Politics & Policy

Is Saudi Oil Worth The Trouble?

Al Qaeda wants us to stop buying KSA's oil. It's not a bad idea.

The May 29 al Qaeda attack in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, was intended to get one important point across. Al Qaeda wants us to stop buying Saudi oil. I think they are onto something.

The attacks were carried out by followers of Abdulaziz al-Muqrin, leader of the al Qaeda organization in the Arabian Peninsula. Muqrin has a familiar pedigree, having cut his teeth in Afghanistan, then fighting Serbs in Bosnia in the 1990s, conspiring to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a visit to Ethiopia in 1996, spending two years in Saudi jails under torture, and seeking revenge ever since. Murqin is said to have taken the leadership role of the organization after Saudi security forces gunned down Yemeni Khaled Ali Haj on March 15. Muqrin has shown himself an aggressive commander, and his group has been on an offensive since he took over. In April, he stated that the “Crusaders and Jews” were going to have a “harder and harsher” year in the region, and in the last two months there have been six terrorist incidents in Saudi Arabia. Americans are not their only targets; the terrorists bragged about “slaughtering” Japanese, Swedish, Italian, and Indian hostages in Khobar. Muqrin’s group was also behind the May 1 terror attack at Yanbu in western Saudi Arabia that killed one policeman and five Western oil workers, one of whom, an American, was dragged through the streets. In a statement praising the Yanbu attackers, Muqrin said the target was chosen because “it was the site of many Western oil firms occupying our land economically and stealing its wealth.”

To be fair, al Qaeda doesn’t really want us to stop buying Saudi oil, just to stop stealing it. Osama bin Laden has argued that the price of petroleum–even at $40 barrel–is so low as to constitute extortion. It is kept at this artificially deflated price through U.S. coercion and Saudi complicity. Osama argues that the fair price of oil is somewhere above $200/barrel. How he determined this is anyone’s guess, but he has a propensity to view the world in medieval terms, so he may have derived this from the Dark Age notion of intrinsic value. (One wonders if oil was intrinsically worth the equivalent of $200/barrel during the Caliphate, and if so why?)

By attacking energy sources al Qaeda is hitting two targets. First, they are attempting to damage our economy. Osama bin Laden stated in December 2001 that incapacitating the U.S. economy should be the primary objective for al Qaeda fighters, and disrupting the oil market is a form of flank attack. This is not to say that they might not also target the homeland–note the recent threat alert directed to U.S. oil and natural-gas terminals, processing facilities, and pipelines. However, attacks on the global energy infrastructure are likely to have more lasting effects on the economy than dramatic 9/11-style operations, and are easier to pull off. The physical damage they can inflict is less important than the fear they can promote in the marketplace–which leads to higher prices without keeping a single barrel of oil off the market. Furthermore, they not only hope to send our economy into recession (though no sign of a slowdown yet) but create a crisis of confidence in the political leadership.

The second and more immediate target is the House of Saud. The Saudi state is in a deepening systemic crisis. They face budget deficits, and a declining share of the global energy market. There are internal opposition movements, of which al Qaeda is only one manifestation. For example, there is a growing tribal-based separatist movement in the Hijaz region, in the western half of the country, which includes the two holy places of Mecca and Medina. The discontent is fueled by a growing, young population with no future prospects that has been radicalized by their own state-run religion. Saudi clerics had been preaching the merits of terrorism for years, and even after 9/11 would not denounce terrorist violence. This changed only last November when the terrorists reached Mecca. The Grand Mufti began–for the first time–denouncing suicide bombing and terrorism, particularly against Muslims. But it is late in the game to begin preaching nonviolence. Saudi Arabia is in a serious pre-revolutionary state, and it is no wonder that members of the Saudi elite have been busy buying up choice exile properties in southern France, Switzerland, and on the Lebanese coast.

Two years ago the Saudis were grumbling that the source of their problems was the U.S. presence in their country. We obligingly pulled out of our multimillion-dollar complex at Prince Sultan air base and moved operations to Qatar, a friendlier country with tighter security and a more liberal social scene. But matters have not improved for the Saudis since we left, and in fact have grown worse. Ironically, in Osama bin Laden’s 1996 Declaration of War he lists the departure of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia as the first step in bringing down the entire kingdom. Of course, we were not driven out by al Qaeda, and the U.S. is stronger in the region militarily than it ever has been. But Saudi Arabia grows less stable every week. We have sought to buttress the kingdom because it is the world’s largest exporter of petroleum, and has shown a willingness–occasionally, and with much fretting–to help “stabilize” oil markets. Would that the Saudis could stabilize their own country as easily. But the petrodollars that have gone to that country, as well as Iran and others, have been exported back in the form of terrorism, a hostile anti-Western ideology, and weapons programs and proliferation. We should ask ourselves if it is worth the trouble.

The challenge for the United States is preparing for the coming crisis. Contingency planning for securing the oilfields if the terrorists manage to topple the Saudi regime would be prudent, as Michael Ledeen suggests. The United States should also, as I argued recently, put in place an energy-security strategy that weighs the demand for various forms of energy against the consequences of drawing it from areas that translate profits into threats. There are (comparatively) pro-Western countries like Kuwait and Qatar and the Emirates we can do more business with. There is also liberated Iraq, which is currently producing only two-thirds the oil that Saddam did in 2000 under the sanctions regime. And there are numerous suppliers elsewhere, particularly in the Western Hemisphere and the Gulf of Guinea on the west coast of Africa, which is about to experience an oil-production boom. We can get ahead of the situation if we plan for it now. And even if Saudi oil does not go offline, doesn’t it make sense to encourage the development of the energy industry in parts of the world that are not spawning groups of religious fanatics and their state sponsors who are making it their business to end our way of life?


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