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Cafe Society to discuss U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia

By Staff | Dec 2, 2016

The next Cafe Society’s session on Dec. 6 will focus on the U.S. government’s troubled relations with Saudi Arabia one moment a stalwart friend and political consort and in the next, our economic and cultural nemesis. International politics, like their domestic cousins, make for strange bedfellows and this 14th century totalitarian dictatorship is a good example. One can’t talk about the Saudis, or their other obstreperous neighbors in the Middle East, particularly Iran, Iraq and the smaller Islamic nations without opening a “Pandora’s Box” of vitriolic controversy, religious zeal and overlapping legacies of historic events including: the end of the Ottoman Empire, World Wars I and II and the final land and power grabs in the spasmodic death throes of the colonial era.

The legacy is the Middle East political and economic environment in which we have to resolve contentious issues today involving failed or failing states, exasperated hopes of emerging nations, cultural and religious bigotry, and callous disregard for human life and values. In that context, the challenge facing our newly elected President is to go where his predecessors have failed to venture to establish a coherent U.S. energy policy. The long pole in that tent will be our relations with Saudi Arabia, as a sophisticated sovereign nation, actor in international political and economic fora, and prime mover in OPEC.

Cafe Society discussions are held from 8:30 to 10 a.m. each Tuesday morning in the Rumsey Room of the Shepherd University (SU) Student Center. They are an integral part of the SU Life Long Learning Program and are intended to facilitate a dialog on current issues between the students and older members of our community. There are no fees or registration requirements.

Cafe Society facilitator, Mike Austin commented, “To be fair, we can’t be too critical of the Saudis, since to a large extent, they are a product of our own political, economic, and military machinations in a series of U.S. administrations dating back to the 1940s struggling to find expedient solutions to pressing crises. Without our dependence on oil, this part of the world would still be a backwater of Bedouins tending their flocks wandering the inhospitable wastelands of the Arabian Peninsula. But the dramatic rise in demands for energy and rapid industrialization of the West, coupled with the discovery of tremendous reserves of economically accessible oil transformed the newly emergent nations of the Middle East into substantial players on the world scene. Of course political and economic opportunists (entrepreneurs) from the U.S., U.K. France, Italy and belatedly Russia) working within their “sphere of interests” have greatly complicated matters.”

Austin added, “There are a number of significant factors that make our energy policy so difficult to define, and implement. In addition many adaptive political and economic entities like things just as they are, having learned to exploit or leverage current situations to their advantage. It all depends on whose ox is getting gored. Throughout the Cold War and into the 21st century, secured access to Middle East oil was a major political military objective in our National Security Strategy. We remember painfully the 1973 oil embargo, closure of the Suez Canal, flight of the Shaw of Iran, the Iranian hostage fiasco, The Beirut crisis and evacuation of the PLO, escorting tankers up into the Persian Gulf, the invasion of Kuwait, Iraq I and II. “Arab Spring” and endless failed Middle East Peace initiatives. (One of them right here in Shepherdstown.)

“Through all of that the Saudis managed to avoid entanglement, to remain above the fray, not get their hands into the political dirt.

“They always had sufficient capital to buy their way out (as in the case of the Iran-Iraq war) to be the silent partner, to pay bereavement compensation to the families of Islamic martyrs, sacrosanct because of their role as the keeper of the Islamic holy cities and free from domestic turmoil because of their social largesse, able to import third world nationals to do the dirty and demeaning work. Even within OPEC they were always the first among equals able to define consensus or simply ignore production agreements when it suited. Of course they remain the darling of the international defense industries (particularly the U.S., British, and French) always looking to keep a production line open and their military advocates (which often includes

parliamentary or Congressional delegations).

“And as always, able to float a loan or mingle petro dollars with other creative instruments in the murky channels of international finance.”

Austin concluded by saying, “What Mr. Trump will have to look at, perhaps advantageously from his vantage point as an international business man is a new range of deal breakers.

“Included are the changing balance of energy demands driven by fuel efficiency, unavoidable environmental awareness, growing affordability and viability of alternative energy sources, advances in production of natural gas and increased efficiency in drilling and extraction methods in mature fields.

“Rather than have OPEC dictate to us, we might find enough breathing room to broker our own cartel of consumers — a negotiating point in those first “get acquainted” sessions with Russian, Chinese and E.U. leadership. The Saudis are highly dependent on oil production and extremely vulnerable to loss of market share. Iran, Nigeria, and Iraq have compelling justification for comparatively higher rates of production.

“The Saudis would evoke little sympathy in the court of world opinion. It would be interesting to see the rats leaving the ship as their international financial partners run for cover.

“But that’s the short term aspect of a first- ever U.S. energy policy.

“He would have to accomplish “due diligence” and draw appropriate people into his executive management team, but if President Trump’s new infrastructure initiative were integrated into the energy policy and encompassed the full range of production, storage, road, rail, pipeline, waterway, aviation, and communications systems, it would have a dramatic and lasting impact.”