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Saudi Arabia’s Oil Politics will make Puppets of us all

So on Monday, I huddled with a diplomat in the Qatar capital, Doha.

I wanted to know why, as an East African, I should be losing sleep over events in the Middle East, especially the Islamic State’s rampage, the war in Syria and Yemen, and what some have called the Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia against the Iran-anchored Shia coalition.

His view was that the Saudi have been extremely audacious, and equally dangerous, in their play.

To begin with the one we all know, was its move to crush American shale oil production by driving prices down.

With the nuclear talks between regional rival Iran and world powers, Saudi Arabia also wanted to make any eventual deal an empty economic victory for Tehran, because its return to an oil market where historically low prices reigned, meant it would gain little.

The Saudis were also seeking to get the Americans more directly involved in the war in Syria, where Iran-allied President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime was nevertheless stubbornly clinging on in a war against myriad rebel groups.

The Saudis largely failed. The Iran nuclear deal was signed.

Second, they didn’t reckon on the muscular intervention in Syria by Russia to back Assad.

They also underestimated the resilience and technological nimbleness of American shale, so they lost that gamble.

However, their “price war” wrecked oil economies in Africa like Nigeria and Angola and, in East Africa, helped postpone commercial exploitation of new oil finds in Uganda and Kenya.

Still, the Saudis upped the stakes, cobbling together another coalition to bomb Yemen, where Iran-backed Houthi rebels were on the verge of taking power.

This has become a stalemate, but not before Senegal, Morocco, Egypt, and Sudan had thrown in their guns behind the Saudis. In East Africa and the Horn, besides Sudan sending nearly 1,000 troops into the Yemen fight, Djibouti and Somalia cut diplomatic links with Iran in solidarity with the Saudis.

Potentially, then, the southern frontline of the Syrian and Yemen wars is now at the Kenyan border with Somalia.

But perhaps Saudi Arabia’s most deadly move was its recent decision to cut $4 billion in military and other aid to Lebanon.

Many observers are puzzled, arguing that it gives Iran greater room to increase its influence in Lebanon through its ally, the militant Hezbollah group.

But then, that’s the point. A fragile Lebanon could collapse, and Hezbollah would profit. Neither Israel nor the US would stand by and let Hezbollah take over in Lebanon. Israel would invade, which would radicalise the region and profit the Islamic State and Al Qaeda further. The refugee flood into Jordan, Turkey and ultimately Europe, would spiral. The US would have to move in. Saudi Arabia would be the only regional power with the ability to dial down the crisis. Oil prices would jump. The Uganda-Tanzania (or will it be Uganda-Kenya) oil pipeline would be quickly built because it would make sense. Oil would flow in Turkana. Nigeria would wake from its economic coma. For reasons of self-interest, these countries will support the Saudi Arabian geopolitical posture in the Middle East. Impressive puppetry, if it works. Riyadh can only hope that no one decides that the Middle East will be better by collapsing the house of Saud itself. Still, for East Africa, that would be even better for its oil.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa ( Twitter@cobbo3

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