By William J. Furney
Oil, it turns out, is not just a killer for the environment, unleashing pent-up carbons through its powering of transport and everything else we need to live, but is also deadly for human rights and freedoms. When you rely on vast reserves of the sticky black stuff laid in the ground over many millennia as creatures and plants expired and decomposed, generating fascinating wealth for your country that you rule with a titanium fist and in the name of religion, to keep everyone in line, and it starts to run out, what are you going to do?
This is the predicament the secretive and authoritarian House of Saud finds itself in. The Middle Eastern rulers, who adhere to a strict blend of Islam known as Wahhabism, and the hereditary monarchy headed by frail King Salman, 83, are only too happy to export their hard-line tenets, as well as their gloopy fossil fuel that’s destroying the planet. Allah would not be impressed!
OPEC says the Saudis have hundreds of billions of barrels of crude oil left in the ground, and that, at current outputs, of around 10 million barrels a day, it should last for another 70 years. Others, according to a Reuters report, are not so sure, saying the all-powerful oil cartel is being misled by dodgy Saudi figures and that proven reserves could be as low as 70 billion barrels. Whatever the case, oil is not an infinite resource and reserves all over the energy-hungry world are being fast-depleted. There’s only so much left; ergo: electric cars and solar and other forms of sustainable energy.
And suddenly, in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, where up until recently women couldn’t leave the house without a male relative accompanying them, or drive, it’s all change.
What a surprise.
The desert country de facto ruled by crown prince MBS, 34, who is said to have ordered the grisly murder and subsequent dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul a year ago and whose body has not been found, is ostensibly leading the modernity charge. He allowed women to drive, earlier this year, while locking up women had had dared to drive. Now, also, women are permitted to travel abroad without first getting permission from a male relative.
The troubled kingdom, which has been waging war, along with regional and African allies, with southern neighbour Yemen since 2015 — a conflict it’s estimated will have claimed around 230,000 lives by the end of this year and that the serially impotent United Nations, whose whole reason for being is to prevent outbreaks of conflict, has branded a “humanitarian catastrophe” (no one’s listening, so go back to your big, boozy lunches and vast expense accounts) — is now flinging its gilded doors open to — gasp! — the great unwashed of the global tourism market.
So if you happened to be an unwed couple and were perhaps thinking about exploring the oil-rich nation of fast-dwindling natural resources and were worried about maybe being flung in jail for failing to show marriage documents at your hotel, you no longer have to worry. The same goes for foreign women who might like to stay alone in a Saudi hotel — and visiting females will not be required to dress head-to-toe in concealing garments but will still have to dress modestly (no revealing attire, or bikinis). You can still forget about the booze, though, as it remains banned in the most self-appointed puritanical country on Earth (even though the elite knock back the hard stuff like it was lemonade, and big-salaried expats brew their own, in the confines of their shielded, lux compounds).
There’s no word on whether prying foreigners will be allow to visit Mecca, the holiest place in Islam and where millions of the faithful descend every year to perform the hajj. Or the minor pilgrimage site of Medina. It’s likely they will remain off-limits to non-Muslims, a kind of spiritual apartheid that would cause outrage elsewhere if Saudi didn’t have all that oil we need to power our lives. Try banning Muslims from Christian, Buddhist and other-religion places of worship and see how far you get. The mostly liberal media, which hates to upset anyone other than the people of their own countries, would be up in steamed-up hissyfit arms.
Would the impervious Saudi rulers like to emulate glittering Dubai, their easterly United Arab Emirates neighbour where I was earlier this year and stood below the mighty, if slimline, Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world? Almost certainly. Desert city Dubai has transformed itself in recent years into an international Mecca of its own and a global transit centre that many millions transit pass through each year, en route to Asia, Europe and beyond. But it’s still a restrictive Arab state, by Western standards, and you dare not embrace your loved one, or kiss them, less you end up in trouble with the law.
You can even be prosecuted in internet-censoring Dubai for things you say on social media, or messaging apps — a bizarre affront to the freedoms of the internet, including speech; but then again, the Arabs only want your money, not your free-wheeling Western culture. Stay, pay and get out.
But when all the oil runs out, who will keep them warm at night?