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.