Stop worrying so much about what the Saudis think

Western policy toward Saudi Arabia resembles the thinking of an individual who sees dangers that don't exist and ignores real problems, thereby creating real dangers. The focal point of this policy is misunderstanding of the meaning of the phrase "the oil weapon."

Generally it is perceived to mean that the Saudis and other oil producers would lower or even cut off the supply of oil should they be displeased with Western policies on any one of a host of political and economic questions.

But this form of the oil weapon is an illusion, one that never was and is highly unlikely ever to be. As numerous experts on Saudi Arabian oil policy have noted (most recently, J. B. Kelly in his profound study," Arabia, the Gulf and the West"), Saudi decisions on oil supply have rested primarily on economic and financial considerations.

Even the embargo of 1973, cited so often by Saudi propagandists as precedent for the use of the retaliatory oil weapon, was rather a bold ploy under the guise of political retaliation to jack up the price of oil 400 percent. Ever since, whenever the Saudis have made decisions on lowering or increasing supply, these have reflected careful judgments to maximize profits without driving world economies into catastrophe or forcing Western countries into alternative forms of energy. Oil has too much importance to Saudi well-being to become subject to political considerations.

Unfortunately, European and US policy- makers have too often ignored the Saudis' real motivating force in their obsession with the retaliatory version of the oil weapon. The result has been an attitude of "placating" the Saudis at every point. So we find projections of the Saudis as moderates, despite their rejectionist policies toward Israel, their support of the terrorist PLO, and their calls for Jihad, a holy war against Israel. We find repeated submissions to Saudi "tests" of our friendship -- the recent US decision to sell fuel tanks and other offenseive add-ons for the F-15s, in direct contradiction to a 1978 Senate agreement, being just one example.

So much for the oil weapon that never was or never could be. The ramifications of this illusion go further. Immobilized by an unnecessary fear of a cutoff of oil, we have allowed the Saudis to employ uncontested the one oil weapon they have used: massive price increases through manipulation of supply which have generated a revolutionary redistribution of income in the wolrd.

Instead of identifying the devastating impact of the price revolution -- the fact that the OPEC cartel robs the West of billions of dollars, threatens the international monetery system and endangers third world societies even more than the West -- there is a tendency to minimize the impact as long as the oil flows. Thus one hears that recycling of petrodollars is something we can live with, that the Saudis are generous in helping the international monetary system, and that Arab assistance to the third world demonstrates a caring attitude.

Similarly, fear of hurting Saudi feelings has led us not to take sufficient steps to counter the oil weapon that could be:m Soviet or Soviet-sponsored takeover of the oil fields and the extreme pressure on the West that would inevitably follow.

Despite Saudi assertions that there can be no outside forces in the region, the oil is too important to the West to allow such sensibilities to deter the US from moving to protect its interests. Surely the twin-pillar theory of the early 1920's -- whereby Iran and Saudi Arabia were to guard the Gulf -- has proved itself to be one more Western illusion to avoid irritating the oil states.

To begin to chart a productive course vis- a-vis the Saudis, therefore, requires a fundamental reversal in the perfection of the dangers the oil weapon poses to the West. Once the illusory danger of Saudi retaliation is dismissed (and illusory dangers, as long as believed, seem most unmanageable) then it will be possible to identify and deal with the real dangers of the oil weapon that is and could be.

In the real world, we will take notice that the Saudis depend on us even more than we on them; that ultimately only the US can protect the oil fields from the Soviet threat, that we must go forward with efforts to resist Soviet expansionism and not woory so much about what the Saudis think of our efforts.

Finally, we must begin to move ahead on all fronts to undermine the OPEC cartel -- through the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, through various other possible plans, and through active mobilization of Western and lesser-developed countries w hich are suffering the most as a result of the OPEC rape.

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