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Saber Rattling the Saudis Won’t Bring Gas Prices Down

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Jun 12, 2008

Editor’s note: Washington’s effort to increase oil production in Saudi Arabia is more political theatre than effective policy. U.S. dependence on Saudi oil is too embedded for saber rattling, writes NAM contributing editor Earl Ofari Hutchinson.

Predictably, Senate Democrats’ threat to block an arms deal with the Saudis unless it pumps out another million barrels of oil went nowhere.

The threat was fueled by a mix of anger, frustration and desperation: It’s an election year and strapped motorists are screaming at politicians to do something – anything – to give them some gas price relief.

But the gesture was doomed from the start. Even if Senate Democrats meant what they said, the Royal Kingdom would simply buy the arms somewhere else. But that’s not necessary. About 10 percent of the petroleum guzzled daily in the United States comes from Saudi Arabia. That’s about 15 percent of U.S. imports.

It was almost laughable to watch the Saudis throw up their hands in mock resignation when President Bush asked them to increase production on his two recent visits to the Kingdom. Short of a U.S. takeover of the Saudi oil fields, Bush’s request was simply a political feel-good gesture.

Bush officials desperately need Saudi oil. In fact, U.S. dependence on Saudi oil is greater now than it was before Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s not just the United States that’s in oil debt to the Saudis. Western Europe, China, Japan and India's glutinous appetite for oil continues to grow. The energy department estimates that it will take up to 120 million barrels per day by 2025 to satisfy that appetite. Over one-fourth of this added oil will come from Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the United States occasionally will talk tough to the Saudis about speeding up democratic reforms and cracking down on Muslim fundamentalist groups. That's just for media and public consumption.

If anything, Bush’s visits to the Kingdom sent a huge signal that the United States is prepared to do everything it can to placate the Saudi regime. The reason is simple. The much hoped-for new oil sources that could break U.S. dependency on Saudi oil have not panned out. The rivers of oil the United States boasted would flow into the tanks of America's gas-guzzlers after Saddam Hussein was dumped are a pipedream.

Post-Saddam Iraq has shown no sign that it can produce the 6 million barrels projected by 2010. Currently it barely squeezes out 2 million barrels a day. Nigeria and Russia are mired in corruption and mismanagement, and Venezuela is government non grata to Bush. Libya, even with the softening of relations with the United States, doesn't have the oil reserves to meet our bloated needs. Its reserves are about one sixth of Saudi Arabia's.

American oil executives have hammered the Bush administration and Congress to scrap environmental and land protections and tap the millions of barrels in oil reserves believed to be nestled in shale deposits on Alaska's North Slope. Those millions may or may not be there. It will take great improvements in exploration and drilling technology, as well as beating back environmentalists' challenges, to determine the real oil potential of the North Slope and the sea.

While the United States is the still the world's most rapacious oil user, China and India have come on strong, and are willing to court the Saudis and pay top dollar for the oil they need to fuel their industrial boom. The Saudis can and will play both nations against the United States. With oil prices smashing new records every day, that means billions more in the Saudi coffers.

The Saudis hold another trump card: the always convenient threat of Iran and more Middle East turmoil. The Saudis are still the most dependable and consistent counterbalance to Iran, and the United States’ perennial helpmate to safeguard regional stability.

But there’s a Catch-22 for the Saudis and the United States. The Saudi royal family runs the Kingdom as a tight-knit autocracy. It's fair game for both homegrown and foreign Muslim extremists and fundamentalists. A renewed internal insurgency could shake the regime. That could deepen anti-American sentiment in the country, and open the door to more terrorist attacks. Even without a Saudi regime change, Middle East anger and hostility toward U.S. policy in Iraq and the United States’ rock-solid support of Israel prevent the Saudi government from publicly realigning its policies with the United States. Oil is and always will be the Saudis’ main weapon to keep the United States at arm’s length while maintaining its strong relationship with the United States to secure their power and obscene wealth.

Congress’ talk of lawsuits, killing arms deals, presidential visits and pleadings to the Saudis for oil relief will be just that: empty talk. The U.S. dependency on Saudi oil will grow even greater and, unfortunately, so will gas prices.

Living in the Shadow of the Recession

US politics

Articles by Earl Ofari Hutchinson

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