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Saudis shocked – Bush energy move terrifies the Middle East

Franz Schurmann Pacific News Service
Friday January 11, 2002

Franz Schurmann 

Pacific News Service 


The Bush administration yesterday switched automotive policy away from promoting high-mileage, gasoline-powered cars in favor of research on hydrogen-based fuel cells. Many in the American energy community reacted critically, noting that fuel cells are at least a decade away and calling for more immediate steps to halt Detroit's production of gas-guzzlers. 

But in the Middle East, reaction was apocalyptic. 

As word of the policy change leaked out last week, one Lebanese observer, Samir Attalah, wrote on Jan. 3 in the London-based, Saudi-financed daily As-Sharq al-Ausat, “the Gulf region faces unemployment, slump and violence for the first time since oil appeared on the Gulf scene decades ago.” Attalah first painted a picture of the region's sudden transformation from poverty to prosperity decades ago. He then predicted a similar transformation in the other direction. 

Until now, the oil-producing countries had believed that, whether in boom or slump, advanced nations needed ever-increasing amounts of oil. But now the oil-friendly Bush administration, led by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (who is of Lebanese Arab descent), has decided to push America and the world toward a post-oil future. 

In a speech in Detroit announcing the new policy, Abraham said the ultimate aim was to eventually do away with the internal combustion engine. He said this surrounded by corporate chiefs of the American automotive industry. 

Attalah began his swan song piece by saying he had attended most of the 22 meetings of the “Gulf Cooperation Council” (GCC). But the council's most recent meeting, he said, would be its last. He knew this was so because his friend Jamil Al-Hejailan, the head of the GCC since its founding in 1981, had announced his retirement. Though the GCC never had 

much power, Al-Hejailan's resignation conveyed the message that an era was at its end. 

The GCC came into being in reaction to the threat posed by Iran's Islamic revolution. The majority of Iranians are Shi'a Muslims, though worldwide the Shi'a faithful only constitute 10 percent of all Muslims. However, most indigenous Gulf oil workers are Shi'a Arabs, even in the non-Arab, oil-rich Khuzistan province of Iran. 

In 1981, the GCC members, backed by a large U.S. military presence, concerned themselves mostly with preventing pro-Iranian elements from 

gaining political clout in the Gulf. But as the Iranian threat lessened, the GCC became a friendly go-between between Saudi Arabia and Iran. After Sept. 11, the GCC came out in full support of America's war on terrorism. 

For the last 20 years, the GCC has always acted to preserve the stunning prosperity of the Gulf countries. 

But the GCC's greatest protector, America, has now decided that its long-term goal is “doing away with the internal combustion engine.” The late John Ehrlichman, convicted felon in the Watergate scandal, once said, “We were left dangling in the wind.” So too is the GCC. 

The wind now battering the GCC and the entire Middle East is the turbulence unleashed by the war in Afghanistan. Every day it looks less likely that oil and natural gas can be peacefully extracted from all over the region. And with increasing global demand for oil, the biggest oil consumer of them all – the United States – is planning a non-oil energy future. 

During World War II, our two greatest enemies, Germany and Japan, fought and survived for years with substitute fuels after the Allies cut off their access to oil. The German word “ersatz” – alternative – made it into the English vocabulary. 

Since Sept. 11, President Bush has repeated that America and the world will be at war for a long time to come. That means the government will put its weight fully behind the new hydrogen-based fuel cell. 

In World War II, technological breakthroughs – predicted to take decades – were achieved in a few years. 

If this is what Secretary Abraham has in mind, then it is the first and possibly most important change to come in the wake of Sept. 11 last. 


PNS Editor Franz Schurmann ( is emeritus professor at UC Berkeley. He has written on Middle Eastern oil since the late 1970s.