Saudi Arabia – The Strategy, The Kingdom, and You
Above: Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, now the King of Saudi Arabia, meets with U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Royal Court in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, June 2, 2014. (DOD photo)
We live in the best of times and yet, the worst of times. The world as we know it was created by an energy revolution at the dawn of the 20th Century. That energy revolution, no matter how much some people wish otherwise, came from harnessing the energy of petroleum. Oil rules our world and will likely rule the world for several more generations. Before oil, merely four generations ago, we relied on horsepower. Now we have wondrous technologies that would have looked like magic to our ancestors, thanks largely to the oil energy revolution that fueled the development of technology and the industrialization of the world. To leverage this energy we have embraced a global market and garnered unprecedented wealth. To maintain this wealth, the world economy, and our status as a superpower, we need a source of cheap and easily accessible energy.
So what does all this mean to you? Wars and rumors of wars, terrorism and beheadings, and a myriad of other dangers splash across news screens every day. In particular, dangerous forces are at work in the Middle East that could dramatically disrupt the strategic calculus of our world. With events moving rapidly overseas, in places like Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and Somalia, it is time to break away from our pleasant distractions and focus for a moment on the hard truths about America’s strategy, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and what this means to you.
America has been at war since February 26, 1993, when a truck bomb exploded in the parking garage of the World Trade Center in New York City. In that attack, six people were killed and 1,042 injured. The US did not consider this an act of war, but our enemy, the forces of al Qaeda, considered it the opening salvo. September 11, 2001, was another attack in that war. This time al Qaeda’s attack got America’s attention. Our reaction was to go to war in Afghanistan to deny the enemy safe haven and then Iraq, to try to change the calculus of the Middle East.
Our strategy from 2001 to 2008 was to preempt our enemies wherever they were and with any means necessary and to deploy US troops in large numbers to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. We succeeded in denying al Qaeda and their Taliban allies Afghanistan early in the war. Our attack into Iraq, however, changed the calculus of the Middle East in unexpected ways. The Arab Spring was as much the result of the inspiration of free elections in Iraq as it was other factors. Our ill-conceived and precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, however, created the incubator for ISIS, a murderous offshoot of al Qaeda. Tiring of war, we diminished our presence in Afghanistan and turned over combat operations to our less-capable Afghan allies.
In 2009, the Obama administration changed American war strategy from preemption and counterinsurgency to counterterrorism. This counterterrorism strategy brought most of the troops home and primarily uses intelligence assets, local allies, fewer troops and armed MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), to degrade enemy capabilities (read: kill their leaders). In addition, the regional threat from Iran to the Middle East, and the development of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, has been relegated to the realm of negotiations (read: please, Iran, play nice and make a deal).
Although there have been some spectacular targeted strikes against senior al Qaeda leaders over the past six years, including the killing of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, the counterterrorism strategy has failed to destroy al Qaeda. In fact, al Qaeda has morphed into several more powerful and more dangerous organizations—ISIS, AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and the Khorasan Group, and others like Boko Haram in North Africa. Today we face more enemies who control more cities and huge areas of territory. ISIS, for instance, controls about 1/3 of Iraq, including large urban areas like the city of Mosul with a population of half a million inhabitants, and portions of Syria. All this is making ISIS very bold. In other battle areas, like Yemen, our counterterrorism strategy involving the use of armed drones has alienated the population. A week ago, the government of Yemen was a critical partner in our effort against AQAP. Today, the government of Yemen has fallen to a Yemeni Shia insurgent group, the Houthis, who favor Iran. Now the people are shouting “death to America” in the streets of Yemen’s capital and the new government of Yemen looks to Iran for direction.
America’s counterterrorism strategy in the Middle East is being waged in the midst of a Muslim religious civil war. This civil war is complex, to say the least. It is a war that pits Sunni al Qaeda and Sunni ISIS against Sunni Saudi Arabia; Sunni Saudi Arabia supporting Iraqi Sunni against Iraqi Shia and Iranian Shia; Sunni Saudi Arabia against Ba’athist Shia Alawi in Syria; and Sunni Saudi Arabia against Zaidi Shia Houthis in Yemen; all for supremacy of the “correct version of the faith” and, ultimately, the control of the vast oil reservoirs of Middle East. Americans may be tired of war, but it seems war is not tired of us, as ISIS, al Qaeda, Iran, Russia and others are using force against America’s allies and interests.
The Kings of Saudi Arabia are from a line of Sunni Muslim rulers known as the House of Saud. The House of Saud was founded in 1744 by Muhammad bin Saud and now has over 15,000 family members. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia died on January 23, 2015, and was succeeded by Abdullah’s half-brother, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The new King, Salman, was Minister of Defense since 2011, and Governor of Riyadh Province from 1963 to 2011. As king, Salman is the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Mecca and Medina, which are holy for both Sunni and Shia Muslims. None of this would matter to most Americans, except that the House of Saud sits on the greatest conventional oil reserves in the world. If the Saudi Arabian oil fields (estimated conservatively at 297 billion barrels of oil) were to produce at current capacity (roughly from 9.7 to 13 million barrels per day), they could pump oil and natural gas at current rates for another 63 years. This math involves only the easily accessible oil of known reserves, so there is much more oil in the bottom of the Saudi oil fields.
So why is the House of Saud maintaining a level of oil production that is resulting in less than $50 per barrel of oil? Aren’t they losing money? Of course they are, but they are using their oil as a geopolitical weapon to disrupt their enemies in order to ensure the House of Saud’s survival. Who are the enemies of the House of Saud? Enemy Number One is al Qaeda. Al Qaeda’s sworn goal is to conquer and rule Saudi Arabia. Enemy Number Two is Iran, because Iran consists mostly of Shia Muslims and the Saudis are Sunni Muslims. The two don’t mix well. Enemy Number Three is Russia, the power that supports the Syrians (The House of Saud hates Bashar al Assad, the ruler of Syria) and the Iranians. Lower oil prices hurt Iran, Russia and ISIS (which has been selling oil on the black market), with the added benefit of affecting the new US oil competition by impeding the growing US shale oil boom. US oil fracing requires oil prices of $70 and higher to be cost effective.
The Saudis, therefore, will keep pumping oil at a high enough rate to keep the price lower than $60 a barrel for as long as it takes to meet their security goals. These prices will squeeze Iran and Russia and make the US more compliant. Since the House of Saud knows that it cannot defend itself without a protector, the Saudis seek to outsource their defense to guarantee their survival. They don’t want the US to be energy independent, even if most of the oil from Saudi Arabia goes to countries other than the US. If we were completely energy independent, or if we had the capacity to supply energy to the global economy, the Saudis would have to defend themselves and insure the flow of their oil to global market.
This is beyond the capacity of The Kingdom that has a relatively small population of 28.8 million people, but with only 4 million aged 15-49 available for military service. Iran, in comparison, has 77.4 million people, with an estimated 39 million aged 15-49 available for military service, nearly a 9-to-1 advantage for Iran. To add to the Saudi’s worries, ISIS is now controlling large tracts of territory and populations on their border. On January 5, 2015, General Oudah al-Belawi, commander of border operations in Saudi Arabia’s northern zone, was killed in a daring and well-planned ISIS attack. With the added jitters of the death of their old king and the transition of King Salman, the Saudis are nervous and look to the US for protection, hoping that the current administration has the courage to commit to the House of Saud’s defense in a dire emergency. In return for security, we need the Saudis to be a friend and ally of the USA, and most importantly, to continue to pump oil at a measured pace to maintain the international order, the price of the US dollar, and the stability of world markets. For these reasons, the United States guarantees the House of Saud’s survival. If ISIS or Iran were to threaten the survival of the House of Saud, American would have no choice but to intervene decisively.
What does this mean to you? The United States of America is at a tipping point, as we have been at many times before. How we tip will be up to our leaders. In 1944 the free nations of the world tipped in favor of the US and decided that the US dollar would replace the British pound sterling as the world’s reserve currency. The reserve currency plays a critical role in world finance as the currency used for most international transactions and provides a safe haven in times of economic trouble. Our dollar was based on gold in 1944 and, with the US owning most of the world’s gold (the US still owns 71% of the known gold reserves in the world), individuals and nations trusted the gold-backed dollar. In 1971, the gold standard was no longer working in our favor, so President Richard Nixon moved the US dollar to a new standard that is theoretically based on the “trust and confidence of the American economy,” but in reality is based on oil. This new dollar, often called the petrodollar, was the result of a deal that President Nixon negotiated with the House of Saud that guaranteed their protection if the Saudis would denominate all future oil sales in US dollars. Every president since Nixon has sworn to defend the House of Saud as long as they support the US dollar.
Being the reserve currency holder has its benefits as it accrues billions of dollars to the US each year and is one of the reasons for America’s spectacular wealth, but it also a burden for we are expected to police the world order. This is one of the reasons the US has the most powerful military and the largest navy in the world. As the holder of the reserve currency we are expected to be the guardian of the free flow of oil and commerce around the world. When we don’t, the US dollar’s role as the reserve currency comes into question. Russia, for one, is leading the charge to dethrone the US dollar from reserve currency status, in order to gain more profit and greater power for Russia, and is making most of its oil and gas trades without US dollars, but this will have only a marginal effect as long as the House of Saud, the largest energy producer, continues to denominate oil sales in dollars. If our ties with House of Saud unravel, due to our lack of foresight or inaction, there will be a major shift in world power and most likely, a period of unprecedented chaos.
A recently retired military officer with many years of service in the region, who asked that his name not be mentioned, put it this way: “The US relationship with the House of Saud is akin to ‘dancing with the devil.’ We need them and they need us—and that balance maintains the current world order. The day the Saudis don’t need us or are deposed by the likes of ISIS will be a very bad day indeed. Not only will the oil not flow but the devil will open the gates of hell and his minions will devote their lives to our destruction, but now funded by Saudi oil.”
It has been said that politicians care about the next election, but leaders care about the next generation. Our politicians are now so myopic that they only care about the next news cycle. If the recent State of the Union is taken as an example, the politicians managing the United States are not telling the full story to the American people. America’s boundless blessings impart an enduring burden. To meet these burdens we need new leaders who have foresight and are not consistently surprised by world events. We need a new look at our strategy and how we wage war. For all the talk of a “whole government strategy,” the US military seems to carry the burden alone. Most importantly, if the American Republic is to endure for more generations to come, it is critical that the citizens of the nation understand the issues, know what is at stake and demand from their representatives that we do what is necessary to defend our nation.
By John Antal © American-Leadership January 26, 2015
About the Author
Colonel John Antal, US Army (Ret.) is a Soldier, correspondent, book author, historian, leadership expert and life-long student of the art of war. He served 30 years in the US Army, commanding at all levels from platoon to regiment and held senior level staff positions in the US and overseas – including two years in the Pentagon as the Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
His latest book, 7 Leadership Lessons of the American Revolution, The Founding Fathers, Liberty and the Struggle for Independence, can be found on Amazon.com. For more information or to contact the author go to: www.american-leadership.com/