North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Will climate change stop Arabia from being Saudi?

The power of the House of Saud is a direct product of the West’s obsession with oil – can it survive a global shift to green energy?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
26 October 2021, 10.47am
Experts predict the Arabian peninsula will likely be too hot for human habitation within 80 years
Javier Oderiz / Alamy Stock Photo

No regime on earth is more threatened by both climate change and action on climate change than the House of Saud.

Saudi Arabia itself is glued together with crude and conquest. The cities of Mecca and Medina and their Hejaz region in the west of the country were for a thousand years a cosmopolitan hub of pilgrims and intellectualism. The oil fields lie beneath the eastern part of the Arabian peninsula with its historically seafaring and pearl-fishing people, whose shared culture and history lies more with the other Gulf states than their neighbours inland, and who include a large Shiite minority. Asir in the south-west borders Yemen, and has more rain and an agricultural history.

And in the centre is a vast plateau, the Najd. It was here in the 18th century that Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab launched his orthodox Sunni movement. It was from here that, in the early 20th century, Abdulaziz al Saud, armed and funded by the British empire, conquered the neighbouring states, naming the new country after himself and imposing those conservative, Wahabi ideas. It’s from here that his sons – every king since his death in 1953 has been one of his 45 sons – have ruled, the regional capital, Riyadh, becoming the country’s capital.

But it’s money from those eastern oil fields that has stopped people from overthrowing the family. Two-thirds of working Saudis are public servants, with fossil fuel-funded salaries. Attempts to cut the pay and benefits of state employees in recent years have been met with protests that have threatened the foundations of the state, forcing desperate U-turns and cornering it into making disastrous mistakes. The same money pays for a sophisticated web of police, military and intelligence, ensuring the consequences of dissent are bludgeon and blood.

Saudi Arabia is a classic example of what political theorists call a rentier state. In many countries, democracy developed as rulers were forced to give up votes in exchange for taxes to pay for military adventures and border defences. But in countries rich in mineral resources, governments are sometimes able to operate without making such compromises, their coffers instead filled from their mines and wells, able to pay for benefits to buy compliance and police to insist on it.

This is at least part of why the Middle East is both the most oil-rich region of the world and the least democratic. Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most extreme example of this phenomenon, with 17% of the world’s proven petroleum reserves, which bring in 50% of the country’s national income and prop up its regime – one of the most brutal on the planet. While the USA is the world’s largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia is the largest exporter.

Unfit for human habitation

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is also extremely vulnerable to climate change, with a number of factors combining to make the peninsula one of the hottest places in the world.

Hot air rising up from the Indian subcontinent to Saudi Arabia’s east sheds its water during the summer monsoon season, before heading west in the upper atmosphere and descending onto the Arabian peninsula, producing clear skies, high pressure and ultra-arid weather. As climate change pumps more energy into this weather system, these temperatures will likely intensify.

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Experts already report that heat-related deaths in Saudi Arabia are soaring, with temperatures passing 50°C in some parts of the country this summer. Recent projections suggest that extreme heat will make cities including Jeddah very difficult to live in within 30 years. A paper published in Nature Climate Change in 2015 suggests that, without serious action to reduce emissions, the Arabian peninsula will likely be too hot for human habitation within 80 years, as temperatures exceed the physical limits of human bodies.

As the authors of that paper say, “Our results expose a specific regional hotspot where climate change, in the absence of significant mitigation, is likely to severely impact human habitability.”

Heat-related deaths in Saudi Arabia are soaring, with temperatures passing 50°C this summer

There’s an irony in the fact that the Arabian peninsula is likely to become one of the first places that humans will literally be unable to settle, in that it is one of the first places that human civilizations are thought to have settled in the first place.

Thousands of years later, in the seventh century, the Prophet Mohammed united people across the peninsula, before his followers went on to conquer a stretch of land spanning from the Western Himalayas to southern Iberia.

From the 1500s, control of the land that’s now Saudi Arabia shifted between the Ottoman empire and various local rulers, and between 1902 and 1932, Abdul-Aziz Al Saud led the violent conquest of those territories that weren’t protected by the British.

There is no particular reason to believe that this regime would have continued to hold these disparate and formerly separate regions together, were it not for something that happened in 1938: a collaboration between US oil companies found what turned out to be the world’s biggest oil fields.

The Arab American Oil company set up compounds around these oil wells with Jim Crow laws imposing racial segregation on those within them, while the US government trained and armed Saudi forces, protecting the family’s rule of the country in exchange for access to its oil. But, after the US backed Israel in the Yom Kippur war in 1973, the Saudis took control of the company, eventually nationalising it as Saudi Aramco.

In 2019, the government sold 1.5% of its shares in Aramco, meaning that the company was valued for the first time – at $1.7trn. After a tumble because of falling demand for oil during the pandemic, it regained its footing and is currently valued at around $2trn, making it the second-biggest company in the world, after Apple. It is also the most climate-changing company in history – oil and gas produced by Aramco was responsible for roughly 4.8% of global emissions in 2018 and about 4.3% of total emissions since 1965.

The interesting question, though, is, why did the government sell off shares in the company in the first place? And the answer seems to be that the Saudi government is in real trouble.

A desperate regime

Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and an expert in Saudi Arabia, spoke to me over the phone. If the long-standing arrangement between Saudis and their rulers has been that while citizens don’t get votes, they do get a generous welfare package, then, she says, “This has been gradually eroded over the last five years. There are taxes, there are cuts to subsidies for electricity, because they haven’t got income anymore.”

Over the past decade, new technology has allowed the US to access vast deposits of its shale oil, meaning the world’s biggest oil consumer now produces enough to meet its own needs. As a result, in 2014, the price of oil collapsed. In an attempt to put shale companies out of business, Saudi Arabia and its OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) allies kept pumping, driving prices down further.

Al-Rasheed estimates that the Saudis need the price of oil to be at $80 a barrel for them to break even, “to be able to function and pay all the civil servants they recruit… this hasn’t happened since 2014”.

In 2018, a value-added tax of 5% was introduced in the country, to much controversy. In July last year, it was tripled to 15%, as part of a $27bn austerity package.

As a result of its collapsing income, al-Rasheed says, the regime is desperate to attract foreign investment. But at the same time, it has launched a crackdown on dissent, in order to sure-up its stability in the face of an increasingly dissatisfied population and to extract cash from the country’s elite.

In November 2017, nearly 400 of the most influential people in the country were taken to the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, where, according to numerous accounts, they were beaten and tortured, before being forced to hand over bank account details and having their wealth stripped from them – wealth totalling tens of billions of dollars.

Following the incident from the UK at the time was gruesomely fascinating, not so much because of what it told you about the instability of the Saudi regime – that was already clear. But because of what it told you about the British press, which, almost universally, had spent the previous years claiming that the new Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was ‘a reformer’, and parroted the Saudi regime line that the Ritz-Carlton incident was an ‘anti-corruption drive’.

BBC Screenshot
One of many articles in the British press that spoke of an ‘anti-corruption drive’ | Screenshot from BBC

I still remember exasperated phone calls from both my brother – then an international relations lecturer specialising in the Middle East – and openDemocracy’s Middle East editor, Walid El Houri, expressing shock at the coverage in the British press and its willingness to copy and paste press releases from a murderous regime.

The next year, though, the papers started to realise they’d got the new Crown Prince wrong. On 2 October 2018, dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. And he was far from alone – in 2019, Saudi Arabia executed a record 184 people, including Shiite dissidents.

The result of these two incidents, says al-Rasheed, is that the regime has been failing to attract the foreign direct investment it hoped for. On the one hand, businesspeople are less likely to get involved in a country if they think there’s a risk they’ll be arrested and tortured if they get on the wrong side of the regime and, on the other, global human rights groups have applied pressure on companies to steer clear.

“It all shows there is a desperate situation,” says al-Rasheed. “Very wealthy entrepreneurs became very wary of what would happen – nobody's money and investment will be protected anymore, you could be accused of corruption, then you have to pay.”

In search of a green sheen

The result is that the regime, running out of cash to buy off its people, is desperate for an image refresh. And it seems to have decided that COP26 provides the perfect opportunity.

“Saudi Arabia doubles its emissions reduction targets by 2030,” announced the Independent in an article published this weekend, with only a small logo indicating that, in fact, this wasn’t an article at all, but an advert from something called the ‘Saudi Green Initiative’, which claims to be “championing climate action at home and abroad”.

It wasn’t just the Independent. Across the British press, Saudi ‘commitments’ to hit net zero by 2060 were repeated as though they aren’t just the lies of a regime desperate for a green sheen.

This little piece of reputation laundering isn’t new. Earlier this year, the Crown Prince announced that 50% of Saudi Arabia’s power generation would be provided by renewables by 2030, with the other 50% coming from gas.

“As a leading global oil producer,” the prince said, “we are fully aware of our share of responsibility in advancing the fight against the climate crisis... And as [with] our pioneering role in stabilising energy markets during the oil and gas era, we will act to lead the next green era.”

In 2019, he even announced a whole new city, Neom, in the northwest of the country, to be built by the NEOM Company, which has been endowed with $500bn from the country’s sovereign wealth fund and is chaired by the Crown Prince himself.

In the past, you had laws [to segregate people], now, [the division is] taking the form of a city

On its glitzy website, the company declares that “NEOM is a new vision of what the future could be. It’s an attempt to do something that’s never been done before and it’s coming at a time when the world needs fresh thinking and new solutions. Put simply, NEOM will not only be a destination, but a home for people who dream big and who want to be part of building a new model for sustainable living.”

The main attraction of Neom? Another, smaller city contained within it, which will be called, simply, ‘The Line’.

“I present to you THE LINE,” The Crown Prince declares on the website, “a city of a million residents with a length of 170km that preserves 95% of nature within NEOM, with zero cars, zero streets and zero carbon emissions.”

The city, says al-Rasheed is “meant to be a project to impress the West and the world – not to serve the local market, an international hub”.

“Saudi Arabia, since the discovery of oil in the 1930s, has had segmented development. Those people who are foreign, working in the oil sector, work in compounds. In the past, you had completely different laws, you had swimming pools where women could swim, they didn’t have to wear veils – now, [the division is] taking the form of a city.”

What Bin Salman is planning is, in effect, a vast gated community, where the Saudi and international elite, along with their foreign servants, can govern the country and enjoy their plunder at a safe distance from an increasingly frazzled population; an eco-fascist dystopia of solar-powered surveillance and biodiverse butchery. And, of course, the British press has lapped it up again, breathlessly spinning the regime’s propaganda.

What the media tended to miss is that, as he was announcing his green plans this spring, the Crown Prince was also declaring that the country was going to increase its oil production in years to come.

This pledge is also questionable – no one really knows how much oil Saudi Arabia has left. This month, Aramco has been trying to borrow billions of dollars from international banks as part of a plan to sell off its gas pipelines. It’s rumoured to be considering selling stakes in its retail fuels and lubricants business. And how much cash it can get depends on how much oil and gas people think it has, so there’s a strong incentive to distort reality. Earlier this month, the website described Saudi claims they could boost output as ‘outrageous’.

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There is a tendency in Western journalism to talk about the House of Saud as though it’s old-fashioned, or to orientalise it, treating it as an inevitable consequence of some inherent mindset of people in that part of the world.

The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. The power of the House of Saud doesn’t come from Arab culture, but as a direct product of the West’s obsession with oil. The regime isn’t old-fashioned, but postmodern: using the disconnection of the media from much of reality to spin in our minds a story entirely separate from what’s going on on the ground. And has constructed a paragon of a new world order where an internationalised elite lives under its own laws in oasis compounds, protected from the plebs with vast fences, sophisticated weaponry and careful surveillance, while ordinary people are left to burn.

Action on climate change – and the plunging demand for oil that it will bring – represents a serious threat to the House of Saud, already stumbling from the lack of US demand for its drug. Actual climate change also represents a serious threat, as the land they govern starts to cook. And caught in this conundrum, they have opted to spin an alternative reality, safe in the knowledge that the Western press will parrot it.

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