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What Happens to Saudi Arabia When the World Doesn’t Need Its Oil?

A man looks out over central Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from the Faisaliah Tower in 2003. (Peter MacDiarmid/Reuters)

Over on the homepage, our Kevin Williamson writes a really great, thought-provoking essay laying out how to synthesize the competing instincts of idealism and realism in the world, and particularly in the Muslim world. Read the whole thing; it’s difficult to summarize, but the gist is that if the United States really wants to prevent bad outcomes and increase the odds of good incomes, we need to be doing a lot of non-military intervention and relationship building with all kinds of forces for civil society in every country that matters to us. He concludes, “We can do better. But we can’t do it easily, we can’t do it on the cheap, and we can’t do it in a week.”

Whatever your worldview, you probably don’t believe that everything will turn out okay for the Middle East in the years and decades to come. Whether your big worry is an Iranian nuke, climate change, neo-nationalism, entropy, new aggression from China or Russia, cyber-warfare, or kaiju emerging from the sea, something’s probably going to come along to give us and our allies a bad day. “Be prepared” isn’t just a good motto for the Boy Scouts.

Back in George W. Bush’s second term, you heard a lot of Democrats, and quite a few Republicans talking about the importance of “ending our dependence upon foreign oil.” Democrats liked it because it meant spending more on alternative energy, Republicans liked it because it meant more drilling for oil and gas on U.S soil, and nobody liked being in a position where we needed to try to play nice with regimes in the Middle East, Russia, Venezuela, and elsewhere.

But at the time, I remember having this nagging feeling of what would happen after America reached energy independence. Would we really tell the Saudi Kingdom, “you’re on your own, good luck?” (We sent a couple hundred troops back to Saudi Arabia in August.) Because if the Saudi government ever collapses or is overthrown, the regime that replaces them probably isn’t going to be nicer. No, the new bosses are probably going to be openly anti-American and jihadist, and that regime could get control of Mecca and Medina. And as difficult as our current troubles are, an ISIS-like regime running the Arabian Peninsula would be worse.

Fracking made those hopes of the mid-2000s come true. Here we are, in 2019, and according to the U.S. Department of Energy, we should become a net exporter of oil by the end of 2020. This is amazing and a major accomplishment.

But there’s still that question of . . . what happens when we no longer need Saudi Arabia’s oil, and perhaps fewer and fewer people around the world will need it in the years to come? Yes, Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s richest countries, but they can see the days of lucrative petroleum exports are coming to an end, sooner or later. One of the traits of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that had the international elites swooning back in 2017 was his plan to diversifying the country’s economy. A world that no longer needs Saudi Arabia’s oil means it changes from a wealthy and reasonably stable basket-case to a poor and unstable basket-case that administers the two holiest sites for a religion of a billion people. We might not like the Saudi kingdom, but we have an interest in what happens to them.

There are lots of Americans whose current instinct is to say, “who cares, they’re far away, and their culture is nothing like ours, let them sort out their own problems.” That was more or less the American response to the Syrian civil war, Rwanda, the Balkans throughout the first half of the 1990s, and the Taliban before 9/11. In many corners of the world, “sorting out their own problems” means mass bloodshed and genocide.

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