Whether in daily life or global politics we pick and choose our friends for complicated reasons. But few among us would keep a friend in our own lives with the personality flaws of Saudi Arabia.
For years western leaders have turned a blind eye to the worst excesses of this brutal dictatorship for fear that it might cut off the taps that provide the lifeblood to our economy. But after a decade of high oil prices has demonstrated that the world can get by without Saudi oil has the time come to stop excusing the inexcusable?
Last week, the price of oil plunged below $37 a barrel, its lowest price since 2009. The causes of this steep decline are complex, but really it boils down to too much supply. With Iran about to “rejoin the world community” and further flood the market with oil after years of pariah status there is some speculation that things will only get worse.
And Saudi Arabia isn’t helping the situation. Our “friend” in the Persian Gulf refuses to cut production to offset the supply glut and stabilize prices. It is no secret that this has been a deliberate strategy to stamp out competition and hurt its western “friends” in the process.
Despite increases in production in various places over time Saudi Arabia is still one of the world’s largest producer of oil and gas. Saudi Arabia also has a distinct advantage in the oil producing game. Unlike elsewhere, where extracting the fuels from the ground is expensive and energy intensive, Saudi oil is easy to access. A barrel of U.S. shale oil costs about $70-$77 a barrel to produce, while it only costs the Saudis about $10-$17 to pull a barrel out of the ground. As a result, Saudi Arabia is able to stay profitable at a much lower level than places like the United States or Canada. So while falling prices have visited significant economic damage on oil producers here in the West, the Saudis are still rolling in the dough.
It also creates an incentive for the Saudis to keep oil prices low to kibosh the development of new reserves, which take time to develop – which ultimately is what it is up to. Some friend.
And it is no secret that Saudi Arabia has a brutal human rights record. For many years our relationship with Saudi Arabia has been a black eye for western liberal democracies. We publicly rebuke countries big and small for their abuses while turning a blind eye to those of our “friend.” Military interventions – including the current campaign against ISIS – are often justified, in part, on the basis of poor human rights records.
Yet Saudi Arabia is seen as a friend. This despite the fact that this is a country that uses lashes, floggings and beheadings as forms of punishment. And not just for serious crimes like rape and murder, but lesser offences like drug crimes and in some cases even for thought “crimes” like blasphemy and apostasy. Dissent is not tolerated and democratic participation is minimal at best. Freedom House, in its annual ranking of countries’ human rights records, grouped Saudi Arabia among the “worst of the worst” with such human rights winners as North Korea and Syria.
Now, when the battle with ISIS is raging, the stench of hypocrisy is particularly rancid. The contrast was especially stunning with our last prime minister who called Saudi Arabia “an ally in the fight against the Islamic State” while defending a deal to sell military armaments to the Gulf state. When public outrage towards ISIS’s brutality plays such an important role in driving public support for yet another round of military action in the Middle East, such pronouncements reek of double standards and self-interest.
There was certainly a time when cozying up with this repugnant regime was at least understandable as a cold, rational political and economic consideration. But why does that continue to this day? There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia still has considerably clout in global affairs. But if the last 10 years have shown anything it is that we don’t need them like we once did. Those years have shown that our economies can withstand high oil prices and even thrive in oil producing regions.
Human rights and economics will always be uncomfortable bedfellows in the complex realm of global politics. If we only dealt with those countries that are squeaky clean it would be a lonely world. None are perfect, including ourselves. But I’ve never subscribed to the view that a country that lashes and beheads people is in the same realm as those seen in liberal democracies. This isn’t to minimize our own failings, but simply to recognize the various shades of grey. We don’t lose our right to criticize the “worst of the worst” offenders simply because we aren’t perfect ourselves.
Frankly the time has come to say enough is enough, and give the Saudis the option of either cleaning up their act or being cut off economically from the western world. We can live without their oil. Sure, they will be able to continue selling it to countries which are indifferent to the cause of human rights. But at least we could hold our heads a little higher by bringing some semblance of coherence to our approach to the world.
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.