x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Saudis decry anti-Arab tilt in US oil posturing

For everyone's comfort, the world's biggest consumer and biggest exporter of oil need to work out their differences.

Prince Turki Al Faisal has had enough. According to the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, the relentless promotion of "energy independence" by the administration of US President Barack Obama is an affront to his country. "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," Prince Turki writes in an article published last week in Foreign Policy magazine.

Political demands for the US to wean itself off imported oil are "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 [petrol] prices", he continues. By specifically criticising Mr Obama for saying foreign oil "bankrolls dictators, pays for nuclear proliferation and funds both sides of our struggle against terrorism", the Saudi prince has served notice that Riyadh is running out of patience with Washington's disrespectful attitude.

The row has been brewing at least since March, when the Saudi oil minister, Ali al Naimi, asked western energy consumers not to give up on oil. But this is the first time a Saudi royal has voiced the kingdom's discomfort with the wave of anti-Arab rhetoric emanating from the US. The spectacle of the first African-American US president promoting his energy policy on such rhetoric is ugly, but Mr Obama is not the only mainstream US politician to discriminate against "Arab oil". The views of his chief Republican party opponents are even harsher.

In post-September 11 America, this may simply be the energy policy rhetoric required of any presidential candidate serious about getting elected. But with the presidential race over, is it necessary or helpful to keep beating the anti-Arab drum? Mr Obama may now be trapped. His "energy independence" call to arms has been a rallying cry for tens of millions of Americans who want to revitalise their country's economy through a feel-good drive towards clean energy.

But drawing on a deep well of xenophobic prejudice to smooth the movement's path is a dangerous game, as the president is surely smart enough to realise. However, changing course is made difficult by the huge, continuing public backlash against anything Arab that September 11 unleashed in America. Why is a pejorative reference to Arab male head covering now more acceptable in US society than a term denigrating black Americans? Both are equally loathsome, or should be in a society that values human dignity. So where is the outcry against the president's overt hostility to Arab oil suppliers?

On this point, the silence has been deafening. One of the few Americans urging constructive engagement with Arab oil producers is Dr Edward Morse, the managing director of Louis Capital Markets. "The US-Saudi energy dialogue, which Washington has neglected for years, needs to be invigorated," he writes in Foreign Affairs. "Now that Saudi Arabia has a huge spare production capacity and thus the tools to advance Washington's economic and political goals, it should be easier to establish between the two governments better and higher-level communications about the oil market and the global political economy."

The prospect of more moderate growth in energy demand creates opportunities for the Obama administration "to make energy markets less volatile and strike arrangements with producing countries that will better serve the US long-term interests", Dr Morse argues. "But to do so, Washington will have to put as much vigour into developing an international energy strategy as it has devoted to its domestic environmental and energy programmes."

Dr Morse and Prince Turki agree that the near disappearance of spare Saudi production capacity drove up crude prices between 2003 and last year. According to the prince, Saudi Aramco's planners were among the many analysts worldwide who failed to anticipate a simultaneous collapse in output from Iran, Iraq, Nigeria and Venezuela: "Everyone expected them to be producing 18.4 million barrels per day (bpd) last year.

"Instead, due to civil strife, failed investment or in the case of Iraq, a US invasion, they were producing only 10.2 million bpd. That drove the price part of the way up. "Then speculators, in the form of hedge funds, did the rest." Falling oil demand and Aramco's completion this year of a huge oil capacity expansion programme have turned the situation around. The re-emergence of Saudi spare capacity should now be "the most critical element" in keeping crude prices low for at least the next three years, Dr Morse predicts. "Riyadh's ability to increase production is the key to its being taken seriously," he argues. As for the US, it has vast untapped fossil fuel resources that could yet eliminate its need for imported oil.

They include the world's biggest coal reserves, huge gas deposits and a 2.1 trillion-barrel oil shale resource. But due to high costs, environmental concerns and local objections to development, the oil shales are nearly untouched, while domestic coal-to-liquids and gas-to-liquids projects are not on the national agenda. Instead, the US finds it cheaper and more expedient to continue importing crude from offshore suppliers, including Saudi Arabia. Wind parks and solar projects will not change that.

For everyone's comfort, the world's biggest consumer and biggest exporter of oil need to work out their differences. @Email:tcarlisle@thenational.ae