Modern statecraft often has a fine line between the optimal outcome and a morally questionable one. Nowhere is this dilemma more apparent than in the Middle East – specifically the Gulf. It is unfortunate that nations like America and Britain, with proud histories of individual freedom and human rights, can be allied to oil dictators with scant regard for many freedoms. We are now at a historic turning point that may enable change in circumstances for the better. The shale energy revolution in America enables the beginning of an end to this unfortunate state of affairs.
It does not have to be the case that liberal democracies need go with the tide of autocracy and illiberalism. Both leverage and opportunity exists to effect change in the oil kingdoms, now that American shale gas is being exported to Europe, gradually decreasing European dependence on the Gulf as well as Russia for energy – evidence suggests that America also holds up to 4 times the total Saudi oil reserves in shale oil underground.
If the US can become a major energy supplier to democracies around the world, it can help ease Western dependence on dictators for energy needs, thus curbing some of the main leverage Gulf monarchies have on the West. In the absence of oil dependency the West can hope to coax the monarchies into liberal reform. In an age of declining oil revenues – partly caused by shale – the Gulf monarchies are no longer be able to buy off increasingly young, restless and demanding populations.
The dividing line is clear – the support of extremists by fundamentalist regimes can no longer be tolerated. The Saudis in particular have long incubated an ideology, Wahhabism, which promotes regressive interpretations of religion across the region. Liberalisation remains the best long run antidote to the poison of extremism in the region. Rather than regime change it encourages regime reform. This avoids ceding space to violent fundamentalists while empowering a more rights-based approach to government. From free speech to women’s rights, such an approach could be transformational in societies across the Middle East, slowly reversing the tide of frustration which empowered the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
The time to be bold is now. There may never be a period more amenable to Western idealism in the region. Even as it convulses under the competing pressures of autocracy and religious extremism, a third liberal way can come to the forefront. This liberal reform can be strengthened behind the scenes by a West re-energised by the decreased dependency on Gulf oil. Policy-makers now have the chance to build a change which is both stable and just, which protects Western interests while being liberal and in sync with Western values of human rights and freedoms.