Driving Forward In The Kingdom

It’s June of 2018.  And as of Sunday, June 24, women in Saudi Arabia are finally legally able to drive.

p06byymkIt’s astonishing when you think about it, but until yesterday the kingdom of Saudi Arabia had maintained a ban on women driving — the only one in the world.  It was one of the most visible elements of differential treatment of men and women in that country.  The decision to finally allow women to drive is part of an effort by the Saudis to liberalize and modernize their benighted internal policies, which have received a lot of international criticism over the years.  And, as is so frequently the case, the move also has an economic component.  The Saudi economy has taken a hit because of oil prices, and allowing women to drive is expected to increase the employment of women and allow them to make more of a contribution to the gross national product.

Not surprisingly, many Saudi women took to the streets in cars to celebrate their ability to do something that women the world over have taken for granted for more than a century.  “I feel free like a bird,” one woman said.  “The jubilance, confidence and pride expressed by Saudi women driving for the first time in their country, without fear of arrest, brought tears to my eyes,” another one wrote.  And Saudi women posted videos of themselves driving on social media.

But let’s not get too excited about the loosening of repressive policies in Saudi Arabia, because a number of activists who strongly advocated for great women’s rights have been jailed and remain behind bars, even as the ban against women driving has been lifted.  Some believe that the jailing is intended to placate the ultra-conservative religious leaders who remain a significant force in the country, and also to send the message that only Saudi leaders — and not activists advocating for changes in Saudi policies — can produce reforms in the kingdom.

It’s a sign that, while lifting the ban on women driving is welcome, Saudi Arabia has a long way to go.  And it’s also a reminder that, in 2018, there are still a lot of repressive policies out there against women that still need to be addressed.

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The Oil Story

Recently I ran across an interesting article on developments in the oil-producing world.  Provocatively headlined “The Collapse of the Old Oil Order,” it addresses the dissension within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the economic forces that are affecting the price of oil and keeping it below $50 a barrel.

Much of the article addresses geopolitical forces — like Saudi Arabia’s very rocky relations with Iran and Russia, two other big petroleum producers, and changes within the Saudi regime itself to move the Kingdom’s economy away from near-total reliance on oil prices and its seemingly endless supply of crude — but the piece also gets into the basics of global supply and demand.  And those familiar elements from Economics 101 have changed in ways that the experts didn’t really predict, especially on the supply side.

With the discovery of massive supplies of shale oil and gas in the United States and the development of technology to extract it, for example, there’s lots of new supply in the marketplace, and no one is making the predictions that we’re going to run out of oil in the foreseeable future that we used to hear.  In addition, green initiatives and other forces have affected the demand for oil in developed countries, and the consumption of oil in developing countries hasn’t bridged the gap.  The result is an oversupply, with countries whose oil production costs are highest struggling to deal with the current economic reality.

Gas prices aren’t exactly cheap — in Columbus and nationally, they’ve actually increased recently — but they are far from their peak prices of $4.00 a gallon or more years ago.  And the days when mighty OPEC was unified and could singlehandedly send shock waves through the global economy seem to be behind us.  It’s a good example of how predicting the future based on the uninterrupted continuation of current trends can often be wrong.

2016’s Rocky Start

It’s only the first official workday of 2016, and already the year is off to a very rocky start.

In the Middle East, tensions are high because Saudi Arabia — where Sunni Muslims predominate — recently executed a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, for terrorism-related offenses.  That angered Iran, the Shiite power in the region, with protesters in Tehran setting fire to part of the Saudi embassy there.  Saudi Arabia has now given Iran two days to withdraw its diplomats from the Kingdom.  So, in a Middle East that is already aboil because of ISIS, fighting in Syria and Iraq, and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian disputes, we layer on a conflict between Saudi Arabia, the money power and home to Islam’s most holy sites, and Iran, the revolutionary religious state that has long sought to be the leading Muslim power in the area.  And that dispute will not only increase the political turmoil in the region, it also might affect the world’s oil markets, which have been plunging recently.

1904But that’s not all.  In China today, stocks tumbled 7 percent, triggering a premature end to trading.  It’s not entirely clear why China’s markets have plunged — China’s economy is a black box, and many of China’s economic decisions seem the product of manipulation, rather than the workings of the law of supply and demand — but signs point to the fact that the Chinese economy is headed for the rocks.  Given the size of the Chinese economy, that’s bad news for the rest of the economically interdependent world that seems to be teetering on the brink of another recession, and other Asian stock markets also fell today.  We’ll see whether European and American markets follow suit.

So, even more contentiousness in the war-torn, terrorism-addled Middle East powder keg, and bad signs from one of the world’s largest economies and a principal engine of growth in recent years.  What about America?  Oh, yeah — it’s a presidential election year, which means we’ve got a lame duck President, and according to the polls the two currently leading candidates to replace him are a blow-dried bumptious buffoon and a dissembling also-ran who couldn’t comply with basic email security rules.  And we’ve got months, and months, and months of electioneering and campaign commercials in our future, too.

You know, 2015 really wasn’t that bad.

Flogging For Blogging

Those of us who are lucky enough to live in America and other countries where personal freedoms to speak, think, and worship as we choose are recognized and protected rights are just that — lucky.  Not everyone in the world is so fortunate.

Consider the case of Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian blogger.  He started an on-line forum called Liberal Saudi Network that sought to encourage discussion of religious and political issues in the kingdom.  Badawi wrote about the importance of moving to a more secular state and published his views on issues like the continued existence of Israel — the Guardian has a story about some of his writings — and it was too much for the Saudi government.  Badawi was arrested, narrowly avoided the death penalty for apostasy, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes — as well as a huge fine — for criticizing leading Muslim clerics and disobedience.  His wife and their three children fled the country.

The lashes are to be administered publicly at a rate of 50 each Friday until the sentence is completed.  After the first 50 lashes were struck outside a mosque in Jeddah, Badawi was so badly injured that a doctor concluded that he could not sustain another 50 lashes the following week, and the next round of lashes were postponed.

The treatment of Badawi has caused an international backlash, and now the Saudi King has referred Badawi’s sentence to the Saudi Supreme Court.  Badawi’s supporters are hopeful that his sentence will be reduced, but there are no guarantees.  Saudi Arabia has a long and brutal record of public beheadings, lashings, and other medieval forms of punishment, as well as repressive treatment of women, and its wealth and oil reserves have largely immunized it from the consequences of its conduct.

Those of us who live in free countries often take our liberties for granted.  We shouldn’t.

Fear Of Fracking

Many environmentalists have voiced concerns about the consequences of fracking.  Now they are joined by a billionaire Saudi prince — who is concerned for a different reason.

Fracking is the process by which deep underground rock formations are broken up to free trapped natural gas, oil, and other fossil fuels.  It has produced a nascent oil boom in eastern Ohio and other parts of the United States that are home to shale formations where the fossil fuels are found.

The Saudi prince, Alwaleed bin Talal, is worried because he thinks the increased oil and natural gas production that has been caused by fracking threatens the Saudi Kingdom’s economy, which is almost wholly dependent on oil production.  The outspoken prince is a bit of a rogue element in Saudi Arabia, but his point is irrefutable:  If demand from the United States declines due to the availability of domestic shale oil production, it will inevitably have an impact on suppliers.  Two OPEC countries, Nigeria and Algeria, have already seen a sharp decline in U.S. imports of their oil.

For years, America has talked about the importance of breaking its dependency on middle Eastern oil — a result that also would reduce the pressure on America’s deep involvement in all of the geopolitical issues that are found in that troubled region of the world.  America’s shale oil and natural gas reserves are believed to be enormous and, as Prince Talal notes, may allow us to achieve that goal.  As we address the issues surrounding oil shale production in our country, we need to keep that fact in mind.

Holding Our Breath

In the United States, the decision of Hosni Mubarak to yield power to a supreme military tribunal should be a cause for circumspection, not celebration.

Much as we understand and appreciate the desire of the Egyptian people to throw off the reins of an authoritarian regime, there is no assurance at present that whatever government will eventually follow Mubarak will be a real improvement in terms of permitting democracy and recognizing human rights.  From this point forward, prudence would seem to suggest that the United States should refrain from public statements about developments in Egypt in favor of careful diplomacy that works behind the scenes to ensure an inclusive, democratic Egyptian government that respects and honors Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

We also should recognize that the fall of Mubarak no doubt will leave every government in the Middle East — from Israel, to Jordan, to Saudi Arabia — feeling a bit shaken and concerned about the possibility of additional popular uprisings.  Sweeping pronouncements from the United States about what should be done may not be welcome.  We should hold our breath, keep our own counsel, and see what happens next.

A Region In Turmoil, And A Foreign Policy In The Balance

A dictatorial government has been overthrown in Tunisia.  Protests continue to rage in Egypt, causing long-time leader Hosni Mubarak to reshape his government and to declare that he will not seek “re-election.”  Whether he can remain in power until September, as he plans, is anyone’s guess.  Significant protests also have occurred in Jordan and Yemen. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in remarks reported by the BBC, has said that the entire Mideast region is in the grip of powerful forces and that the status quo is not sustainable.  The inevitable question is whether other countries in the region — such as Lebanon, Syria, Libya, and even Saudi Arabia — also will be the site of mass protests and regime change.

Revolutions — even revolutions that, like the protests in Egypt, seem to be motivated by desire for freedom and democracy — can be unpredictable in their results.  Were the bloody Jacobin governments and eventually the reign of Napoleon really preferable to the corrupt French monarchy?  History teaches that there can be no assurance that, long-term, the governments that may replace the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes will be preferable to those that went before.

These circumstances present foreign policy challenges that are far more difficult than any yet confronted by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton.  They will be asked to make quick decisions in the face of fast-moving events, decisions that may have profound consequences.  All Americans, whether Republican, Democrat, or independent, should hope that their decisions help to produce a Middle East that is more stable and more democratic, rather than the opposite — because the opposite could be catastrophic.