It’s like clockwork: When the race for the White House is on, the contestants will promise to make America self-sufficient in energy. Everyone understands this concept to mean less dependence on imported oil from the Middle East, though politicians do not always come out and say so. The implication is that if the US can break its supposed dependence, then it can disengage from (even forget about) a region that many Americans see as perennially volatile, if not hostile.
All claims to the contrary, the Persian Gulf monarchies have been deeply affected by the Arab revolutionary ferment of 2011-2012. Bahrain may be the only country to experience its own sustained upheaval, but the impact has also been felt elsewhere. Demands for a more participatory politics are on the rise, as are calls for the protection of rights and formations of various types of civic and political organization. Although these demands are not new, they are louder than before, including where the price of dissent is highest in Saudi Arabia, Oman and even the usually hushed United Arab Emirates. The resilience of a broad range of activists in denouncing autocracy and discomfiting autocrats is inspirational.
Every US president since Jimmy Carter has spoken earnestly of the need to wean America from “foreign oil,” which is often more bluntly called “Middle East oil.” After the September 11, 2001 attacks and the resulting spotlight on Saudi Arabia, the clamor grew, only to subside, and now has resurfaced with the deepening cold war between the West and Iran. As part of their posturing on Iran, today’s GOP presidential candidates trip over themselves to pledge more drilling and exploration in the good ol’ US of A.
With another interminable presidential campaign approaching, Americans grit their teeth as the aspirants to the White House take turns deploring the country’s dependence on foreign (particularly “Middle Eastern”) oil. It is a theme as old as disco and the pet rock — vapid and dull, yet forever capable of arousing popular scorn. On the one hand, every president since Jimmy Carter has set the goal of ridding the United States of this scourge, but to no avail, for American consumption of imported petroleum inexorably climbs. On the other hand, volatile gasoline prices, climate change and the specter of terrorism enhance the urgency of finding an alternative, if not to oil, then at least to oil of Middle Eastern provenance.
The abundance of oil in Saudi Arabia is staggering. With more than 250 billion barrels, the kingdom possesses one-fifth of the world’s oil reserves, affording it considerable influence
Between the summer of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, oil prices plummeted from a high of $147 per barrel to a low of $33. This extraordinary reversal of fortune announced the end of the second oil boom for the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — precipitated, of course, by the broader global financial crisis. How these oil-exporting countries will weather this dual economic challenge is a live question. From the time that the Gulf economies took off in 2003, there were growing worries that their rapid rise was a massive investment bubble built on high oil prices and cheap credit.
On February 26, 2007, the Iraqi cabinet passed and recommended for parliamentary approval a new law governing the country’s immense and largely untapped supplies of oil and natural gas. Grasping at straws for any sign of success in Iraq, the law’s international sponsors hailed a major accomplishment for Iraq’s fledgling government. White House spokesman Tony Snow celebrated the oil law’s passage toward Parliament, one of four “benchmarks” the Bush administration has set for the Iraqi government, as a “key linchpin” in Iraq’s recovery. Three months later the oil law is still awaiting parliamentary debate, its ultimate fate in doubt.
Oil is by its very nature a finite commodity. The question has always been not whether it would run out, but when it would. The doomsday scenarios that some predict –mass blackouts and the imminent demise of suburbia — may be far-fetched, but the era of “peak oil” is here.
From time to time, the boring economic data regurgitated by Jordan’s amply staffed ministries offers up a tantalizing mystery. In the Monthly Statistical Bulletin (May 2004) published by the Central Bank of Jordan, for example, one learns that Jordanian export of refined oil products increased 46 times over from 2002 to 2003 — a trend that continued well into 2004. This is certainly odd, since Jordan has no proven oil reserves.
The steady summertime creep of oil prices past $40 per barrel and over an unprecedented $45 surprised most oil analysts, including this one, who were expecting the price to drop after the US-led invasion of Iraq. But no one is likely to have been as stunned as the Bush administration policymakers, like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who glibly promised post-invasion prosperity for the country “floating on a sea of oil.”
Rep. Ralph Hall opened a set of Congressional hearings on July 8 with a dramatic flourish, denouncing "the deaths of thousands of Iraqis through malnutrition and lack of appropriate medical supplies." "We have a name for that in the United States," the Texas Republican told a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "It's called murder."
Americans who voted for “compassionate conservatism” in the November 2000 presidential election have been disappointed. George W. Bush has proven to be much more radical than his moderate campaign rhetoric implied. In the area of environmental policy, Bush’s moves to lift regulations on pollutants, promote the use of nuclear power and “clean coal” and encourage oil exploration off the coast of Florida and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have triggered opposition even on the right. Where Ronald Reagan sought to overturn the social policies of Franklin Roosevelt, George W. seems to seek an even wider reversal of the health and labor regulations instituted by Theodore Roosevelt.
Upon its installment in the White House, the second Bush administration was universally expected to be the loyal handmaiden of Big Oil. The US oil and gas industry lavished $1,387,975 upon the hastily assembled committee which planned the inaugural festivities for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. BP-Amoco contributed $100,000, and executives from Conoco, Chevron and Exxon Mobil ponied up the same amount. In all, Big Oil gave $26 million to Bush, Cheney and their fellow Republicans in the 2000 election campaign.