More articles by
Yacov Ben Efrat
Going with the wind
Hurricane Irma, rapidly approaching the coast of Florida, is a meteorological phenomenon. But its political implications are equally far-reaching.
At this writing (September 8, 2017), the world is watching with horror as Irma, with winds of up to 175 miles an hour, continues to tear through the Caribbean. Television plays smart-phone recordings that compare the force of the wind to the power of a jet plane taking off. Forecasters explain that wind is not the main problem, rather water. Cities are flooded while infrastructure, homes, and everything on Irma's path are destroyed, as we saw with Katrina in 2005 and Harvey recently in Texas. Irma is the most powerful hurricane in recorded history, and it won’t be the last. Two others are making their way through the Gulf of Mexico. It is in transition seasons, when the ocean temperature reaches 26 degrees centigrade, that conditions are created allowing for hurricanes of unprecedented intensity.
So what’s the connection between this and politics? Hurricane Katrina was a negative turning point for the presidency of George W. Bush, and now Donald Trump is facing a similar challenge. He’s so concerned about possible blowback that he sided with the “loathsome” Democratic congressional leaders to deliver an urgent aid package for repairing the destruction that Harvey left in Houston. Indeed, just a few months ago, Trump announced his withdrawal from the Paris agreement which President Obama had said was a “turning point for our planet.” The agreement aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming and extreme phenomena such as these storms.
As is generally known, Trump is a climate change denier, saying that data on global warming is bogus. Moreover, he has mobilized the "working class" with claims that climate change is a "Chinese hoax" - a conspiracy against them in the name of the environment. In fact, Trump is indeed a friend of oil companies and high-polluting heavy industry. In the name of the American worker, he has repealed regulations intended to deal with greenhouse gas emissions. Ironically, Hurricane Irma slammed into Trump's estate on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, valued at $18 million.
You can fool most of the people most of the time by using the word “fake” to dismiss scientific knowledge. But you cannot fool the wind. There are even those who have discovered that you can harness the wind instead of fighting it, and this is happening in Scandinavia. The Swedes and Danes believe in science. They are taking action to wean themselves from oil by 2050. For this purpose, they are setting up giant wind turbine farms off the coast of the North Sea. It turns out that renewable energy is not simply a way to save the planet from global warming, but an efficient and inexpensive way to generate energy. The technology of renewable energy is in lockstep with the tremendous progress in the development of the electric motor and the autonomous vehicle, which will replace air-polluting private cars in the foreseeable future.
In the German city of Stuttgart, home to Mercedes and Porsche, a court has ruled to prohibit the use of polluting diesel engines. Angela Merkel tried to reassure the owners of Germany’s approximately 15 million diesel cars by promising to do “everything in our powers to make sure there won’t be such bans.” Supported by Daimler Benz, she is trying to delay the inevitable. Europe as a whole (including the United Kingdom) is moving away from fuel-powered cars toward electric cars.
Although the USA lies beyond the ocean, and the warm Middle Eastern temperament is a far cry from the Scandinavian persona, the north wind has a direct connection to the winds blowing in the Middle East, especially in the Persian Gulf. The Swedish decision to be the world's first oil-free economy is a real threat to the Saudi kingdom, where oil prices are falling. Oil producing countries, from Putin's Russia to Maduro's Venezuela, are approaching a deep economic crisis that threatens their rule.
The Saudi kingdom looks around and realizes that change must come sooner or later, and therefore it is taking hesitant steps to revamp its economic structure, which is built on oil, oil, and more oil. So far, oil has allowed Saudi citizens to laze about, not pay taxes, and live on state subsidies that buy social tranquility. However, Prince Mohammed, the son of the elderly King Salman, is now the young heir to the throne. He began a series of reforms called "Vision 2030," the first and foremost of which aims to privatize the Aramco oil company.
Trump's election initially brought a flush of joy to Saudi cheeks, but the destructive power of Hurricane Irma is a harbinger that oil's time is over. Twenty-five years late, the Saudis realize that they must privatize the economy in order to save the regime: airports, transportation, water, schools, everything is up for grabs, but there are no buyers. Privatization requires modernization. And how does modernization jibe with sharia law, with a ban on women working, with millions of foreign workers and servants lacking rights and citizenship? If Saudi Arabia wants to privatize, it will have to shake loose its reactionary regime. If and when that happens, don’t be surprised to find the Arab Spring knocking on the Saudi door.
The wind and the (Arab) Spring are the sworn enemies of the oil industry and the reactionary Saudi regime, which has become bogged down in feverish efforts to prevent the Spring from spreading throughout the Arab region. This is the basis of the conflict with neighboring Qatar, which has long understood that the wind and the Spring cannot be stopped, and the best-case scenario is to contain them both. Thus, the Qataris are buying up whatever they can, from abstract art, soccer clubs, banks, and real estate to a political party in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi enemies - Hamas, Sheikh Raed Salah in Israel, and even Azmi Bishara are in Qatar's pocket. Meanwhile, to protect outdated regimes, Saudi Arabia does all it can to prop up al-Sisi in Egypt and friendly regimes in Libya and Yemen, trying to push Iran out of Syria and Iraq. But both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are out of step with the times.
It transpires that the same wind that supplies renewable energy in distant Scandinavia is breathing down the neck of out-of-date Arab regimes and revitalizing young forces seeking democracy and progress. Arab intellectuals, who rose up against the old and corrupt regimes in 2011, were the result of a global technological revolution that connected them through social media with likeminded youngsters in European capitals. Both groups are fed up with neoliberalism, which uses science to deprive the young of their future, helping the 1% to control half the world’s wealth.
Saudi money backed Egyptian youngsters to form the “Tamarud” movement, which overthrew the democratically elected Mohammad Mursi, and to support the military coup of General Sisi. Saudi money also bought jihadist militias who wiped out the Syrian revolutionaries. This has had a devastating effect. The world is rapidly changing and Information can’t be blocked. Technology is altering the world order. The desperate attempt by the Arab regimes, especially the Gulf kingdoms, to forestall social change will not work.
It seems that, like the diesel engine, the "Sunni axis" is also becoming obsolete. The crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia reflects the depth of the crisis. The Gulf States are imploding. Israel is a high-tech superpower, but in the political sphere, it is doing its best to buy time and cling to the old world order. The view is that we should ally ourselves with the “moderate Sunni axis” instead of ending the Occupation and giving millions of Palestinians a future of hope in a modern and democratic state.
The Sunni axis creates the illusion that the status quo is possible, and our situation could never be better with Trump, while the Saudi king promises that there will be no pressure to reach a solution with the Palestinians. But this will not stop global warming - or the changes happening around us and in the wider world. Not only is the earth warming up, with Trump footing the bill for the victims, but the Middle East too is changing. The winds of the Arab Spring that blew in the summer of 2011 might have died down, but they will return.
The absurdity of the situation in Washington, and the shameful spectacle in Jerusalem of senior officials close to the prime minister being marched to interrogation rooms, prove that the old regimes and old technologies are on their way out. Change is inevitable. The bloody Occupation will also pass. Israelis and Palestinians will need to find a way to merge into the modern world, if they do not want to be knocked down by the wind.
- Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman