On Thursday, November 27, 2014, Americans gathered for Thanksgiving. For the Americans then working in domestic oil production, there was much for which to be grateful. Despite economic difficulties across much of the country, many working class Americans were earning significant salaries. The same day, The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) met in Vienna and shocked many by refusing to cut production despite falling prices.
Observers noted that the intent was to undermine American shale production — the first serious effort at ending America's foreign oil dependence in decades. It worked. Shortly thereafter, America's domestic oil production began to slow. Thousands of American workers, like those who had flocked to North Dakota, were soon unemployed.
Curiously, one hears few grumblings about OPEC or the Gulf States from politicians or policy makers; the Beltway is particularly silent. It was not always so.
In the 1970s, OPEC was regarded by many Western policymakers as a strategic nemesis. John Barrett Kelly, one of the foremost Middle East experts of the last century, noted in a 1975 Commentary essay that "[o]il is a strategic commodity of prime importance, and it is folly of an almost suicidal order for the West to have allowed itself to drift into a situation where it is incapable of controlling its major source of supply."
What Iran and the Gulf States were "endeavoring to do in concert is to hold the Western world for ransom, to place it in thrall, and so to effect a massive transfer of resources … thereby redressing the balance of power between" the West and Middle East, and "bringing the West to heel."
Kelly also foresaw "a further, potentially more sinister, threat to the West than" mere "economic blackmail." The Gulf regimes would use their vast wealth surpluses to fund think tanks and lobbyists in Washington and, in so doing, come to influence American policy.
"What signs there may be in the United States of the deployment of these funds for such purposes I have no way of knowing; but here in Britain evidence grows with each passing week of the creeping corruption of our political, economic, and social institutions by both the covert and overt use of oil money, predominantly Arab." Forty years later, such funds are ubiquitous in Washington — one of the Beltway's dirty little secrets.
Since that time, the Gulf States have spent billions exporting Arabia's homegrown fundamentalism, Wahhabism, around the world. Wahhabism — the religious norm for Saudi Arabia and, increasingly, Sunni Islam — continues to provide fertile ground for extremism, with many Islamist militant recruits coming from that movement. Many of the oil-rich elite in the Gulf States have gifted billions not only to Wahhabi clerics but also Al Qaeda, Al Nusra and ISIS.
They have also donated hundreds of millions more to elite universities, funds that many believe are intended to purchase the silence of America's academic institutions. While one hears little from America's academic institutions, think tanks or political leaders about the troubling human rights abuses of the Gulf States (which according to Amnesty International sometimes include crucifixion) or their links to terrorism, there are some notable exceptions.
Earlier this year, retired Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and principal author of the Senate's 9/11 report, renewed an old controversy by calling for the declassification of 28 pages of that report that pertain to Saudi Arabia. Graham says that the classified portions "will cause the American government to reconsider the nature of our relationship with Saudi Arabia." Graham insists that the September 11 attacks were not an isolated event and that the funding that enabled them is ongoing.
"Saudi Arabia has been the principal supporter, financially and otherwise, of these extremist movements," Graham told CNN in a televised interview. "Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda Arabian Peninsula [AQAP], Al Shabab [the Al Qaeda franchise in Somalia] and now ISIS are all the products of Saudis' desire, and commitment to its clerical leadership, to extend this extreme form of Islam." Whatever the case, there is no denying that terrorist organizations require substantial funding — and few, if any, deny the nexus between terrorist funding and Gulf state largesse.
The emergence of political and military Islamist extremism has also contributed to the eradication of religious moderates and minorities across the Middle East. In Iraq, the Christian population has dwindled from upwards of 1.5 million in 1990 to probably fewer than 200,000 today. Iraq's Yezidis are on the brink of extinction and no group has suffered more.
Sunnis who do not conform meet the same violent end as Shiites, homosexuals and others. In conversations from Egypt to Levant to Mesopotamia, one asks locals and experts the sources of the extremists' funding. Time and again, the answer is the same — and one need not wait for the translation to comprehend it: "Saudi. Qatar. Kuwait. Petrol."
America's dependence on Middle Eastern oil has thus not only contributed to one of the greatest wealth transfers in history, it has also indirectly contributed to the rise of violent extremism. A further consequence has been the invitation of undue foreign influence, which Alexander Hamilton likened to a Trojan Horse for representative government. Still, America's leaders refer to "our friends in the Gulf," a claim that will baffle future historians even as it appears to fall on American ears today without irony.
George Kennan once observed that "the interests of the populace at large will normally be no more than a secondary consideration for those in power." Politicians, like public policy think tanks and academic institutions, will naturally seek out sources of wealth to fund their campaigns and projects. Nowhere in the world is extravagant wealth and power so concentrated in the hands of a few as it is in the Gulf States. And they have every reason to seek influence in Washington.
Those committed to America's energy independence appear to have been slow to apprehend this reality — that is, that Middle Eastern oil interests have greater sway in Washington than they. Perhaps their time and efforts have been preoccupied with regulatory and environmental battles — no doubt to the pleasure of the Gulf States. Until advocates for American energy independence figure out how to compete with the Gulf States for influence on energy policy, they are likely to remain at the mercy of OPEC, as is the American economy.
Andrew Doran writes about U.S. foreign policy and human rights issues in the Middle East. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.