In February 1945, King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia guaranteed President Franklin D. Roosevelt access to his country’s oil in return for American security. Accordingly, every succeeding U.S. administration has honored this agreement.
Increased domestic turmoil, however, may dramatically change or even end this historic relationship. Many Americans fail to recognize that below the extravagant persona of the royal family, the world’s largest oil producer is experiencing a tectonic shift in its economic, social and political stability. As a result, Saudi Arabia is becoming an unreliable source of oil importation, posing a direct threat to America’s economy and defense.
The Saudi nomenclatura is largely disconnected from the general population. Despite a pluralized society, Saudi Arabia has suppressed political and religious dissent and restricted human rights. As an autocratic monarchy, the ruling family and religious leaders have made internal security a key issue.
Oil revenues allow the government to remain financially independent from its citizens and enable greater control over the people through payoffs and subsidies.
Although the country continues to modernize, Westernization is limited and strictly controlled. As a result, discord ranges from peaceful protest to acts of terror. The economic conditions of the country also add to the growing social discontent.
The Saudi government has projected a fiscal deficit as a result of the low price of oil. The country faces high unemployment among young adults and shrinking educational resources and standards of living.
Although oil accounts for 75 percent of budget revenues and 45 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, many Saudis believe the country’s wealth is not benefiting the general population.
The sub-rosa presence of al Qaeda represents an additional threat to the supply of oil. Osama bin Laden has repeatedly called for an uprising in his home country against both the regime and foreign-owned corporations. Since 2002, al Qaeda has launched several attacks on Saudi oil installations, while Saudi forces have arrested over 1,000 suspected terrorists.
After the recent suicide attack on the deputy interior minister, the government expressed greater concern over future al Qaeda-related incidents arising from Yemen. Moreover, the arrival of Saudi insurgents from Iraq may bring increased violence against Saudi infrastructures.
These experienced fighters ostensibly make up between 40 percent and 45 percent of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, with some holding leadership positions in al Qaeda. Paradoxically, many of these insurgents are funded by elements of the very state they seek to destroy.
Regardless of how a disruption of Saudi oil occurs, the economic impact on the United States is clear. Much like the oil crisis of the 1970s, which cost the United States more than $2 trillion, it is estimated that a disruption today could amount to more than $8 trillion. In 2008, the United States consumed nearly 13 million barrels of oil and oil-related products per day, or more than twice the amount imported in the early 1970s.
That same year, Saudi Arabia was America’s second largest foreign supplier, accounting for more than 11 percent of total imports.
In 1973, 1979 and 1990, the United States entered a recession following oil spikes incited by political conflicts in the Middle East. These crises have shown us that a disruption to only 5 percent of our total oil consumption is enough to throw our country into economic turmoil.
The costs associated with a disruption of Saudi oil are not merely economic. The Defense Department is one of our nation’s largest consumers of oil. In 2008, the U.S. military used about 350,000 barrels of petroleum daily for its worldwide operations, while increasing fuel spending by more than $10 billion, or roughly 200 percent, since 2003.
The United States will not be able to sustain its overseas presence at the current pace, nor effectively defend our homeland after a substantial disruption to our oil supply.
Addressing the Saudi predicament, an energy expert with the National Defense Council Foundation wrote that “the question is not whether we will experience a supply disruption, but rather when.”
In order to protect U.S. interests, our country must redesign its foreign policy to subtly engage the kingdom’s socioeconomic, political and security issues for improvement.
While the United States cannot force liberty and democracy on Saudi Arabia, we can lead by example. More important, we must act aggressively to achieve greater energy independence. Immediate steps to drill offshore and on federally owned land is critical, as we rapidly segue to alternate energy sources.
The wars of tomorrow will be fought over resources. Until we attain this independence, our country and security remain at risk.
F. Andy Messing is the senior board member at the National Defense Council Foundation (NDCF), a retired Special Forces major who has been to 27 conflict areas. Jonathan Scafide is a research assistant at NDCF who has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East.