Pressure is mounting on the U.S. government to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the death of American-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Our complicated relationship with the kingdom, held together for decades by oil and arms, narrows our palette of options.
Saudi officials have acknowledged that Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who had been critical of the Saudi government, was killed with “premeditated intention” inside the Saudi consulate in Islamabad, Turkey, on Oct. 2.
Will it matter? The United States is so dependent on Saudi oil and investments that it’s hampered in reining in its strategic ally for any transgression, past or present.
About one-fifth of U.S. arms sales go to Saudi Arabia. President Trump has cited those deals and the related American jobs as justification for leaning against imposing economic sanctions.
Geopolitical concerns present a powerful incentive for the U.S. to maintain ties with Saudi Arabia and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But the real glue that binds this friendship is oil: In August the U.S. imported 1,005,000 barrels a day from the Saudis, 12.6 percent of our imports. That’s down from a high of 2.24 million barrels a day in May 2003 (22 percent of all imports). We bring in a lot less oil from the Saudis than we used to. But we’re still beholden to the Saudis. They control OPEC, which in turn controls the global price of oil.
And contrary to common beliefs, the U.S. “fracking revolution” hasn’t reduced our dependence on foreign oil. The fact that the U.S. is pumping more than ever — 11.2 million barrels a day in July — has given many Americans the false impression that we’re energy self-sufficient. In fact, we still need to import 40 percent of the 20 million barrels a day we use.
"Some analysts have floated the idea of oil prices getting as high as $200 or even $400/bbl in the event of a disruption in Saudi’s petroleum output. That may seem preposterous, but keep in mind that during the 1973 oil embargo, oil prices quadrupled in about six months. Prices like that would quickly push the global economy into recession, as it helped do in 1973. That is the power Saudi Arabia holds."
This is why the Saudis caused immediate alarm when, on Oct. 14, as lawmakers from both parties in Washington talked openly of punishing Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom announced that if it receives any action, it will respond with greater action.”
As Bloomberg noted: “For 45 years, it’s been considered out of bounds for Saudi Arabia. But all of a sudden, Riyadh made what many read as a veiled threat to use the kingdom’s oil wealth as a political weapon — something unheard of since the 1973 Arab embargo that triggered the first oil crisis.”
The Saudis quickly backtracked, but unease over the threat has lingered.
Trump is only the most recent president to ask for Saudi help in keeping those oil prices low, belying our “independence.” There’s also a long tradition of overlooking Saudi atrocities. Business Insider compiled an excellent overview. Among them:
- Bombed (with a U.S.-made missile) a school bus in Yemen, killing 51 people, including 40 children, an attack the Saudi government later said was a mistake. During the brutal war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, other mass casualty events include the bombing of a market and a funeral hall.
- Detained the prime minister of Lebanon, Saad al-Hariri, last year. Bin Salman made light of the still-mysterious episode this week.
- Clamped further down on criticism and free speech, as well as rounded up dissidents and other opponents of the government.
The U.S. has stood by while all this has happened, our hands tied because of our desperate need for oil.
Will Khashoggi’s death, and the shifting responses to it, be the event that ruptures this co-dependent relationship? Regardless of your position on human rights and what you think of America’s position in the world, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia need each other. So they have a high tolerance of each other’s transgressions.
This uneasy arrangement will continue as long as the oil monopoly reigns. Imagine if we didn’t need Saudi oil at all. We’d have a foreign policy that truly reflects our national priorities and values.
The only way to end our dependence on oil — from Saudi Arabia and other petrostates, inside and outside OPEC — is to diversify the transportation fuels market with domestically produced alternatives If we get to a place where alternative fuels compete with petroleum at the pump, no nation will be able to hold anything over us. Only then will we truly be energy independent.
Landon Hall writes for the Fuel Freedom Foundation.