A silver-tongued Saudi muddies some compelling ideas about oil policy by trying to suggest Saudi isn’t a dictatorship. He started out strong. Writing in Foreign Policy, Saudi’s influential former ambassador to the U.S. calls energy independence a bunch of bull:
“Energy independence” has become a byword on the American political scene, and invoking it is now as essential as baby-kissing. All the recent U.S. presidential candidates employed it, and to this day, the White House Web site lists as a guiding principle the need to “curb our dependence on fossil fuels and make America energy independent”. . . But this “energy independence” motto is political posturing at its worst — a concept that is unrealistic, misguided, and ultimately harmful to energy-producing and -consuming countries alike. And it is often deployed as little more than code for arguing that the United States has a dangerous reliance on my country of Saudi Arabia, which gets blamed for everything from global terrorism to high gasoline prices.
It’s interesting to suggest talk of engery independence is a kind of hollow posturing. Better than demonizing Saudi and oil, Obama should — as the Prince suggests — give a more nuanced picture of the realities of both the world energy situation and the U.S. relationship with Saudi. But where al-Faisal goes a bit overboard is how little he accounts for the real reasons Saudi has such a complicated image abroad.
In one of his very first speeches as U.S. president, for instance, Barack Obama declared that “America’s dependence on oil is one of the most serious threats that our nation has faced.” He said that it “bankrolls dictators, pays for nuclear proliferation, and funds both sides of our struggle against terrorism,” and announced what he called “the first steps on our journey toward energy independence.”
The thing is, it can and is argued that oil does bankroll dictators. For all of Turki’s good points about oil policy — his calling for energy interdependence, for example — he seems to whiff on a central point. The Saudi government runs what many analysts say is indeed a police state — a benevolent one, mostly, and one that finds its citizens living more comfortable lives than those in, say, Egypt — but still a place where the state looms large, where freedom of expression is curtailed, and in which democracy is a fragile new flower. And no number of sharp editorials in fancy magazines will change the gritty reality on the ground in Riyadh — or, I bet, in America, where the most salient shorthand for Saudis remains the fact that fifteen of them made up the nineteen 9/11 hijackers.
It’ll take as much work to rehab the Saudi image in the U.S. as it will for Americans to move beyond oil. And by then, America may not have as good a reason to care about a post-oil Saudi — and comments from officials like Prince Turki probably won’t carry as much weight. We all lose as a result.