On the face of it, no country has more to lose from the transition away from fossil fuels than Saudi Arabia.
Before the discovery of oil, it barely existed as a nation. Its founding monarch Ibn Saud’s 1933 oil concession to Standard Oil Co. of California came just months after he was proclaimed king of a land that hadn’t been unified in 1,000 years.
Those concession payments, and later oil revenues, allowed Ibn Saud to cement his control by bestowing patronage on the peninsula’s fractious tribal groups, according to Ellen Wald, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and historian of the kingdom. The same sense of noblesse oblige lives on in the modern country’s cradle-to-grave welfare state.
“The concession legitimized him as the ruler of Saudi Arabia,” says Wald. “It’s very hard to conceive of a Saudi state without oil.”
After nearly five years of efforts to diversify the economy away from crude, oil and government spending largely funded from petroleum still account for about two-thirds of gross domestic product. Expecting the kingdom to survive in a world without oil sounds as implausible as Switzerland prospering in a world without banks.
That pessimistic vision may not be quite right, though. The country’s rich endowment of natural assets – not all of them hydrocarbon-based – could fuel new industries and sustain existing ones as carbon emissions fall toward zero. Its reserves of phosphates, copper and gold are world-class, but have been under-exploited thanks to the way crude crowds out everything else. The kingdom’s solar potential, meanwhile, is among the richest in the world, giving Saudi Arabia the chance to be as central to a future green-hydrogen sector as it was to the past century’s petroleum trade.
That carries lessons for a host of oil-exporting nations, which view the coming decades with understandable trepidation. The end of fossil fuels need not mean the end for countries that have prospered from them.
What would a net zero Saudi Arabia look like?
One thing to bear in mind is that even a rapid energy transition wouldn’t see petroleum consumption disappear altogether this side of 2050. A 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sketching out pathways to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius saw energy demand for crude declining to a range of 11 million to 57 million daily barrels in 2050, compared to Saudi Arabia’s current 8 million barrels a day. With record-low production costs of just $2.80 a barrel, the kingdom is likely to be one of the last producers still in the game.
On top of that, it’s worth remembering not all oil is used for energy. About 10% of the world’s petroleum production – nearly 10 million daily barrels – goes into non-burned products such as plastics, asphalt, lubricants, chemicals and fertilizers. While hydrocarbon fuels release carbon dioxide as an inevitable side-effect of their combustion, non-burned products tend to keep their carbon atoms locked in their chemical matrixes, potentially indefinitely.Such products are likely to be some of the hardest to replace with non-fossil equivalents over the coming decades. BP Plc expects demand to increase by about 0.5% a year even under a scenario where the world keeps warming well below 2 degrees.
If oil demand falls and the world ends up removing substantial volumes of carbon from the atmosphere, there’s another potential role for Saudi Arabia. Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, has so far failed to live up to its promise and mostly exists as demonstration projects of questionable viability. Nonetheless, if the technology can be made to work, it could give a new lease of life to the kingdom’s oil fields. The closest CCS comes to commercial use in the world today is in enhanced oil recovery, where gas is pumped into old wells to help drive more crude to the surface. One of the largest such sites currently in operation is in Saudi Arabia’s giant Ghawar field.
The kingdom’s potential for this hasn’t been well investigated yet. A 2016 study by the Global CCS Institute found that it could store a relatively paltry 5 billion to 30 billion metric tons of CO2 underground, equivalent to less than a year’s worth of current emissions. That may just be a result of not looking, however. Major oil producers that have carried out more detailed assessments have produced much larger estimates: The US alone may be able to lock away as much as 21.2 trillion tons, for instance.
The most ambitious vision for the future wouldn’t just hope to manage the decline of oil, but look beyond it. Surprisingly, Saudi Arabia has advantages here, too. Few places in the world receive the intensity and consistency of sunlight that falls on the Arabian Peninsula.
Abu Dhabi Power Corp. last year signed an agreement to build a solar plant that would generate power at a cost of 1.35 cents per kilowatt-hour – the lowest price ever agreed for solar generation, and about a quarter of the heavily subsidized figure paid by private-sector electricity users in Saudi Arabia. While progress to date has been faltering at best, Riyadh has plans for the country to generate 50% of its grid power from renewable sources by 2030.
Countries with similar potential, such as Chile and Australia, are already planning on developing an energy export sector that may one day come to rival and overtake oil itself – hydrogen.
We’ve written recently that hydrogen, as a chemical fuel and ingredient in industrial processes, has many of the same advantages as petroleum. Unlike petroleum, however, it can be zero-carbon if renewable power is used to split apart water molecules. Energy is likely to be the biggest determinant of production costs for such green hydrogen, so it’s no surprise that Saudi Arabia has ambitions to become the largest exporter of the gaseous element.
On paper, the potential for Saudi Arabia to reinvent its role as one of the world’s most important energy hubs in a post-fossil fuels world is substantial. The problem is how to get there.
A country whose wealth and identity is founded on crude is always going to struggle with oil’s decline. Every day, hundreds of millions of dollars flow into the kingdom’s coffers thanks to its exports of black gold. The temptation to keep doing the same thing looks irresistible.
Saudi Arabia is as much of an absolute monarchy as it was in the days of Ibn Saud. Crude, and the money that flows from it, is central to the networks of patronage and employment that hold the state together.
A February report by energy transition think tank Carbon Tracker found that long before oil production falls to zero, Saudi Arabia would suffer a 44% shortfall in government revenues just from the decline in consumption over the coming decades. You can try to diversify the economy by producing plastics, or aluminum or hydrogen – as the Gulf’s monarchies have started doing in recent decades – but there’s no other industry where Saudi Arabia has the unique advantages it does in oil.
That risks changes that are not just economic, but constitutional, according to Wald. “It could lead to a different relationship between the rulers and the people,” she said. “They could have a hard time staving off political change that results in the monarchy not having control any more.”
Fully 45% of Saudi citizens with jobs are employed by the state, and foreign employees – who account for three-quarters of the workforce – are mostly only there because of oil and the wealth it brings. While Dubai’s financial entrepot suggests a model for how a Gulf state could prosper in the absence of oil, it’s not clear that the same trick could be repeated in Saudi Arabia, which has ten times the population and is culturally vastly more conservative.
Still, it’s past time to make a shift, whatever happens. If the world succeeds in cutting its carbon emissions, the business that has sustained this country for eight decades doesn’t have many more years left. In the event the energy transition fails, parts of the Persian Gulf may become so sultry that deadly heatwaves will become routine by the end of this century. Either way, to survive and thrive much past its first 100 years as a nation, Saudi Arabia is going to have to act.
“No one is saying it’s going to be an easy transition,” said Andrew Grant, a senior analyst with Carbon Tracker. “It’s a matter of when, rather than if.”
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