Saudi Arabia, If Oil Becomes A Curse

Domestic oil consumption is steadily increasing in Saudi Arabia
Domestic oil consumption is steadily increasing in Saudi Arabia
Laurent Horvath


The unlikely rapprochement between the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia, orchestrated by Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, seems to be a response to the rise of the Iran-Russia coalition. In this game of chess, the American decision to choose Jerusalem as the Israeli capital offers an interesting opening.

This face-off between the four oil-giants that are the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran comes as the probable rise in crude oil prices promises to inject yet higher stakes in this power struggle.

When the price of crude oil tops $60, ambitions become inflated on all sides. The Trump administration's oil bigwigs dream of energy dominance thanks to its (ephemeral) shale production. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin is expected to generate enough cash to finance his strategy, and the massive influx of petrodollars is adding to Iran's weight in the Middle East.

In this game, Saudi Arabia is the only player showing signs of weakness.

Since King Salman promoted his 35-year-old son Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud (MBS) to the helm of the country, the fundamentals of the world's biggest oil exporter have been shaking. The kingdom's wealth depends entirely on a raw material that is bound to eventually run out. And since bad news always come in threes, domestic oil consumption is steadily increasing and the country's net exports are declining.

An oil drilling rig in the 1970s — Photo: Urbain J. Kinet

The members of the royal family are more grasshopper than ant, preferring to export and store their wealth abroad. What's more, much of the national budget is spent on arms purchases for wars abroad, including in Yemen and Iraq. And it's interesting to note that though the Royal family supports Sunni Islam, the populations living near the oil fields are Shia Muslims.

About 70% of the Saudi population is under the age of 30, meaning that the pressure to expand social freedoms and to create jobs in innovative sectors is increasing. With his Saudi Vision 2030 agenda, MBS has shown he is well aware of these issues and the challenges lying ahead. For months now, we've seen him frantically trying to find the $2 trillion necessary to free his country from black gold and attract other kinds of businesses.

As surprising as it may seem, it all looks as if oil, not just peak oil, had become a curse for Saudi Arabia.

Global warming, however, is jamming the machine. Increasingly unsustainable temperatures, as well as drought, are making the region unbearable to live in. In this context, the big question is: How long will it be until oil is no longer enough to activate the air conditioning and desalination systems?

A nasty habit of backfiring

So far, the young Prince's decisions have had a nasty habit of backfiring. As Defense Minister, he chose to intervene in the Yemen civil war. The Saudi air force did not go in for the subtleties. Several thousand civilians have been killed, raising the prospect of "war crimes' prosecution. In November, as it tried to harden its stance, Saudi Arabia decided to block the ports, pushing 7 million Yemenis toward risk of starvation. When the Houthi rebels threatened to attack oil tankers, Riyadh immediately reconsidered its decision. Since then, a Yemeni missile was fired at Riyadh Airport, but it could just as well have been an oil refinery.

From the onset of the war in Syria, Saudi Arabia has supported the various Sunni militias. When MBS arrived in power in 2015, the young Prince decided to increase his support against Syrian President Assad. But the involvement and success of the Russian army, together with the help of Iran and Hezbollah, derailed those plans.

The prince's most incomprehensible maneuver came in the wake of Donald Trump's visit in May 2017. Along with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, Riyadh made the surprise announcement of a major blockade of Qatar. To this day, no one involved knows how to get out of this quagmire.

There was also the sidelining of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri forced to announce his resignation in front of the cameras of Saudi TV network Al Arabiya. Once he was out of Saudi Arabia and backed by French President Emmanuel Macron, Hariri quickly returned to the helm of his country.

Furthermore, Mohammad bin Salman has ordered an internal purge, arresting hundreds of princes, members of the government, dignitaries, under the pretext of corruption. More than $800 billion worth of private wealth were confiscated. Could this prompt the affected parties to try to overthrow the Prince? That's a question most don't even want to ask.

It is disturbing when we see the four oil powers playing cat and mouse. Because we rely on their oil to fuel our economies, we cannot contemplate the prospect of one of these giants imploding. Instead, such troubles should encourage us to begin our emancipation from gas and oil. It would be a pleasant irony if the fires lit in the Middle East could eventually free us from their chains.

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]


Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos


• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.


"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.


$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.


What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️


"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."


An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!

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