January 19, 2019

Saudi king’s gift should fulfill ‘contract with humanity’

We are in receipt of a refreshing piece of news from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia via the New York Times:

“On a marshy peninsula 50 miles from this Red Sea port, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is staking $12.5 billion on a gargantuan bid to catch up with the West in science and technology.”

This is not some humdrum investment. King Abdullah University for Science and Technology will create one of the world’s 10 most endowed science centers and, if it also manages to create an environment of academic freedom, might well be what the Arab world needs at this juncture of history.

Any program that liberates society from the grip of ignorance and helplessness should create opportunities for the millions of its angry youngsters and, naturally, should dwindle the pool of potential recruits to jihadi training camps. It deserves our blessing.

But the real reason this good news caught my attention was that it evoked a somewhat heretical thought: These $12.5 billion do not belong to King Abdullah; they belong to you and me — and King Abdullah is merely paying back a tiny fraction of the debt he owes us.

Let me elaborate.

We are conditioned to think, almost axiomatically, that natural resources belong to the people who reside on top of them. There is a glaring flaw in this axiom when viewed from a global citizenship perspective. Here we are, 6.5 billion Homo sapiens, stranded on this godforsaken planet, seeing our energy resources dwindling by the day, their cost rising by the night and a handful of self-appointed custodians asking us to pay premium prices for what the earth has graciously given all of us.


What divine rule or moral principle decrees that scarce natural resources be privatized and given to landlords who happen to own property in the vicinity of those resources? Wouldn’t it be more prudent and equitable if such resources were designated and managed for the benefit of all mankind?

Of course, I am not suggesting that the West proclaim ownership over Middle East oil reserves. That would not fit in with current trends in international law.

What I would like to suggest, though, is that we apply the logic of good citizenship and offer the Saudis (and Dubai, Iran, etc.) a reasonable win-win deal. They will retain custody of the earth’s oil, and we will keep paying them for the right to use it, with one catch: Part of our payment will be invested in the development of new energy sources.

I would like to believe that our forward-looking cousins should be thrilled and honored to sign this noble “contract with humanity.” Indeed, looking back at the history of technology, we find that century after century, this kind of contract was in fact practiced in the civilized world.

Let us start with England, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. As soon as the steam engine was invented in the late 18th century and coal energy began moving trains and steamboats, record revenues started pouring into the British treasury, and a good chunk of it was invested in universities and research institutes. This allowed Michael Faraday, the son of a blacksmith, to attend evening classes in chemistry, build an experimental laboratory at the Royal Institution of Great Britain and, eventually, in 1831, discover electromagnetism.

The citizens of planet Earth were fairly pleased then with the return on their investment. A minor depletion of coal reserves paid off in electricity, and with it came new revenues, new innovations and new energy sources, including hydroelectric power and deeper coal mines.

A similar transaction took place in the 20th century. Revenues from electric lighting, streetcars, refrigerators and assembly lines were partially invested in research and education, which led to the discovery of nuclear energy. Again, the good citizens of planet Earth were pleased with the cycle that their energy reserves had spun. A meager investment in the form of depleted resources got converted into revenues, revenues into research, research into innovations and innovations back into new, larger and previously inaccessible energy resources.

But something went foul with petroleum. Until the 1950s, the industrial countries produced nearly all the petroleum they needed — the revenues from which were generously invested, as before, in research and development. But by the end of that decade, the gap between production and consumption had widened — and major quantities had to be purchased from countries in which research and education were practically nonexistent and the contract with humanity unheard of.

My rough calculation suggests that, in total, the inhabitants of this planet have paid the gigantic sum of $8 trillion to the oil-producing countries in the Middle East, all for the privilege of using the planet’s own energy resources. This is 100 times more than all the foreign aid that Israel has ever received in its entire existence.

Given the enormity of this investment, it would only be natural for one of the investors to humbly ask what the return has been on our investment? Regrettably, I believe I am the first investor to raise this question; my 6.5 billion partners have not read the fine print of our contract and have written it off as a cost of doing business with owners of a foreign planet.

Moreover, when I try to figure out the answer to my humble question, the findings are quite disheartening. Planet Earth, so it seems, has converted $8 trillion worth of its energy reserves primarily into four commodities:

1. Swiss bank accounts of kings, princes and sheikhs.

2. Hate-spewing madrassas in Pakistan and the Middle East.

3. Thousands of missiles and rockets aimed at Israel.

4. A well-endowed anti-American, anti-Israel propaganda machine in Europe and on U.S. campuses.

None of the above seems conducive to the discovery of new energy sources, as stipulated in the unwritten contract with humanity. The number of scientific papers produced per capita in the Arab world is about 50 times lower than in the industrial countries. Research and development expenditure (as a percentage of GDP) was a mere 0.4 in 1996, five times lower than in war-beleaguered Israel.