By Jack Pearce
The spectacle of world leaders dropping all other business to trek to Riyadh to refresh ties to a royal family designated head of state may shock and clarify the mind. Isn't this a bit 18th Centuryish?
Well, yes, but we know why. Because that State, headed by that family, controls 1/10th of the world oil supply.
At the same time, however, Germany, not known for thoughtlessness, refused to send new armaments to the same State, saying conditions are too unstable to add armaments to it. We can't send a few more weapons to Saudi Arabia but must rush to entrust 1/10th of the world's oil supply to those family-named to lead it?
'Realists' will say we have to deal with whomever is holding the cards in any given State organization. We rarely get to pick the leaders around the world. Realists also may well remind us that the United States has clearly demonstrated that it has been unable effectively to reorganize the interior functioning, to its entire satisfaction, of Russia, Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Venezuela, and a host of other countries, though we certainly have tried (in varying degrees and by varying means).
So, given all this, if the Royals in Saudi Arabia have played a savvy hand in the international oil market, generally helpful to us, while thus far keeping the local peace – and, to give them their due, they have – why not continue to prop them up and help them along?
Also, from a long term realist perspective, if the entire international scene is a patchwork of national organizational schemes, which will presumably kind of sort themselves out over time, why get so worked up as to try risky repairs in a local system which, while antique and weird, is after all functioning?
A part of the answer to these challenging questions and thus far prevailing views is the world wide interest in stable oil supplies which brought national leaders flocking to Riyadh. Just how secure is reliance on one family's internal peace, and continued privilege? Another is that much of the money backing a particularly retrograde version of Islam, deeply opposed to modern ways of life and learning -- manifested in 'terrorism' in several continents -- comes from Saudi Arabia. The Royals rely on that form of Islam to support their regime. And the third reason is that means of replacing the Royals, other than primary reliance on armed force, without violence or harm, may be imagined.
The means which might be considered include a buyout, conditioned upon the Royals developing a planned and progressive development of representative forms of government, citizen education in a modern curriculum, and the employment of skilled public administrators. The Royal Trust fund would be internationally administered, and replenished by a modest but consistent annual share of oil revenues which would be protected by domestic peace in Saudi Arabia and international assistance in guarding the oil fields.
Of course, as I write this, I sense how implausible it currently seems. How about terraforming Mars instead? Having one of the best gigs in the world going, why would the Royals give up their apparently complete control of it? If an international buy-in were needed, how could a large group of nations agree on such an undertaking? How many settings in the deal and in the internal governance system have to be got right?
But there is something very important for everyone in this initially implausible scenario.
What the rapidly expanding extended family of Abdulaziz would gain is long term security, avoidance of strife within the family (a problem for the family in the 18th and 19th centuries, not to be excluded from view), continued protection from revolt inside Saudi Arabia and dangers outside Saudi Arabia, and an end to the liability of relying for support on an outdated and dangerous ideology. The family could, while still deeply rooted in their native land, fully join the modern world, with a strong and lasting entry card.
The world gets more stability in oil supply.
The citizens of the country would get more participation in their governance, and in the long term netter prospects for peace and prosperity, without the turmoil attendant to violent overthrow and possible failure of their State. They could evolve their own lifestyle, drawing on all the world for information.
This would all take time to evolve, of course. That is good, if not too extended. That time could be used to foster functioning, citizen-involved and citizen-trusted internal governance systems which would avoid the chaos we have seen elsewhere following the 'Arab Spring'.
If we are going to dream big, why not broaden the vision for the dangerous and conflict ridden Middle East in which the Saudis live? Let us suppose that the US and Europe make a cornerstone of our dealings with countries like Iran and Iraq a vision of what the three countries could become if dedicated to full participation in the current world scheme rather than regional one-upmanship.
If these three countries could share a vision of peaceful local and international trade, over-arching the local rivalries, they could acquire jointly a more influential role in OPEC (increasing total world oil production share by about 6-8%, into the >15% range), without putting oil consuming nations at a dangerous disadvantage, if the consuming countries continue to develop tight oil, gas, and renewable energy systems.
If this designated Big Three of the Middle East, in cooperation with Turkey, could develop nuclear energy without bombs, they could avoid unnecessary expenditures, and unnecessarily threatening each other. And if they eventually, hopefully sooner rather than later, develop their own renewable energy sources, leveraged off their fossil fuel revenues, they could promote their safety and prosperity in the next century as well as this one.
Also, such a concord would ease dealing with probably pressing water resource issues in the decades ahead.
What steps could be taken to foster these utopian visions?
First, simply start discussing them, as distinguished from dismissing them. The discussion might be facilitated by a website given to study of and reportage of Royal Transitions in the past and today, and to discussion of how such transitions might be managed. This could be established with modest, but necessarily continuing, funds. And there are a plethora of other forums in which discussion could proceed.
Much of the Saudi Royal Family must be expected to discourage such discussions, internationally and internally. Such discussions would be oriented to undercutting their current complete and continuing control of the country and the oil fields.
But this suggestion is not hostile to the continued welfare of the descendants of Abdulaziz. On the contrary, it provides an extraordinary, continuing, safe, and secure legacy to those descendants. It is designed to promote a safe and secure energy system in the world – good for everyone. And it would assist in lifting the horizons and life experience of the citizens of what we call Saudi Arabia. That also, in the 21st Century, would be a badge of honor for Abdulaziz.
Jack Pearce has served as Assistant Chief of United States Justice Department’s Antitrust Division's ‘Public Counsel and Legislative’ Section, Assistant General Counsel of Agency for International Development with responsibilities in Near East, South Asia sector, National Insititute of Public Affairs fellowship at Cornell, Deputy General Counsel, White House Office of Consumer Affairs, law practice relating to pro-competitive regulatory reform, and innovator of virtual office system for attorneys and others.