Muldoon and Bolger it would have stacked up but no due diligence was Done by National it was Pork Barrel Politics at its worst destroying the Social Credit Party and the Coalition Muldoon govt leaving massive debts with very little benefits.
      Easton says its OK to borrow if you improve productivity in your economy and for stimulation of economies in Depression.
      Muldoon Dictatorish management of the economy was a Disaster.

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