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14 March 2022

More oil from Saudi Arabia? Seriously?

Their human rights record is hardly an improvement on Russia's.

By Philippa Nuttall

“Dangerous” is how Ban Ki-Moon described the world’s relationship to climate change this weekend. The former UN secretary-general questioned whether reactions to the war in Ukraine would help to fix the climate crisis or make it worse. “It’s very short-term gain that will lose the long-term interest of humanity,” he said. “I hope politicians have some longer vision for the benefit of the whole world.”

What politicians plan in the short term looks clear — restrictions on Russian oil and gas, in favour of some green energy activity and toe-curling attempts to curry favour with previously persona non grata regimes. As Ban Ki-Moon was worrying about climate action, Boris Johnson was planning a visit to Saudi Arabia to discuss oil. Indeed, the British Prime Minister will fly to Saudi Arabia this week to try to persuade the country to increase its oil output. The UK has pledged to end Russian oil imports by the end of the year in reaction to the horrors being perpetrated by Moscow in Ukraine. Of course, comparing horrific deeds is a mug’s game, but how can we ignore that on Saturday Saudi Arabia announced it had executed 81 men in 24 hours for acts of terrorism and holding “deviant beliefs”?

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the West muttered about reducing reliance on Russian oil and gas. When Russia started its full invasion, however, Europe was more reliant on Russian fossil fuels than ever before. As the war rages on, the West has promised to ditch Russian oil and gas as fast as it can. In a crisis, it is of course true that difficult decisions have to be made quickly, but politicians must also ensure that stop-gap choices, such as getting oil from Saudi Arabia, do not become the status quo.

Following the state-sponsored assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, Western heads of state had tended to avoid one-on-one meetings with Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto leader of the country. The decision by Emmanuel Macron, the French president, to visit bin Salman last December was widely questioned. Any reticence on the behalf of other leaders now seems to have vanished, however. Joe Biden, the US president, is believed to have reached out to bin Salman, though he has apparently been rebuffed. Not to be outdone, for the first time in years Biden has also opened up diplomatic channels between the US and Venezuela. The country is home to the world’s largest oil reserves, but its humanitarian and environmental records under Nicolas Maduro are abysmal. The Venezuelan president has also assured Vladimir Putin of his “strong support”, condemned the “destabilising actions of the US and Nato” and spoken out against what he called a Western campaign of “lies and disinformation” related to Ukraine, according to the Kremlin.

Energy prices were already high before Russia invaded Ukraine. Western leaders are rightly concerned about the impact of ending, or even reducing, imports of Russian fossil fuels on the availability and cost of gas, petrol and other commodities. So yes, perhaps, in the very short-term, Europe and the US need to bring in oil and gas from alternative destinations. But where are the medium and long-term strategies to reduce reliance on them forever? A massive increase in renewables and efficiency is much needed, and so is a huge decrease in fossil fuels. Decisions by the West to move its oil and gas spending from one awful regime to another will not help the climate crisis — nor will it make the world a safer place.

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