International politics in the post-oil age
In an interview with Gyles Brandreth for the Daily Telegraph back in 2000, former Saudi Oil Minister Zeki Yamani made the following unforgettable remarks: “Thirty years from now there will be a huge amount of oil - and no buyers. Oil will be left in the ground. The Stone Age came to an end not because we lacked stones; the oil age will come to an end not because we lack oil.”
Indeed, there are signs today that the world has fulfilled at least half of Yamani’s 30-year prophecy.
Two countries took Yamani’s warning most seriously: Iran and the United States.
It may have nuclear powers like Pakistan and India to its east and Israel to its west, but it would be naïve to assume that Iran’s appetite for nuclear energy is only related to its nuclear weapons ambition. Despite being one of the world’s most oil- and gas-rich countries, Iran also wanted to diversify its energy resources as part of broader efforts to diversify its economy.
In the U.S., efforts systematically started in 2005, a couple of years after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Accordingly, a Congressional working group suggested that in order to cut dependency on Middle Eastern energy sources and to cut the need to get involved in more wars in the Middle East, the U.S. had to develop new energy resources. One of the biggest results of this conclusion is the development of shale gas, which as of 2017 ended the U.S.’s overwhelming dependency on oil and gas imports.
The U.S.’s ongoing involvement in the Syrian civil war and its backing for Israel against the Iranian threat (and amid recent Saudi transformation efforts) may be less important than we realize, as Washington’s real competition and tension with China and Russia has shifted to the Pacific region and the tragicomic stage of North Korea.
One can assume that shale gas is only part of a transition to a post-oil age, when the rapid spread of electric engines in automotive and works accelerate to garner electricity from renewable sources instead of fossil fuels.
As in the invention of the steam engine (which triggered the industrial age) and the invention of the internal combustion engine (which triggered the oil age), the invention of digital technology evolving into artificial intelligence and the replacement of fossil fuels with other energy sources is likely to trigger new social classes, new professions, new shapes of government, new weapons and new mechanisms for international politics.
The current pain of transformation in Saudi Arabia is motivated by the bitter reality of acknowledging that the oil age has started to fade away, as Sheikh Yamani predicted 17 years ago.
The fact that oil prices have not fluctuated much despite the recent Saudi-Qatar crisis, the Saudi-Iran war over Yemen, the U.S. support for Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided” capital and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) reaction shows that the U.S. strategy to reduce the influence of oil exporting countries in world politics may be working.
It would be logical to expect similar moves by other technology-generating countries like Russia, China and Germany, in order to not be left behind by the U.S. in this “new age,” which has actually not even started yet.