“Let this be our national goal! At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need.”
– President Richard Nixon, 1974, following the 1973-74 Arab Oil Embargo. This goal has been a staple of American politics with similar statements by Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama over four decades.
In the Valley of Doom
Al-Jubayl, Saudi Arabia
Surrounding the artificial urban-industrial blight upon a humid desert, bordered by a shallow and filthy Persian (or Arabian) Gulf, rise the prominent and resounding features of the dry landscape. Even in daylight the smokestacks can be seen from every point in a near-flat space. They punctuate the air with fiery smoke and gas explosions, “Whuuump, pause, whuump, pause, whuump” like a snoring dragon breathing in rhythm.
At night there is a ring of fire all around Al-Jubayl, which matches any computer-animated depiction of the “Valley of Doom”, kingdom of Moloch. Fire-breathing smokestacks belch a pall of chemical smoke into the already befouled air. Red light flashes of signal flares and glowing beacons guard the fiery smokestacks issuing ominous, unmistakable warnings of Danger!
All around, as far as one can see or imagine, the fervid air is impregnated with a chemical pall. In daylight it blends with the desert as ubiquitous smog. At night the chemical content of the air is visible from the weak glow of the street lamps, lustrous red and orange in the fire-belching rouge light of the smokestacks.
Along the highway at night, the smokestacks punctuate the dark desert sky as red-yellow flames on the Altar of Darkness. The factories are nearly as ubiquitous as the mosques that dominate the urban living space. They stand as the emblems of ascendancy they are intended to be. They are the unmistakable castle towers of the Devil King. Their preeminence is absolute. The human minions below work in the hot, polluted darkness, crawling to serve a future of work for the Dark Lords. They are enslaved in the illusion of sustainable income, living in foul conditions and sending their money back home.
Al-Jubayal is a planned, designed, and created city constructed by the American firm, Bechtel. The 40 square kilometers of industrial city was literally bulldozed out of the shifting desert sands and made into an industrial camp and shipping harbor. It’s avowed purpose is to “Saudi-ize” the industrial processes associated with petrochemical manufacture, and to serve as an industrial hub for the oil and gas industry of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government, an absolute monarchy, looked at the demographics and decided the inevitable – that the burgeoning population of Saudi youth would have to work to live. The Kingdom is now, and has been for decades, training a Saudi workforce for the new factories — with difficulties.
The “Saudi-ization” project has had mixed but little success. For many reasons, including nationalization of all industries in a near-feudal state, corruption, and cultural ambivalence, there is reluctance among the Saudi young men to work at industrial jobs previously held by Filipinos or South Asians, whom they disdain as “kafir” servants. The Saudis have little experience with work, having been spoon-fed subsidized during their whole lives, and understanding no historic or cultural traditions of working as factory employees.
The arrogantly entitled view of the Saudi youth, encouraged by their religious training, is that the blessings of Allah have befallen them as oil manna from a gusher because of their proximity to the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina. That these benefits have not accrued to other Muslims, whom they hire by the thousands as construction workers and factory slaves, is evidence of Allah’s will.
“Inshallah” is the catch-phrase of Arab speech. It means “God Willing”, and every utterance is punctuated with this appeal to the will of Allah. From the profound — “Inshallah, the money will arrive on time,” “Inshallah my wife will bear many children,” “Inshallah we will find our way through the desert” — to the mundane, “Inshallah the taxi will come on time”, “Inshallah this task may be accomplished soon,” Inshallah my wife will stop complaining” – the will of God is constantly and persistently invoked. It makes difficult life a little hopeful, by shifting responsibility for everything to Allah.
However, in a place like Al-Jubayl, no matter the imprecations to God, the works of Allah are obscured — or are most depressingly evident depending on one’s viewpoint — in the fire-breathing smokestacks, in the slow oppression of filth and pollution, in the black-shrouding of women and denial of their full humanity. The works of Allah in Saudi Arabia include the practical denial of full humanity, because of gender or religious insufficiency, to most humans. In an absolute monarchy of stratified wealth and opportunity, of religiously dictated discrimination and open hostility towards other beliefs, of segregation at its most fundamental creaking backwardness directed at half the population unfortunate enough to be born as women, the works of Allah are strange to behold and difficult to comprehend.
The Saudi people, of course, are like people everywhere, and seek enjoyment in some few pleasures allowed them. They gather at sea’s edge in gender-segregated groups, to find enjoyment in social company. If they can, they ignore the abounding filth all around, the un-biodegradable plastic bags and bottles, the plastic detritus of petrochemical manufactures littered all around. They chat and explore one-another’s company just as families and youth everywhere do.
But they also ignore the Pakistani construction workers working for Bin-Laden Construction, the Bangladeshi cleaners doing a bang-up job of not cleaning anything, the Filipino service workers, nurses, and house servants. They sometimes deplore, but usually ignore, the degradation of their environment and their society into a morass of greed, unrestrained filth, and ignorance. But they are happy to have their lives subsidized by a “benign” monarchy.
The economic disparity between ordinary Saudis and members of the ruling family of Saud (said to exceed more than 18,000 oil-compensated relatives), has to be among the most grotesque on earth. Observing the Ferrari’s, Maserati’s, opulent Mercedes and high-profile SUV’s of Riyadh and Jeddah, the smell of conspicuous new money assaults the nose. The luxury shopping malls of these cities, which put those in the West to shame for their voluptuous perfumes, exquisite jewelry and gorgeous dresses (never seen in public), express the entitlement of vast wealth. The ruling Saud family are only rarely seen in such places, preferring to shop in Geneva or Paris or London or New York or Beverly Hills.
While suffering the heat of Jeddah or Riyadh, the wealthy ruling class idles its time behind high compound walls. There, amidst paradise gardens with servants to accomplish all the required tasks, they enjoy freedoms denied other Saudis such as alcohol, cinema (there is now one public cinema in Saudi Arabia), and free association of the sexes. A class distinction of relative wealth is everywhere apparent as to where and how one lives, and where one does one’s shopping.
The vast majority of Saudi subjects shop at crowded souks and cheap-goods bazaar stores. Middle class family groups travel on weekend shopping expeditions, slogging through polluted streets and picking their way through crowded shops of cheap goods imported from everywhere, mostly China and South Asia. In Al-Jubayl there are no luxury shopping malls.
To placate the Arab masses, now a booming population of youth, and to offset the democratic sentiments exhibited in the Arab world during the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011, the Saudi royal family directed $130 Billion toward increasing wages in the public sector, unemployment benefits, and housing subsidies. Kuwait offered each of its citizens a cash gift of 1,000 Dinars. No country with more than a fraction of the per-capita oil wealth of Saudi Arabia has ever successfully gone from dictatorship to democracy.
Of course, oil-revenues are shrouded and hidden from scrutiny, as petroleum-based autocrats always use their national oil companies to cloak their countries’ finances. Secrecy helps give oil wealth its democracy-repelling powers. Citizens are satisfied with low taxes and seemingly generous benefits only when they do not realize how much of their country’s wealth is being lost to theft, corruption, and incompetence. The urge to transparent governance, much less the urge to freedom and democracy, is nowhere near as strong as the urge to greed in the oil-rich Arab world.
Living in chemical pollution amidst the refinery smokestacks of the Valley of Doom, or working as cheap labor in a prudish, wealth-besotted society, is the reality and future of Saudi youth in training for “Saudi-ization”. Without the revenue of infinite oil, Saudi society – recent, rootless and culture-less, fearful of modernity, oppressive at its essence — will someday drift back into the desert sands. Sending the hard-won wealth and treasure of America and the West to finance the pleasure gardens of oil-autocrats, to protect their oil fields and their desert factory cities, to defend the pious gross polluters and exploiters of humans, to allow fundamentalist autocrats to dictate our economic and political lives, merely enslaves us and our future.
The Islamic fundamentalists of Saudi Arabia are not our friends but our detractors. They are not our gentle lenders but our ruthless oil-drug pushers. In a strange entanglement of our fate with theirs, they are our temporary allies in a desperate struggle to control the world’s largest seas of oil.
One only has to restate that 15 of 19 of the 9/11 terrorists who attacked New York in hijacked airliners were fundamentalist Saudi Arabian youth, trained in the religious schools of our closest “ally” in the oil-deserts of the Arabian Gulf. That they were not Iraqi’s, Iranians, or Afghans is too baffling a concept for those who still want to see America’s military involvement in the region as not just about oil.
Osama Bin Laden, closely related to the royal family of Saud, is still viewed by many prominent Saudis and others in the Arab world as a freedom fighter. They think he was martyred to free the poor and dispossessed of their holy lands from the rule of oil-tyrants and “Zionists”. Seen as betraying their jealous religion, the ruling oil sheikhs live in fear of their own fundamentalist subjects.
The fundamentalists’ extreme views towards the West are well known and unaccommodating, and this goes especially for the Salafi Wahabists who rule the moral universe of Saudi Arabia. They want to refute and deny modernity, especially as it applies to the liberation and equality of women, to conquer by wealth and investment if not by the sword, to dominate trade and re-establish their 13th century world caliphate, to enslave our Western liberal values to their Islamic rigidity. We should take them at their word, and not be beguiled by their promises of unbiased friendship in return for our protection.
Their oil money, or their control of our options, are not blessings. The Saudi and other oil-oligarchies are heavily invested in our financial and political systems, as we are only too aware since the Bush I and II administrations, perpetual Gulf wars, and 9/11. We should watch with growing trepidation and take defensive action as their mounting wealth and oil-pricing power seeks, overtly or covertly, to dominate our choices.
To overlook this pernicious influence of anti-democratic, anti-freedom, anti-modern corruption; to equivocate with passive intellectuals that “Islamic cultural values are not necessarily ours but are no less equal and valid as modern alternatives”, is to deny the real threat to our liberties. This threat is only too apparent with the rise of fundamentalist militancy in the world. Yet the West seems determined to embrace the Saudi example in exchange for their money and oil.
Not only does this deceptive view deny the historic enlightened struggle towards freedom and liberty as inherently good and humane; but it sacrifices large masses of the Islamic world to lives of constraining oppression and discrimination, to a world without hope dominated by perverted religious extremists. To allow the Saudi princes and their religious police dominion over us — financial, theological, political, or cultural — is to sacrifice our own rich culture of intellectual freedom, personal liberty and human progress to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to an oil-polluted future of sexually segregated slavery in the Valley of Doom.
Renewable energy production – with costs dropping as much as 50% in one year (2017) – could be Americanized within a short time period, less than a decade. Wall Street would rally behind the policy. Our economy would improve dramatically, not least because of jobs created in the new burgeoning energy sector. The glimmer of hope of finally being free of Middle-Eastern (and American) oil-tyranny would enliven and bolster morale for the American people as no other single act could. A new dawn of American freedom and liberty, financed by cheap and abundant clean energy, would emerge. The United States could once again offer the hope of freedom in its opposition to anti-American, anti-Western, anti-freedom, anti-women, oil dictatorships around the world.