John Stoehr: State could play a role in changing Saudi Arabia

October 30, 2016 GMT

Count me among those who don’t like Saudi Arabia.

It treats women like children. (Legally, they are minors.) It underwrites Islamic terrorism. It exploits migrant labor to the point of slavery. With scimitars, it beheads poets. (Really.)

It has enormous control over American lives, as it remains the biggest oil producer in the world, and therefore the strongest member of OPEC, the world’s most powerful business cartel.

It challenges U.S. sovereignty. In the early years of the Obama administration, the success of solar energy and hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) moved the U.S. toward real energy independence, weakening our demand for Saudi crude as well as the Kingdom’s influence on American foreign policy.

That opened a space for the Obama administration last year to negotiate with Iran to stop its nuclear weapons program. The Saudis, who see Iran as an enemy and who depend on oil exports for 80 percent of its revenues, were none too pleased. So, months ago, it opened up the spigots wide, sending global oil prices tumbling and nearly idling the U.S. fracking industry.

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Like I said. I don’t like Saudi Arabia.

But the times they are a-changing.

The king is dead, and with him died the dream of Arabian oil flowing for a millennium. Saudi Arabia has a new monarch searching for a new future, a future that may present a business opportunity for a state on the lookout for them. It also seems to be an opportunity for Connecticut, in a round-about way that includes turning a profit, to loosen oil’s grip on the globe.

I’ll get to that in a minute. First, consider this:

$2 trillion. Twelve zeroes. And a 2. Over 15 years.

That’s the sum Saudi Arabia is planning to spend to diversify its economy by 2030. And that’s the sum that perked — perked! — the ears of attendees at a University of Bridgeport trade forum Monday featuring a member of the royal family traveling in Connecticut to attract international investment and trading partners in the U.S.

His Royal Highness Prince Turki Bin Mohammed Bin Nasser Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (yes, his real full formal name) told a Yale audience Tuesday he envisions Saudi Arabia as a kind of Wal-Mart Bazaar, buying goods made in the U.S. before selling them at a profit to eager middle-class consumers in the Middle East.

The Saudis are understandably playing both sides. They are drumming up business in China, too, which has its own grand business scheme modeled after the ancient Silk Road running from China to Mediterranean Europe. That fits the Kingdom’s thinking, as it realizes now its reliance on oil exports, especially to the U.S., has the potential for a national security crisis.

You may think: How can Connecticut compete with China? Even Americans don’t buy stuff made in America. They buy stuff made in China. What’s the appeal for Saudi Arabia? Good question.

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Fact is, we still make stuff. Just not consumer products as much as we used to, like buttons and bikes. Mostly, we make sophisticated stuff, like engines for jet fighters. When it comes to advanced manufacturing, Connecticut can compete.

Which brings me to my own business scheme.

Connecticut boasts about 145 companies that make, install or service solar panels. These include, to name three at random, Abet Technologies in Milford, Momentive Performance Materials in Wilton, and Optical Energy Technologies in Stamford. The state is in the early stages of achieving optimal renewable energy, but so far, about 36,000 homes function on solar power alone.

That’s a solid foundation.

Now may be the time to scale up. Assuming demand is there, and why wouldn’t it be? Given that the Arabian peninsula is mostly desert, there seems to be room to grow. Wouldn’t it be amazing if our solar companies exported panels to a sun-drenched nation seeking to reduce its dependence on cash from oil exports?

I believe that’s what people in the biz call “synergy.”

I don’t know if a diversified economy, thanks to advanced manufacturing imports from Connecticut, will lead to a humane Saudi Arabia: whether it would grant equal rights to women, stop outsourcing extremism, pay migrants a living wage or — for the love of God — cease using a giant knife to execute criminals.

No one can know.

But I do know Connecticut could play a small role in that transformation, and turn a tidy profit at the same time.

That might be a Saudi Arabia I like.

Might.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan. He is a contributing writer to Washington Monthly and U.S. News & World Report.