By George Friedman
The British statesman Ernest Bevin once said the kingdom of heaven runs on righteousness, but the kingdoms of the Earth run on oil. That might have been the motto that drove British foreign policy in the Middle East after World War I, and then U.S. policy after World War II. But over the next two weeks, as the Saudi crown prince tours the United States, meeting with the president, other government officials and business leaders, the message will be decidedly different. Oil hasn’t lost its indispensability, but Saudi oil has.
No Effort too Great
Attention to the presence of oil in the Middle East grew as the industrial revolution shifted from coal to oil. When the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I, the British, French and Russians seized the opportunity to reshape the political structure of the region around its oil. Borders were imposed on the basis of oil, without regard for the nations themselves. Those areas that had oil were frequently those whose boundaries were the most difficult to draw. Some of the most valuable oil fields were to be found on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. The British crafted a nation – ruled by a family, the Sauds – to maintain peace on the peninsula so that oil could be extracted peacefully. American policy in the region ultimately derived from British policy. The British sought to secure the production of oil, and so did the Americans. Both therefore maintained close relations with oil producers, and with the Saudis in particular.
Saudi Arabia had no qualms about weaponizing its oil supplies. In 1973, after a war between Israel and neighboring Arab states, the Saudis crafted an oil embargo targeting supporters of Israel, including the U.S. and its allies. The result was massive economic dislocation throughout the industrial world. The Saudis and other Arabs controlled enough of the world’s oil that they could not only control the price but also the tempo of life in the industrialized world. Whether the embargo was a result of concern for their Palestinian brethren or the desire to surge oil prices (or both) is debatable. What can’t be denied was that the Saudis controlled economic life in much of the world.
Washington got the message. It became fixed U.S. policy to maintain good relations with the Saudis and to protect them from political and military threats. The Americans’ commitment was put to the test in 1990, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, another significant oil producer. From Iraq’s new position, it was able to threaten the vital oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia. By this point, the Soviets were far less of a threat than they had been, but U.S. policy was still shaped by the Cold War. Iraq was vaguely aligned with the Soviets, and the American nightmare was that if the Soviets seized the Saudi oil fields, they would have the United States and its alliance structure by the throat. The U.S. massed an enormous military force in Saudi Arabia, first to protect the Saudi oil fields, and then to drive Saddam out of Kuwait. About half a million U.S. troops were used. No effort was too great for the protection of Saudi Arabia’s oil.
The U.S. commitment to the Saudis remains intact, but the meaning of the commitment has shifted for two reasons. First, the geopolitics of global oil has changed. A combination of events, particularly the surge in U.S. oil and shale gas production and the use of natural gas in place of oil in general, has reduced the importance of Saudi oil. Saudi supplies are still extremely important to the world, but the Saudis could not pull off an oil embargo today, and they no longer control the price of oil.
Second, in 1990 the U.S. was already the sole superpower, with a vast military force that for nearly two generations had been preparing for a war in Europe. That force and its allies overwhelmed the Iraqis. It was the greatest American military success since World War II. But hidden within it were dangerous flaws. It took about six months to build a force capable of retaking Kuwait. During that time, a more ambitious Saddam might have taken the Saudi oil fields. Moreover, the “desecration” of Saudi Arabia by the stationing of U.S. troops was one of the impulses behind the creation of al-Qaida. The flaws and consequences of the war exist still today.
And today, the U.S. is not coming off a peaceful triumph. American troops have been fighting in the Islamic world since 2001, with a consistently unsatisfactory outcome. Gone is the eagerness of the U.S. military to show its prowess. The force has been drained by a generation of warfare.
What this means is that, for a multitude of reasons, the political basis for the defense of Saudi Arabia has diminished. The American public is not excited about the prospect of another war. Militarily, the same problem remains – the time to theater creates sizable openings for an aggressive power, Iran in this case. Instead of defending the oil fields, in the next war the U.S. might have to retake them. Another large U.S. troop presence in parts of Saudi Arabia, however well-intentioned it would appear to the United States, could lead to unpleasant consequences in the Islamic world. Saudi oil no longer defines the global market. Even if Iran could seize Saudi Arabia’s oil – and Iran’s own military might is dubious – the only reason to seize oil now is to sell it. As far as the Americans and other consumers are concerned, whether it is Iran or the Saudis in control, the oil will flow.
The Reality of the Moment
The United States does not want Iran to dominate the Arabian Peninsula’s oil, and it will act within its means and interest to prevent it. But the U.S. means and interest aren’t what they were in 1990.
The kingdoms of Earth are still driven by oil (wind power notwithstanding), but the world is not short of oil right now. Britain imposed its power to control Middle Eastern oil, the United States inherited that power, and now that power is out of balance with the need. The global industrial base simply does not rely on Arabian oil fields anymore.
It is in this context that the Americans and the Saudis meet. They are still friends, whatever that means in the context of global politics. They have common enemies. But for the Americans, the commitment to the Saudis is shaped by the reality of this moment, not the last. Containing Iran is important, but it cannot be something the U.S. does alone. It is in the interest of Sunni powers like Turkey to deal with matters like Iran, backed to some extent by the United States. But whatever the final communique of the meeting says, this is not 1990. Shifts in reality emerge at times of greatest stress and are the greatest surprise. They shouldn’t be.