Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Geo-politics of oil in Saudi Arabia: Potential for Conflict

Saudi Arabia’s New Strategic Game in South Asia

Motivated by old and new security anxieties, and above all, by its sectarian competition with Iran, Saudi Arabia is playing a new game in South Asia. In a dramatic shift from prior decades, warming ties with India have already served Riyadh well by steering New Delhi away from a closer partnership with Tehran. Separately, reenergized links with Pakistan offer Riyadh even more potent ammunition to counter Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions.

Although Western analysts tend to view Saudi policies through a Middle Eastern lens, Riyadh’s South Asia play is a high-stakes gambit with direct consequences for Iranian nuclear developments, the war in Syria, Pakistan’s stability and Indo-Pakistani peace. Fortunately, if Washington is clever and a little lucky, many of Riyadh’s moves with Islamabad and New Delhi can be turned to the U.S. advantage.

Saudi Anxieties, Old and New

Throughout its modern history, the insular and fabulously wealthy Saudi monarchy has grappled with domestic and regional security anxieties despite extraordinary military expenditures. At home, the state’s official sponsorship of the austere Salafi school of Sunni Islam has created particular problems with the country’s Shia minority on the one hand, and with radical and violent Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda, on the other. At the same time, the tradition-bound, dynastic politics of the Al Saud family poses an obstacle to the sort of reform that would encourage broad-based economic growth and political participation.

Given these domestic political challenges, the events of the 2011 “Arab Spring” raised new Saudi fears about internal unrest and regional strife. Saudi leaders have tended to interpret recent political upheavals in the context of a broader sectarian and strategic competition with Iran. That rivalry for leadership within the Muslim world has driven Saudi defense and foreign policy for decades and shows no serious sign of abating.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions exacerbate Saudi fears, and the latest spate of U.S.-led multilateral negotiations with Tehran has done little to inspire confidence in Riyadh. Like the Israelis and other critics of the process, the Saudis worry that Iran is using talks to slip free from crippling international sanctions in ways that will allow Tehran to expand its regional influence without permanently conceding its nuclear weapons or ballistic-missile ambitions. Unlike the Israelis, the Saudis do not yet have their own nuclear arsenal to deter Iran. But prominent Saudis, such as former intelligence chief Prince Turki Al Faisal, have declared that Riyadh would have no choice but to go nuclear if Iran ever actually crossed that threshold.

Recent U.S. and Saudi differences over the Arab Spring and Iranian nuclear negotiations exist against a larger backdrop: the gradual deterioration in Riyadh’s relationship with Washington. Throughout the Cold War, that relationship was justified by Washington’s commitment to defending the world’s preeminent energy producer from Soviet conquest. In the post–Cold War period, Washington remained concerned about secure access to Gulf energy supplies, but U.S. wars in Iraq ultimately contributed to the deterioration in bilateral ties with Riyadh, even though the Saudis had no love for Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. And, of course, the biggest shock to the U.S.-Saudi relationship came on 9/11, given the Saudi origins of fifteen of the nineteen Al Qaeda hijackers.

Looking ahead, there are additional reasons to anticipate that Saudi-U.S. ties will ebb. Above all, whereas U.S. energy imports from Saudi Arabia used to be taken for granted, the U.S.-led technological revolution in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and improvements in energy efficiencies are turning the United States into a net energy exporter. Energy sales will no longer offer as significant commercial ballast to the U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship as they once did.

To be sure, Washington and Riyadh will continue to share important interests. On balance, however, the Saudis see the writing on the wall, and they have been smart to seek new ways to adapt to an increasingly difficult strategic environment. Riyadh has begun to diversify its commercial and strategic relationships and consider its security in an Asia-centric, rather than U.S.-centric, context. Evidence of these shifts is already apparent in the Saudi strategy for South Asia.

A New Game with New Delhi

In early 2012, Saudi authorities arrested Sayeed Zabiudeen Ansari (alias Abu Jundal), a Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operative accused of playing a central role in planning and executing the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, India. After months of behind-the-scenes diplomatic wrangling between Islamabad, Riyadh, New Delhi, and Washington, Ansari was deported to India, where he was publicly re-arrested and interrogated extensively. Today he sits in solitary confinement in Mumbai’s central jail, and Indian sources claim that he has shed significant light on the Mumbai operation, including its links with members of the Pakistani intelligence service, or ISI.

Riyadh’s decision to send Ansari to India was remarkable. Ansari had traveled to Saudi Arabia on a Pakistani passport and his interrogation was almost certain to implicate the ISI—and by extension, provide strong evidence on the question of the Pakistani state’s support to terrorists. Pakistani officials undoubtedly would have preferred that Ansari be returned to their custody, and in the past, the intimate ties between Saudi and Pakistani intelligence services would have trumped Indian requests. In this case, however, Indian authorities prevailed. It helped, of course, that the facts were in New Delhi’s favor: Ansari was actually an Indian whose DNA matched with that of his Indian father. Pressure from U.S. intelligence officials and growing Saudi concerns about the genuine threat posed by groups like LeT may have sealed the deal.

Yet the Ansari case was also part of a wider trend in the Saudi-Indian relationship dating back to the end of the Cold War. For decades, India’s tilt toward Moscow and anemic economy had hindered the full flowering of ties between New Delhi and Riyadh. The new post–Cold War order paved the way for Riyadh to reimagine India’s potential as a growing energy consumer, a powerful regional actor, and even a strategic partner.

More important, in the early 2000s, Riyadh had good reasons for concern that India was growing closer to Iran. In 2000, India and Iran agreed to invest in a transit corridor linking an expanded Iranian port of Chabahar on the Arabian Sea to Afghanistan and Central Asia. In 2001, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Tehran, and in 2003, Iranian president Mohammed Khatami was India’s chief guest for the annual Republic Day celebration. The 2003 “New Delhi Declaration” included pledges by the two sides to expand and deepen commercial links—especially energy trade—and defense cooperation in a “strategic partnership.” Early signs, such as security-oriented working groups and naval exercises, along with a 35 percent jump in bilateral trade between 2004 and 2005, suggested that this Indo-Iranian partnership had the potential to be more than mere rhetoric.

Riyadh, however, did not sit idly by and watch the Indo-Iranian relationship mature. The Saudis had important cards to play, not least their place as India’s top source for petroleum imports. These existing commercial ties were actively encouraged and bolstered by the diplomatic outreach of Saudi leaders. In 2006, King Abdullah visited New Delhi, the first trip to India by a Saudi monarch since 1955. There the two sides vowed to expand trade and to improve counterterror cooperation. In 2010, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh returned the favor with a three-day, high-profile visit to the kingdom, during which the two sides also declared themselves “strategic partners” and paved the way for a follow-on defense cooperation pact inked in February 2014.

From a Saudi perspective, India is clearly an important energy customer, but the heightened strategic value of closer ties with India is better appreciated when viewed through the lens of Riyadh’s rivalry with Tehran. Here Saudi policy analysts suggest that diplomatic outreach to New Delhi has already achieved significant successes. Point by point, the emergent Indo-Iranian partnership of the early 2000s has been matched by Riyadh’s own diplomatic overtures of the past decade.

In addition, the Saudis have continued to supply about a fifth of India’s petroleum imports, even as total Indian energy demand more than doubled from 1990 to 2009. In an era when India has faced mounting international pressure (especially from the United States) to limit the growth of its oil imports from Iran, reliable Saudi supplies provide a crucial alternative. In 2012, for instance, India cut its Iranian crude imports by 11 percent. In 2013, India cut even further, and Iran fell from number three to number seven on the list of India’s top oil suppliers. Without the confidence inspired by unstinting Saudi energy supplies and royal reassurances, India would also have been less likely to take diplomatic action against Iran by casting multiple important votes in the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) during the period from 2005 to 2009.

To be sure, India has hardly turned into an unabashed supporter of the Saudi agenda. New Delhi remains concerned about the role of Saudi support to Salafist groups throughout the region, including in India itself, home to nearly 10 percent of the world’s Muslims. And Riyadh’s long history of intimate links with Pakistan’s security establishment will remain a source of distrust and tension for the foreseeable future. Moreover, New Delhi tries to maintain cordial, better relations with Iran. Tehran and New Delhi still see eye-to-eye on the situation in Afghanistan, and India has assiduously avoided taking sides in the Syrian civil war.

Nevertheless, the Saudis have clearly mounted an unprecedented effort to minimize India’s dependence on Iran and the gambit has worked in important, if circumscribed, ways.

Reinforced Ties with Pakistan

In April 2014, 130,000 troops took part in Saudi Arabia’s largest-ever military exercises. Dubbed “Abdullah’s Shield,” the show of strength included an impressive parade for visiting dignitaries in honor of King Abdullah’s ninth anniversary on the throne. Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, sat next to Prince Mutaib, the king’s son and National Guard minister, as a public demonstration of their important bilateral ties.

The parade was the latest in a series of recent events that suggest a rekindling of intimate relations between Riyadh and Islamabad, starting in mid-2013. The Saudi crown prince and foreign minister have each visited Pakistan, and General Sharif’s attendance at the military parade in April was his second high-profile trip to the kingdom since ascending to Pakistan’s top army job only six months earlier. Even more striking, however, was Islamabad’s March 2014 announcement that an unnamed friend—undoubtedly Saudi Arabia—had given Pakistan a “gift” of $1.5 billion, aimed at bolstering Pakistan’s currency. Well-placed Pakistani sources have since suggested that the total aid package could actually end up being twice or three times that amount.

Government officials in Islamabad contend that the recent Saudi embrace is nothing new. Saudi Arabia has had a long history of close ties with Pakistan: Islamabad started sending military trainers to the Kingdom in the 1960s, and during the 1970s and 1980s stationed thousands of troops—possibly as many as 20,000—there to bolster internal and external defenses. In return, the Saudis delivered to Pakistan nearly $1 billion in aid per year throughout most of the 1980s.

Also in the 1980s, the Saudis worked hand-in-hand with the United States to funnel billions of dollars to the anti-Soviet Afghan mujahedeen, all by way of Pakistan’s ISI. But the Saudi-Pakistani cooperation in Afghanistan did not end when the United States pulled away at the end of the Cold War. Indeed, the two continued to collaborate in their support to friendly factions—including the Taliban—during the Afghan civil war of the 1990s. Nor did Riyadh withdraw its support when Pakistan tested its nuclear weapons in 1998. To the contrary, the Saudis reportedly provided Islamabad with a desperately needed infusion of free energy, to the tune of 50,000 barrels of oil per day, to offset the pain of international sanctions.

For decades, the Saudis have played an influential political role in Islamabad. Riyadh’s willingness to host exiled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif throughout most of General Pervez Musharraf’s regime was a tangible manifestation of that influence, as was Sharif’s well-financed return to Pakistan during the 2007-8 national parliamentary campaign. More than that, rumors are rife that many of Pakistan’s elite leaders—from across the political spectrum—quietly receive generous gifts from royal Saudi benefactors.

Saudi largesse and influence thus have a pronounced history in Pakistan, but the first five years of civilian rule after Musharraf’s departure in 2008 never saw the senior Saudi visits or generous aid packages of 2013 and 2014. The cooling of Pak-Saudi relations between 2008 and 2013 was primarily a consequence of Riyadh’s distrust of then-President Asif Ali Zardari. That distrust was rooted in several factors, including the Saudi belief that Zardari, the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and inheritor of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) that was founded in 1967 by her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, is less of a loyal friend than Pakistan’s military leaders or the current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif (no relation to the current army chief).

This point was reinforced when Zardari’s PPP lost the May 2013 elections to Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party, and Riyadh and Islamabad quickly got back to business-as-usual. From a Saudi perspective, Sharif’s loyalties—both sectarian and geopolitical—are unimpeachable. Now that they have their man in Islamabad, the Saudis expect that Pakistan will not tilt toward Tehran in any matter of significant concern.

The question is exactly what the Saudis expect to get from Pakistan for their generous financial assistance and friendly diplomacy. Initially thought to be at the top of a speculative quid pro quo list was the idea that the Saudis sought to spring former president Musharraf from house arrest (imposed while he stands trial for actions he took as Pakistan’s president) into a comfortable exile of the sort Nawaz Sharif enjoyed. Although this outcome would still be a plausible way for Musharraf’s current political drama to end, so far he continues to languish in Pakistan despite new rumors cropping up each time a senior Saudi official lands in Islamabad.

Other Pakistani analysts speculate that Riyadh’s friendly coercion was aimed at blocking plans for a gas pipeline from Iran, originally called the IPI for its ambition of running from Iran’s South Pars field through Pakistan to India. Saudi Arabia would clearly like to keep Iran from poking any holes in international sanctions, but it is less certain that Riyadh needed to pay Pakistan in order to kill the IPI. The pipeline deal was already plagued by delays, and major financial and security obstacles remain in the way of a line that would run through Baluchistan, some of the region’s most insecure and violent real estate.

Pipeline or no, Pakistan may be on track to deliver on two far more sensitive issues: Syria and nuclear weapons. Regarding Syria, despite subsequent claims to the contrary, Pakistan appeared to alter its policy stance after the February 2014 visit to Islamabad by the Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. In a joint communiqué, Pakistan expressed support for the Saudi goals of forming a Syrian “transitional governing body” and removing all foreign (read: Iranian) military forces.

In addition, Pakistani military officers appear to be involved in the training of Syrian groups fighting the Assad regime, and the Saudis may have purchased a range of Pakistani-manufactured small arms, possibly even antiaircraft and antitank missiles, for use by anti-Assad insurgent groups. When asked, Pakistani officials have denied that their troops are training Syrian rebels and claim that the use of any weapons sold to Saudi Arabia would be contractually restricted to the Saudis themselves. But these deflections suggest obvious loopholes; retired Pakistani officers are not “serving troops,” and if the Saudis break end-use restrictions on Pakistan-made weapons, there is no reason to expect Islamabad would ever hold them accountable.

On the nuclear front, the picture is even more opaque. Pakistani officials uniformly insist that they learned their lesson from the experience of Dr. A.Q. Khan’s infamous international proliferation network that being involved in the transfer of nuclear materials and know-how is a dangerous and costly game—one they should never again play. The Saudis are also careful to explain that they have no claim on the Pakistani nuclear program, despite decades of rumors to the contrary, that like any self-respecting state, Pakistan guards its arsenal jealously, and that the only Saudi plan for nuclear development is to improve the nation’s indigenous technological capabilities.

These claims are difficult to accept at face value for two main reasons. First, both Riyadh and Islamabad have every incentive to hide the extent of their nuclear cooperation. If a nuclear transfer were exposed, the two states would not only feel the wrath of the international community for breaking rules enshrined in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but they would also give Iran new reasons to accelerate its own nuclear-weapon development—precisely the outcome that Riyadh would prefer to avoid.

Second, if Iran does actually cross the nuclear-weapons threshold, Riyadh has signaled that it would stop at nothing to match Tehran’s feat—and fast. At present, the only realistic, cost-effective, quick way for Riyadh to make good on that threat is through a Pakistani nuclear transfer. No other nuclear state has as intimate a security relationship with Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh currently lacks the wherewithal to build an arsenal of its own.

In that hypothetical scenario, time would be of the essence. If the Pakistanis were to transfer warheads to the Saudis immediately after Iran goes nuclear, the international backlash would probably be muted, with primary blame assigned to Iran for starting the proliferation chain reaction. If, however, the Saudis take months or years to ready their own nuclear capability or negotiate a transfer from Pakistan, both Riyadh and Islamabad would almost certainly run up against a concerted international effort to close the nuclear door after Iran’s breakout. There are other good reasons for Riyadh to want to be able to move quickly. Armed with an immediate and dramatic counter to Iran’s new nuclear status, Riyadh would steal Tehran’s thunder, deny Iran a coercive advantage, and enter a marginally more stable world of nuclear deterrence from day one.

Just how Pakistan would transfer a nuclear capability to Saudi Arabia is a matter of some speculation. A dual-key arrangement with a contingent of Pakistani nuclear forces based in Saudi Arabia would hold some advantages, including that it might not technically violate the NPT (in the same way as U.S. nuclear forces have historically been based within nonnuclear allied territories). Such a deal would require a significant Pakistani military footprint inside Saudi Arabia, presumably a development that might be spotted by U.S. and other intelligence services.

At least as likely, however, both Riyadh and Islamabad would prefer to mask their cooperation, with the Saudis claiming, if implausibly, that they had developed their own indigenous nuclear capability, and the Pakistanis denying any involvement. At best, these fabrications would offer a diplomatically convenient way for states—possibly even the United States—to keep the punitive focus squarely on Iran, rather than on Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.

In almost any conceivable instance of a Pakistani nuclear transfer to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s leaders would have to be convinced that they could survive the consequences with neighboring Iran. Pakistan has already suffered a great deal from being caught between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Their sectarian rivalry was exported to Pakistan in the 1980s, when both sides indoctrinated, trained and funded brutal militant proxy groups, in turn contributing to a vicious cycle of communal separation that persists to this day. In 2013 alone, 650 Pakistanis died and over 1,100 were injured in Sunni-Shia violence. Like most acts of terrorism, the death toll pales in comparison to its broader political consequence; Pakistan’s sectarian attacks threaten to shred the unity of a nation nominally founded as an inclusive homeland for South Asian Muslims.

Although there is no longer evidence of official Saudi support to these groups, Pakistanis complain bitterly about private Saudi donations to mosques, madrassas and organizations behind the attacks, and many also fear that Iran could do much more to fuel reprisal attacks by Shia hit squads if Tehran wanted to cause trouble for Pakistan. In the past, Iran has also turned up the pressure on Pakistan in other ways, including by working closely with India to support proxy groups in Afghanistan and by allowing India to use the port of Chabahar along the Arabian Sea as a means to circumvent Pakistan and gain overland access to Central Asia.

Such concerns will almost certainly continue to lead Islamabad to play a diplomatic balancing act in its dealings with Tehran. That said, if Islamabad judges the potential for an Iranian nuclear breakout to be low and believes that preliminary nuclear dealings with Saudi Arabia (prior to the unveiling of an actual nuclear transfer) can be covert and deniable, then the immediate benefits of an offer from Riyadh would be nearly impossible for Pakistani leaders to resist. This is almost certainly the situation they face today.

Consequential New Links for Riyadh…and for South Asia

To make sense of Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical options now and into the future, it will be increasingly necessary to take Riyadh’s relationships with India and Pakistan into account. This holds true even though the primary battleground for Saudi-Iranian rivalry remains the Middle East, and Saudi-U.S. military and intelligence cooperation will persist for years to come. Keeping New Delhi from closer ties with Tehran will be crucial as India grows into a global economic, political, and military power. Utilizing Pakistan as a counter to Iran’s threats at the opposite ends of the security spectrum—terrorist proxies and nuclear weapons—will be even more vital to Riyadh.

The potential for a nuclear transfer from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia is by far the most consequential aspect of Riyadh’s dealings in South Asia. Although fraught with risk, the looming threat of a transfer from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia also holds potential advantages. The more credible the threat, the more Tehran will need to take it into account as it calculates the strategic benefits of crossing the nuclear-weapons threshold. Combined with the threat of Israeli air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, the risk of a broader nuclear domino effect in the region would also help to motivate other states to enforce the sanctions regime against Iran until a deal is done.

Like any deterrent policy, the greatest costs would be suffered only if it fails; that is, if Iran rejects or circumvents a nuclear deal. Even then, however, the regional-security picture would be made only incrementally worse by the simultaneous emergence of two new nuclear states as compared to a lone Iranian breakout. If anything, the regional nuclear balance against Iran would be easier to maintain, and less of the weight would rest on Israel’s shoulders.

Nuclear issues aside, Riyadh is successfully finding other ways to harness its relationships in South Asia. Whether by purchasing Pakistan-made arms for Syrian rebels, securing favorable Indian votes in the IAEA, or closing potential loopholes in the Iran sanctions regime, the Saudis have played South Asia more effectively than the Iranians have. Riyadh will continue to hold important tools of influence in both Islamabad and New Delhi because of its wealth, energy supplies and status as host to an enormous population of visiting South Asian workers who collectively send home billions in remittances each year.

Viewed from the South Asian perspective, Saudi Arabia’s regional security policy will always be judged by how it plays into the Indo-Pakistani context. There are reasons to hope that Riyadh can play a stabilizing role. For instance, if Saudi counterterror cooperation with New Delhi on Indian-born LeT operatives is just a start, then Riyadh will have other strings to pull as well, from controlling financial networks to limiting travel within its borders, that could also be directed against groups like the Haqqani network that have attacked Indians in Afghanistan. A more muscular Saudi campaign against these groups would improve security in India and would also send a firm message to sympathizers and backers inside Pakistan that the use of terrorist proxies against India is no longer something Riyadh condones.

On the other hand, if such Saudi moves are not handled with great care, they would backfire by contributing to Pakistan’s security anxieties and sense of isolation. For India, unofficial Saudi support to Salafist groups in South Asia and Riyadh’s defense ties to Pakistan will undoubtedly worry policy makers in New Delhi. All told, Riyadh’s pursuit of closer relationships with both India and Pakistan, without being sucked into the paralysis of their own hyphenated (Indo-Pakistani) conflict, will require great diplomatic finesse.

How Washington Should Play the New Saudi Game in South Asia

The United States has never been able to dictate or control Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, but Washington retains unparalleled diplomatic access to Saudi leadership—owing in part to billions in high-tech defense sales—that affords U.S. policy makers a chance to explain their priorities and interests with respect to South Asia. Washington should make South Asia a regular focal point in future dialogues with Saudi senior leaders.

Although there will be a strong temptation to try and dissuade the Saudis from pursuing a nuclear-weapons capability via Pakistan, that approach will almost certainly be a waste of time. Washington should accept that the Saudis (like the Pakistanis before them) will try to go nuclear if they believe their mortal enemy will otherwise enjoy an overwhelming strategic advantage. Neither sales of conventional armaments, nor realistic U.S. security guarantees will solve Riyadh’s security dilemma. For the United States, the preferred means by which to reduce the likelihood of a Saudi nuclear program will be by successfully concluding and implementing a serious deal with Tehran.

U.S. officials should instead make the best of the Saudi-Pakistani nuclear nexus by embracing the threat as a deterrent against Iran as well as potential defectors from the present international sanctions regime. Through diplomatic channels with friends, allies and the Iranians themselves, U.S. officials should quietly share the assessment that a nuclear transfer between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia is a realistic scenario and nearly impossible to forestall if Iran crosses the threshold. At the same time, U.S. officials should explain that they do not anticipate a Pakistani-Saudi transfer under any other circumstances, given the costs that both Islamabad and Riyadh would incur from moving first.

Separately, Washington should use secure channels to communicate to the Pakistanis and Saudis that as long as any potential nuclear transfer takes place only after an Iranian breakout, the principal U.S. concern would be the safety and security of nuclear materials in transit and after deployment in Saudi Arabia. In the unlikely event that either Riyadh or Islamabad is willing to discuss the topic at length, perhaps as a hypothetical scenario or in a Track II setting, U.S. officials should try to ferret out how the Saudis understand the challenge of balancing a nuclear Iran and how the Pakistanis envision their own ability to weather the likely Iranian reaction. U.S. wargaming exercises that play out the post-nuclear regional balance would be useful ways to inform those conversations.

On other fronts, the deepening of counterterror cooperation between Saudi Arabia and India serves U.S. interests and should be advanced along two tracks in Washington’s dealings with Riyadh. First, U.S. officials should work to improve operational intelligence sharing so that South Asian terrorists like Ansari are more easily tracked, apprehended and extradited. A three-way Saudi-U.S.-Indian counterterror dialogue and standing intelligence coordination cell should be started to advance this effort.

Second, Washington should continue using diplomatic, financial, law enforcement and intelligence ties with the Saudis to press the point that Pakistan-based terrorists, including those lacking direct Al Qaeda ties, represent a significant threat to regional and international security. Despite past efforts, U.S. officials have never managed to translate the aggressive post-9/11 security measures the Saudis have used at home against Al Qaeda into a wider campaign that would dry up resources flowing to other groups engaged in terrorism. Part of the problem is that neither Riyadh, nor Islamabad wishes to pick new fights with the full array of radical groups they now face. Another part of the problem is that both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia also have a long history of using terrorist groups as proxies, and a persistent difficulty drawing lines between the radical organizations they support and those they oppose. Pakistan, for instance, has always tried to differentiate between “good Taliban” and “bad Taliban,” defining different militant groups not by their worldview, but by whether they serve or oppose Islamabad at any given time.

In today’s Syria, a similar problem has emerged. Whereas Washington is acutely concerned that arming anti-Assad groups could easily have Afghanistan-like repercussions, Saudi support (including training rebels and supplying weapons of Pakistani origin) appears to be more focused on the short term. Because the United States shares the basic Saudi desire to remove Assad from power, Washington should first aim to monitor and direct, but if necessary, also to curtail, the flow of Pakistani weapons and trainers in an effort to keep them away from radically anti-Western groups. The paucity of Syrian “moderates,” the stunning battlefield successes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and shifting wartime politics will make this more easily said than done. More



Inside the Huge Solar Farm That Powers Apple's iCloud

Inside the Huge Solar Farm That Powers Apple's iCloud

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. The article was reported by the Guardian's Suzanne Goldenberg, and the video was produced by Climate Desk's James West.

The skies are threatening to pour on the Apple solar farm but as the woman in charge of the company's environmental initiatives points out: The panels are still putting out some power. Apple is still greening its act.

The company, which once drew fire from campaigners for working conditions in China and heavy reliance on fossil fuels, is now leading other technology companies in controlling its own power supply and expanding its use of renewable energy.

After converting all of its data centers to clean energy, the Guardian understands Apple is poised to use solar power to manufacture sapphire screens for the iPhone 6, at a factory in Arizona.

And in a departure for its reputation for secretiveness, Apple is going out of its way to get credit for its green efforts.

"We know that our customers expect us to do the right thing about these issues," Lisa Jackson, the vice-president of environmental initiatives told the Guardian.

Apple's solar farm is said to be the
largest privately owned array in
the US. James West/Climate Desk

This week the company invited journalists on a rare tour of its data center in North Carolina to showcase its efforts.

Until a year ago, the telegenic Jackson was the front woman for Barack Obama's environmental ambitions as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Now she is leading the effort to shrink Apple's carbon footprint—and make sure customers realize the company is doing its bit to decarbonize its products and the internet.

Data centers require huge loads of electricity to maintain climatic conditions and run the servers carrying out billions of electronic transactions every day.

With Apple's solar farm, customers could now be confident that downloading an app or video-chatting a friend would not increase carbon pollution, Jackson said.

"If you are using your iPhone, iPad, Siri or downloading a song, you don't have to worry if you are contributing to the climate change problem in the world because Apple has already thought about that for you. We've taken care of that. We're using clean energy," she said.

The company is also moving to install solar and geothermal power at a plant in Mesa, Arizona, that has been manufacturing sapphire glass. Apple would not directly comment on the Arizona factory but the state's governor, Jan Brewer, has publicly praised the company's decision to relocate there and to use solar and geothermal in manufacturing.

"We are aware that almost 70 percent of our carbon footprint is in our supply chain," Jackson said. "We are actively working on the facilities that we have here in the United States."

The initiatives mark a turnaround for Apple, which was criticized in the past for working conditions and the use of toxic chemicals at its factories in China and for its heavy reliance on carbon intensive sources such as coal to power the cloud.

Greenpeace now says the company is out ahead of competitors like Google and Facebook, which also operate data centers in North Carolina.

"They are the gold standard in the state right now," said David Pomerantz, a senior Greenpeace campaigner. "There are a lot of data centers in North Carolina and definitely none has moved as aggressively as Apple has to power with renewable energy," he said.

The 55,000 solar panels tracking the course of the sun from a 400,000 square meter field across the road from Apple's data center in Maiden were not in the picture seven years ago when Duke Energy and local government officials sought to entice Apple to open up a data center in North Carolina.

Duke Energy, which has a near monopoly over power supply in the Carolinas, set out to lure big companies like Apple, Facebook and Google to the state with offers of cheap and reliable power for the data centers that are the hub of internet.

Data centers, with their densely packed rows of servers and requirements for climatically controlled conditions, are notorious energy hogs. Some use as much power as a small city. In Apple's case, the North Carolina data center requires as much power as about 14,000 homes—about three times as much as the nearby town of Maiden.

Charging up a smart phone or tablet takes relatively little electricity, but watching an hour of streamed or internet video every week for a year uses up about as much power as running two refrigerators for a year because of the energy powering data centers elsewhere.

That made data centers a perfect fit for Duke, said Tom Williams, the company's director of external relations. With the decline in textile and furniture factories that had been a mainstay in the state, the company had a glut of electricity.

"What the data centers wanted from Duke was low cost and reliable power. Those two things—cost and reliability—are fundamental to their operations," he told the Guardian. "What we like about these data centers is that it's an additional load on our system."

In the early days, Apple bought renewable energy credits to cover the center's electricity use. In 2012, the company built its first solar farm across the road from the data center.

Apple built a second solar farm, and announced plans this month for a third, all roughly about the same size, to keep up with the growing use of data. It also operates fuel cells, running on biogas pumped in from a landfill. All of the power generated on-site is fed into the electricity grid.

"On any given day 100 percent of the data center's needs are being generated by the solar power and the fuel cells," Jackson said.

The company has been less successful in its efforts to get other companies to switch to solar power. Duke, in cooperation with Apple, launched an initiative last year to encourage other big electricity users to go solar but so far there have been no takers.

Renewable energy accounts for barely 2 percent of the power generated in North Carolina, and Duke does not see the share growing significantly by 2020. More


Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Peak Oil Crisis: Better Than Fire

In addition to following the twists and turn of the world’s energy situation, I have been tracking the reporting on developments concerning several “exotic” and therefore controversial energy sources whose proponents say would be far more cost-effective than current alternatives to fossil fuels such as wind, solar and nuclear.

The reason for this interest is that if one believes global warming is caused by carbon emissions, then it certainly looks like there will not be much left of human civilization in a century or so. While the use of “conventional” alternatives is growing, the demand for energy to fuel economic growth is so great that it seems likely that, unless some outside force intervenes, mankind is going to burn fossil fuels until it is no longer economically possible to do so.

What is clearly necessary is some source of energy that is so cheap and easy to produce and so environmentally clean that everyone on earth will want to use the new energy source as soon as possible.

Fortunately, there are a handful of people out there who really are a few steps ahead of academia, government officials, and the mainstream media in the effort to save mankind from what is shaping up to be a many millennia-long disaster. In the past I have written about cold fusion or in the current jargon, low energy nuclear reactions (LENR). This technology is still alive, well, and seems destined to produce some commercially viable prototypes in the near future.

However, last week a company up in New Jersey call BlackLight Power and its founder announced a breakthrough which could be just what the world sorely needs in addition to touching off a new era in the history of mankind. I stress could for all the evidence is not in yet and useful prototypes have yet to be built, but BlackLight’s founder and inventor of the technology, Randall Mills, seems unusually forthright in his claims that there has indeed been a breakthrough on the exotic energy front. For those of the “its too good to be true” bent, keep in mind that discoveries do happen from time to time – electricity, internal combustion, and smart phones to name a few.

About 20 years ago Randall Mills announced that a more compact form of the hydrogen atom existed in the universe which he termed a hydrino. This form of hydrogen had its electron circling its proton at about 1/4th the distance from the nucleus as in a conventional hydrogen atom and therefore had much less energy. Mills went on to say he believed that the dark matter which makes up the bulk of the universe was composed of these compact hydrogen atoms which neither absorb nor emit light making them very difficult to detect. At the cosmological scale dark matter is only known to exist because of its gravitational pull on other mass. As most of the visible universe is composed of hydrogen, it seems to make sense that the invisible part is hydrogen too.

When Mills announced his hypothesis in 1991, it was, of course, denounced by the scientific establishment as ridiculous for if another form of hydrogen existed, we surely would have discovered it decades ago. To make the ensuing controversy still worse, Mills claimed that the accepted version of quantum mechanics had it wrong in its description of just what an electron is and that the classical physics of Newton and Maxwell works at the atomic as well as the cosmic scale. Such a claim is heresy of the first order in the land of the scientists so Mills and his hydrinos were quickly forgotten.

From mankind’s perspective, however, the interesting feature about the existence of two forms of hydrogen is that in converting the conventional hydrogen atom to a hydrino a spectacular amount of energy is released – on the order of 200 times as much as when hydrogen is joined with oxygen to form H2O. Thus began the 20-year search for the Holy Grail of our civilization – a way to transform hydrogen into hydrinos and release lots of energy.

As with the Wright brothers, all Mills had to do was to build a machine that took in water and send commerical amounts of energy out, then his thesis would have to be accepted. It took 20+ years to develop the theoretical basis for such a machine, but for the last six months Mills has been demonstrating crude prototypes to selected audiences. Fortunately for the rest of us, these demonstrations and considerable information on what is taking place have been appearing regularly on the internet. Although some remain skeptical, the length of time Mills has been working on this project, the size of his organization, the scale of his financial backing and the verification of his science by external laboratories strongly suggests that his claims are valid.

Mills’ machines are remarkably simple. After 20 years of research he has developed a metallic powder that will also absorb moisture (hydrogen) from the humidity in the air. A tiny amount of this damp powder is subjected to a low voltage, high amperage current and the hydrogen in the powder is zapped, for want of a better word, into hydrinos with a blinding flash of light. The hydrogen-depleted powder can then absorb more moisture from the atmosphere and be reused indefinitely.

While the mini-explosions that take place in Mills’ device are spectacular, they certainly were a long ways from a technology that might save the world until two weeks ago when he announced that the energy emitted from these “explosions” is mostly white light. The white light emitted is at least 50,000 times brighter than that of sunlight as it reaches the earth’s surface and given the latest in solar cell technology, can easily be converted into prodigious amounts of electricity using only the humidity in the air as the fuel. One design is anticipating that a one-foot cubic device will be able to produce 10 million watts of electric power.

To quote Mills, “nature has just given us the best gift that we have ever had, this is better than fire.” More

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Here’s Why Al Gore Is Optimistic About the Fight Against Climate Change

Al Gore has something of a reputation as the Cassandra of climate change. But amid the doom and gloom—melting glaciers, ever-rising carbon levels, accelerating species extinction—the former vice president has been positively sunny of late.

Why? Solar energy. “There is surprising—even shocking—good news: Our ability to convert sunshine into usable energy has become much cheaper far more rapidly than anyone had predicted,” Gore wrote recently in Rolling Stone. “By 2020—as the scale of deployments grows and the costs continue to decline—more than 80 percent of the world’s people will live in regions where solar will be competitive with electricity from other sources.”

Now a new report substantiates Gore’s optimism. Research firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts renewable energy will account for 49 percent of the world’s power by 2030, with another 6 percent coming from carbon-free nuclear power plants. Solar, wind, and other emissions-free sources will account for 60 percent of the 5,579 gigawatts of new energy capacity expected to be installed between now and 2030, representing 65 percent of the $7.7 trillion that will be invested.

Gore is right that solar is driving the shift away from fossil fuels, thanks to plummeting prices for photovoltaic panels and the fact that solar fuel—sunshine—is free.

“A small-scale solar revolution will take place over the next 16 years thanks to increasingly attractive economics in both developed and developing countries, attracting the largest single share of cumulative investment over 2013–26,” the report states.

Solar will outpace wind as an energy source, with photovoltaic power accounting for an estimated 18 percent of worldwide energy capacity, compared to 12 percent for wind. That’s not surprising given that a solar panel can be put on just about any home or building where the sun shines. Erecting a 100-foot-tall wind turbine in your backyard usually isn’t an option.

In the United States, solar is projected to supply 10 percent of energy capacity, up from 1 percent today. In Germany, though, solar and wind will account for a whopping 52 percent of all power generated by 2030, according to the BNEF estimate.

These are all projections, of course, based on the existing pipeline of projects and national policies and involving a certain amount of guesswork.

The big wild card is what happens in developing nations like China and India, where energy demand is expected to skyrocket with a burgeoning middle class. Energy consumption will grow to an estimated 115 percent in China and 200 percent in India over the next 16 years. (Falling birth rates in the West mean that energy use will drop 2 percent in Japan, for instance, and 0.2 percent in Germany.)

Whether the world kicks its reliance on coal-fired electricity will depend in large part on what kind of energy choices China and India make. China installed a record amount of solar capacity last year and has set ambitious goals for ramping up renewable energy production.

But old ways die hard. While the Obama administration has proposed regulations to slash carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, the U.S. Export-Import Bank, on the other hand, is considering financing a 4,000-megawatt coal-fired power station in India.

The good news, though, is that individuals around the world can make a difference with their personal power choices. According to BNEF, much of the solar energy to be generated over the next 16 years will come from solar panels installed on residential roofs. More


Major Companies Push for More, Easier Renewable Energy

Some of the largest companies in the United States have banded together to call for a substantial increase in the production of renewable electricity, as well as for more simplicity in purchasing large blocs of green energy.

A dozen U.S-based companies, most of which operate globally, say they want to significantly step up the amount of renewable energy they use, but warn that production levels remain too low and procurement remains too complex. The 12 companies have now put forward a set of principles aimed at helping to "facilitate progress on these challenges" and lead to a broader shift in the market.

"We would like our efforts to result in new renewable power generation," the Corporate Renewable Energy Buyers’ Principles, released Friday, state. The companies note "our desire to promote new projects, ensure our purchases add new capacity to the system, and that we buy the most cost-competitive renewable energy products."

The principles consist of six broad reforms, aimed at broadening and strengthening the renewable energy marketplace. Companies want more choice in their procurement options, greater cost competitiveness between renewable and traditional power sources, and "simplified processes, contracts and financing" around the long-term purchase of renewables.

Founding signatories to the principles, which were shepherded by civil society, include manufacturers and consumer goods companies (General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Proctor & Gamble), tech giants (Facebook, HP, Intel, Sprint) and major retailers (Walmart, the outdoor-goods store REI).

These 12 companies combined have renewable energy consumption targets of more than eight million megawatt hours of energy through the end of this decade, according to organisers. Yet the new principles, meant to guide policy discussions, have come about due to frustration over the inability of the U.S. renewables market to keep up with spiking demand.

"The problem these companies are seeing is that they’re paying too much, even though they know that cost-effective renewable energy is available. These companies are used to having choices," Marty Spitzer, director of U.S. climate policy at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a conservation and advocacy group that helped to spearhead the principles, told IPS.

WWF was joined in the initiative by the World Resources Institute and the Rocky Mountain Institute, both think tanks that focus on issues of energy and sustainability.

"The companies have also recognised that it’s often very difficult to procure renewables and bring them to their facilities," Spitzer continues. "While most of them didn’t think of it this way at first, they’ve now realised that they have been experiencing a lot of the same problems."

‘Too difficult’

In recent years, nearly two-thirds of big U.S. businesses have created explicit policies around climate goals and renewable energy usage, according to WWF. While there is increasing political and public compunction behind these new policies, a primary goal remains simple cost-cutting and long-term efficiencies.

"A significant part of the value to us from renewable energy is the ability to lock in energy price certainty and avoid fuel price volatility," the principles note.

In part due to political deadlock in Washington, particularly around issues of climate and energy, renewable production in the United States remains too low to keep up with this corporate demand. According to the U.S. government, only around 13 percent of domestic energy production last year was from renewable sources.

Accessing even that small portion of the market remains unwieldy.

"We know cost-competitive renewable energy exists but the problem is that it is way too difficult for most companies to buy," Amy Hargroves, director of corporate responsibility and sustainability for Sprint, a telecommunications company, said in a statement.

"Very few companies have the knowledge and resources to purchase renewable energy given today’s very limited and complex options. Our hope is that by identifying the commonalities among large buyers, the principles will catalyse market changes that will help make renewables more affordable and accessible for all companies."

One of the most far-reaching sustainability commitments has come from the world’s largest retailer, Walmart. A decade ago, the company set an "aspirational" goal for itself, to be supplied completely by renewable energy.

Last year, it created a more specific goal aimed at helping to grow the global market for renewables, pledging to drive the production or procurement of seven billion kilowatt hours of renewable energy globally by the end of 2020, a sixfold increase over 2010. (The company is also working to increase the energy efficiency of its stores by 20 percent over this timeframe.)

While the company has since become a leader in terms of installing solar and wind projects at its stores and properties, it has experienced frustrations in trying to make long-term bulk purchases of renewable electricity from U.S. utilities.

"The way we finance is important … cost-competitiveness is very important, as is access to longer-term contracts," David Ozment, senior director of energy at Walmart, told IPS. "We like to use power-purchase agreements to finance our renewable energy projects, but currently only around half of the states in the U.S. allow for these arrangements."

Given Walmart’s size and scale, Ozment says the company is regularly asked by suppliers, regulators and utilities about what it is looking for in power procurement. The new principles, he says, offer a strong answer, providing direction as well as flexibility for whatever compulsion is driving a particular company’s energy choices, whether "efficiency, conservation or greenhouse gas impact".

"We’ve seen the price of solar drop dramatically over the past five years, and we hope our participation helped in that," he says. "Now, these new principles will hopefully create the scale to continue to drop the cost of renewables and make them more affordable for everyone."

Internationally applicable

Ozment is also clear that the new principles need not apply only to U.S. operations, noting that the principles "dovetail" with what Walmart is already doing internationally.

In an e-mail, a representative for Intel, the computer chip manufacturer, likewise told IPS that the company is "interested in promoting renewables markets in countries where we have significant operations … at a high level, the need to make renewables both more abundant and easier to access applies outside the U.S."

For his part, WWF’s Spitzer says that just one of the principles is specific to the U.S. regulatory context.

"Many other countries have their own instruments on renewable production," he says, "but five out of these six principles are relevant and perfectly appropriate internationally."

Meanwhile, both the principles and their signatories remain open-ended. Spitzer says that just since Friday he’s heard from additional companies interested in adding their support. More



Wednesday, July 9, 2014

China’s Solar Panel Production to Double by 2017

China installed a world record amount of solar photovoltaics (PV) capacity in 2013. While this was the first time the country was the number one installer, China has led all countries in making PV for the better part of a decade.

China now accounts for 64 percent of global solar panel production—churning out 25,600 megawatts of the nearly 40,000 megawatts of PV made worldwide in 2013—according to data from GTM Research.

Five of the top 10 solar panel manufacturing firms in 2013—including Yingli at the top and runner-up Trina—were Chinese companies. Coming in third was Canadian Solar, which produces 90 percent of its modules in China. Two Japanese companies and one each from the United States and Germany rounded out the top 10. (See data.)

As demand for increasingly affordable solar power continues to climb around the world, GTM Research projects that China’s annual solar panel output will double to 51,000 megawatts by 2017, representing close to 70 percent of global production at that time. Beijing no doubt had such a quick industry ramp-up in mind when in May 2014 it announced a new national PV capacity goal: 70,000 megawatts of installed PV by 2017, up from 18,300 megawatts at the end of 2013. To put that in perspective, if it meets that goal China will add more solar electricity-generating capacity in four years than the entire world had in place in early 2011.

For more information, see the latest Solar Indicator from Earth Policy Institute, at www.earth-policy.org.



Tuesday, July 8, 2014

World first: Australian solar plant has generated “supercritical” steam that rivals fossil fuels’

A solar thermal test plant in Newcastle, Australia, has generated “supercritical” steam at a pressure of 23.5 mpa (3400 psi) and 570°C (1,058°F).

CSIRO is claiming it as a world record, and it’s a HUGE step for solar thermal energy.

"It's like breaking the sound barrier; this step change proves solar has the potential to compete with the peak performance capabilities of fossil fuel sources," Dr Alex Wonhas, CSIRO’s Energy Director, told Colin Jeffrey for Gizmag.

The Energy Centre uses a field of more than 600 mirrors (known as heliostats) which are all directed at two towers housing solar receivers and turbines, Gizmag reports.

This supercritical steam is used to drive the world’s most advanced power plant turbines, but previously it’s only been possible to produce it by burning fossil fuels such as coal or gas.

"Instead of relying on burning fossil fuels to produce supercritical steam, this breakthrough demonstrates that the power plants of the future could instead be using the free, zero emission energy of the sun to achieve the same result,” Dr Wonhas explained.

Currently, commercial solar thermal or concentrating solar power power plants only operate a “subcritical” levels, using less pressurised steam. This means that they’ve never been able to match the output or efficiency of the world’s best fossil fuel power plants - until now.

The commercial development of this technology is still a fair way off, but this is an important first step towards a more sustainable future. More

Watch the video to see the plant in action.