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The geopolitics of fracking

US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal on a recent visit to the Middle East. EPA/STR

When US Secretary of State John Kerry made his most recent visit to the Middle East, he made a special point of visiting Saudi Arabia to reassure the kingdom’s ageing rulers that the US still sees them as a major partner and pivotal regional power.

One can understand why the Saudis might be feeling a bit neglected and anxious. America’s failure to become directly involved in the conflict in Syria, and the even more alarming prospect that the Obama administration might be contemplating some sort of rapprochement with the Saudis’ arch enemies in Iran, are deeply unsettlingly developments for one of the region’s most enduring but authoritarian regimes.

Saudi paranoia may be understandable enough, but why does the US go out of its way to cultivate close ties with a regime which has been closely associated with the export of a particularly radical form of Wahhabism that is fundamentally at odds with everything the US stands for? More importantly, will it continue to do so?

If ever there was a marriage of convenience, this is it. The Saudis have relied on American arms and political support, while the US has had access to reliable supplies of energy from a region that is notoriously volatile and invariably hostile to American interests. An unambiguously crude calculus underpinned an unlikely alliance between the leader of the free world and an Islamic absolute monarchy with medieval values and political structures.

Of course, money helps, too. America’s infinitely more open political system may have its strengths and attractions, but it is notoriously open to the influence of well-funded lobbyists. As Kevin Phillips has detailed, the Bush dynasty’s background in the oil industry made them particularly alert to the geopolitics of energy, and especially cognisant of the value of cultivating Middle Eastern allies.

Kevin Phillips.

It is not necessary to be a conspiracy theorist to recognise that America’s disastrous incursion into Iraq was at least partly about oil. Even Jimmy Carter threatened to use America’s military might to defend what were seen as vital strategic interests in the Persian Gulf. In short, the geopolitics of energy has been a pivotal influence on American policy and caused its leaders to compromise their rhetorical principles at times.

Jimmy Carter.

Only a couple of years ago it seemed inevitable that an energy crisis was imminent and the geopolitics of oil were likely to continue determining the shape of American foreign policy and underpinning the political importance of some of Middle East’s less attractive regimes. Peak oil, we were assured, was upon us, and cultivating close ties with the likes of Saudi Arabia would remain an inescapable, if unpalatable, political reality. All this may be about to change, however.

Relief has come from a surprising and totally unexpected source. For all the so-called fracking revolution’s undoubted environmental problems, it has one great redeeming feature as far as the American government is concerned: it promises to make the US energy independent. It may also transform many of our most enduring assumptions about the international order in the process.

The ability to extract shale gas via new techniques pioneered by the US’s still dynamic private sector has the potential to completely transform America’s geopolitical position. The domestic economy is not only receiving a much-needed boost from the sudden availability of cheap energy, but it is also making the entire country less dependent on external energy supplies as it transitions from oil to gas.

The impact on Saudi Arabia is likely to be twofold. First, the price of oil could decline—possibly significantly—as more countries jump on the fracking bandwagon, so to speak. Second, and even more consequentially, the US will be freed from the necessity of assiduously keeping the Saudis on-side - should it suit it not to do so. The possible implications of this are already beginning to manifest themselves.

Saudi Arabia’s decision not to take up its place on the UN Security Council becomes more understandable when seen in the context of these remarkable geopolitical and geophysical changes. The Saudis may be expressing their frustration about the “international community’s” failure to intervene in Syria on the side of the rebels, but it is also clear that their influence with the US has diminished of late.

Some may celebrate the fact that the US may be in a position to free itself from a relationship with one of the world’s most illiberal regimes; one with which it has little in common other than the most cynical realpolitik. But it is worth considering the larger lessons this story offers.

First, despite all the normatively inspired rhetoric, the foreign policy of even the most powerful states is shaped by implacable material constraints. High petrol prices cost jobs — sometimes even presidential ones, as Carter discovered to his cost. Second, technological fixes do occasionally turn up in the most unlikely of circumstances, but you wouldn’t want to bank on them or predict their impact.

Finally, if the natural environment can exert such a decisive influence on foreign policy in the energy arena, how much more consequential might it be if it determines where people can live and basics like food security? Expect to see even more unlikely alliances and geopolitical manoeuvring when climate change really starts to kick in.

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