The apparent brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey by the Saudi Arabian regime and the equally brazen attempted murder of Sergei Skripal in England should serve as wake-up calls for European energy policymakers, writes Karel Beckman, editor-in-chief of Energy Post. These misdeeds demonstrate the aggressive nature of the Saudi and Russia regimes and underline the necessity for Europe to reduce its reliance on oil and gas much more rapidly than it is doing now.
The apparent brutal killing of respected journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi security forces in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has plunged relations between the west and Saudi Arabia into a deep crisis. Western politicians, businessmen and media have finally woken up to the real nature of the Saudi regime, which is deeply repressive and disrespectful of human rights.
The Financial Times, CNBC, CNN and Bloomberg have withdrawn from a high-profile investment summit, the Future Investment Initiative (FII), scheduled for 23 October in Riyadh. The World Bank, Viacom, Uber, Google, Richard Branson and others have put their dealings with the Saudis on hold. Even Donald Trump, despite his eagerness to sell arms to the Saudis, has said they will face “severe punishment” if the government is behind the murder, although he later seems to have reversed himself.
Europe has it in its power to turn Russia’s oil and gas infrastructure into stranded assets by switching rapidly and massively to renewable energy and nuclear power
Let’s just say better late than never.
Of course the killing of Khashoggi is only the last in a long list of Saudi misdeeds, which include the imprisonment, torture and murder (including beheadings) of numerous civil rights activists and journalists, the subjugation of women, the mistreatment of foreign workers, religious intolerance, the decades-long financial support for extremist Islamic groups in Europe and elsewhere, and a brutal war in Yemen which has left tens of thousands of people dead and millions facing starvation.
As David Wearing, international relations specialist at Royal Holloway, sarcastically notes in The Independent: “Khashoggi may be better connected in Western political and media circles than the 130 Yemeni children that Save the Children estimate are dying every day from hunger and disease” as a result of Saudi actions.
“Khashoggi may be better connected in Western political and media circles than the 130 Yemeni children that Save the Children estimate are dying every day from hunger and disease”
He adds that “when the Saudi-led coalition dropped a 500lb bomb on a school bus a few weeks ago, killing 40 children aged between 6 and 11, the US and UK managed nothing more than a few words of concern, while the arms supplies – including technical and logistical support crucial to sustaining the bombing campaign – continued undisturbed.”
Indeed, the U.S. and Europe have cynically and shamelessly kept the Saudi autocracy in power by buying its oil, supplying it with weapons and encouraging business dealings and academic exchanges. Similarly, western academic institutions, media and companies have had no qualms doing business with the super-rich Saudis despite their atrocious human rights record.
Saudi Arabia, incidentally, has in recent years ratcheted up its lobbying efforts in Washington. As Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, writes in a recent article on the website Tomdispatch.com, the growth of Saudi lobbying operations has been “extraordinary…. In 2016, according to FARA records[FARA= Foreign Agents Registration Act], they reported spending just under $10 million on lobbying firms; in 2017, that number had nearly tripled to $27.3 million. And that’s just a baseline figure for a far larger operation to buy influence in Washington, since it doesn’t include considerable sums given to elite universities or think tanks like the Arab Gulf States Institute, the Middle East Institute, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (to mention just a few of them).”
More than a third of the Members of Congress, writes Freeman, “received a campaign contribution by firms representing Saudi interests. [The] flow of money is best exemplified by the 11 separate occasions we uncovered in which a firm reported contacting a congressional representative on behalf of Saudi clients on the same day someone at the same firm made a campaign contribution to the same senator or House member.”
The Skripal case has shown once and for all that Vladimir Putin’s words cannot be trusted
Could the Khashoggi case be the straw that will finally break the camel’s back? The murder of Khashoggi is shocking because it was done apparently with utter disregard for civilized public opinion. As such it is not an isolated incident. Political leaders seem to be lying about their crimes with ever more impunity, perhaps taking a cue from Donald Trump who has also shown complete indifference to the truth on many occasions. (If he can get away with it, why shouldn’t they?)
Russia is another example. Many people in the west (including myself) have long been prepared to treat the Putin regime with some understanding, since the Russians were arguably harshly dealt with after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
But the Skripal case has shown once and for all that Vladimir Putin’s words cannot be trusted. The ridiculous spectacle of the two Russian suspects (identified by the investigators of Bellingcat as an military doctor and a GRU colonel, both highly decorated) being interviewed on Russian television, claiming they were visiting Salisbury as tourists, was a slap in the face of all those who until that time had been prepared to take Putin’s words seriously.
For Europe these openly contemptuous actions of the Russian and Saudi regimes should be a cause for grave concern. In particular, they should have profound implications for European energy policy.
Russia and Saudi Arabia are of course major exporters of oil and gas – and Europe, unfortunately, is a large importer of oil and gas. In fact, there is no economic power in the world more reliant on oil and gas imports than Europe.
As shown in the BP Statistical Review of Energy 2018, Europe imported 516 million tons of crude oil in 2017, even more than China:
This is a quarter of global oil imports.
A lot of this oil came from Russia and a sizable amount from Saudi Arabia, as this graph from the BP Review shows:
With regard to gas the situation is even more alarming.
Europe accounts for over 40% of the world’s gas imports. Germany alone is one of the biggest gas importers in the world, together with China and Japan:
Saudi Arabia is not a gas exporter, but Russia of course is, and it is by far the largest supplier of Europe:
Europe, then, is in a highly vulnerable position on the energy market. The lesson for Europe should be clear enough: its extreme reliance on imports of oil and gas from nations such as Russia and Saudi Arabia provides another very good reason – in addition to carbon emissions – to reduce oil and gas consumption as quickly and as massively as possible.
Every solar panel and every wind turbine translates into lower oil and gas imports. So does every nuclear power station. Germany would not be in the position it is in today but for its ill-conceived nuclear phaseout. Similar planned phaseouts in countries like Belgium and Switzerland do not enhance Europe’s energy security in a low-carbon world.
What about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline? I have defended the right of Gazprom and its European partners to build this pipeline and I still do. It is a private venture that does not increase Europe’s dependence on Russian gas, but merely adds another transport route for Russian gas to Europe.
Nevertheless, that does not mean Europe should not diversify its gas imports, or better, reduce them altogether. The same applies to Russian oil.
Europe has it in its power to turn Russia’s oil and gas infrastructure into stranded assets by switching rapidly and massively to renewable energy and nuclear power. This is ultimately the most effective response we can give to Russian and Saudi aggressiveness.
The actions of the Russian and Saudi regimes cannot be viewed in isolation from their position as major oil and gas exporters. Oil and gas have been of great value to people everywhere, but they are also the pillars of a global geopolitical energy system that has allowed ruthless dictators and corrupt governments to amass tremendous wealth. In addition, they have corrupted U.S. and European governments, inducing them to support tyrants and wage wars to keep the energy flowing.
And that does not even count their climate and environmental costs.
The less oil and gas we will need in the future, the better.