Does oil control the world?

Renewables offer the potential to liberate the democratic world – America included – from governments that seek to shackle its most cherished values.

Two weeks on, questions about the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi are yet to be answered. But the mist won’t last forever. Latest reports suggest that the Turkish Government is in possession of “audio and video recordings showing Jamal Khashoggi being killed and dismembered”. On Wednesday, Turkish investigators arrived at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul – the site of the supposed murder – to look for further evidence. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the hunt for information.

But even if the truth about Khashoggi’s murder is to emerge, the affair has already shed light on the worrying subjugation of morality under the thumb of the oil-rich Gulf. Donald Trump’s hesitancy to take measures against the House of Saud has proven all too noticeable. Speaking after news first broke, Trump commented: “We don’t like it even a little bit. But whether or not we should stop $110bn [£83bn] from being spent in this country – knowing they have…two very good alternatives. That would not be acceptable to me.” So much, it seems, for ‘the land of the free’.

Despite Trump’s dovetailing, the Saudi leader King Salman remains yet unconvinced of American allegiance. Subsequent rumours have spoken of Riyadh’s plot to weaponise their vast oil reserves, rapidly cutting production – a move that could see prices rising to $100 a barrel. Other estimates tout figures as twice as high. Trump’s own efforts in Iran, coupled with instability in Venezuela –two of the world’s largest oil producers – make for a moment that the Saudi royalty will no doubt consider opportune. Trump’s moral compass is questionable at the best of times, but with the President firmly committed to putting America First, any justice for the Saudi Kingdom’s latest victim looks unlikely.

It is a sign of the regression under Trump’s tenure that this instinctual looking-the-other-way for the sake of American interests offers little surprise. But this time the issue exceeds the President and the US. Saudi-critic Khashoggi was a symbol for free speech, but the term reads hollow in the language of global trade; oil-reliance renders attempts to police the world untenable. Key resources in the hands of irresponsible powers need to be recognised for what they really are: an obstacle to human rights.

Less than a week after Khashoggi’s murder, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced that we have only 12 years to fight climate change. Before the announcement, both the US and Saudi Arabia had been counted amongst the parties reluctant to introduce cuts to CO2. This is not the first sign that either the US or Saudi Arabia are impediments in the efforts of the global community to address climate change; French President Emmanuel Macron’s thinly veiled promise to “no longer sign commercial agreements with powers that do not respect the Paris accord” is one example. But Khashoggi’s recent murder draws an essential link between a lack of self-reliance, and our freedom to speak out.

Germany offers a case in point. In July this year, the US President criticised Angela Merkel for her willingness to sanction a new oil and gas pipeline from Russia, a move that Trump argued left the NATO partner “captive” to their enemies. But at the start of the month, it emerged that the European power had produced enough renewable energy in six months to power the country’s households for an entire year. A week later, so successful were wind farms in Denmark that the country generated 140% of its electricity demand, exporting the surplus to Germany, Norway and Sweden. As evidence for their effectiveness grows, renewables are emerging as real tools for progress.

Trump’s stance on Khashoggi’s murder may yet change as the evidence against Saudi Arabia mounts, though it seems unlikely. Earlier on Wednesday, the President reaffirmed Saudi Arabia’s position as a key “ally”, a “tremendous purchaser”, and spoke admirably about the Kingdom’s commitment to buy “$450 billion worth of things”. But the fallout from the journalist’s death offers a blueprint for future action. The intersection between rights and environmentalism presents a boon to activists for both causes at a time when they risk being ushered to the sidelines of political discourse. Renewables offer the potential to liberate the democratic world – America included – from governments that seek to shackle its most cherished values. Just as co-operation is needed to tackle climate change, so might dialogue across significant issues provide fresh impetus to debates where the leading powers are deaf to popular demand. It was the dialogue that Jamal Khashoggi lived for. He may yet prove a thorn in Kingdom’s flesh.

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