Were it not for two accidents of history, Ibn Saud and his family might have fallen into the deepest recesses of the history books. But in 1915, Ibn Saud entered into an alliance with the British, against his clan rivals, the Rahidi, who were supporting the Turks. The well-timed backing of the nation that would become the dominant power in the Middle East after the First World War lead to increasing influence and eventually a direct confrontation with the Hashemite dynasty that lead to Saudi control over the holiest city of Islam, Mecca. The second accident was less political and more geo: in 1938, Aramco, the Arabian American Oil Company, struck a gusher. In the nineteenth century, John Rockefeller, son of a patent medicine salesman, got his start in the oil boomtowns of Pennsylvania; Quaker State and Pennzoil got their names for the original center of the world petroleum industry, where a former railroad conductor named Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well in Titusville. Rockefeller would come dominate Pennsylvania’s oil industry, and as later strikes occured, in Oklahoma, Texas, California, his power and influence would grow. He became America’s first billionaire, the richest man in the world, somebody people create conspiracies about. But none of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil strikes matched the great mother of all gushers lying beneath the sands of the country called Saudi Arabia.
The Persian Gulf states sit atop an estimated two-thirds of the world’s reserves; Saudi Arabi controls the biggest share. That sort of setup is tailored perfectly for price fixing, so in 1960, Saudi Arabia started a club. Trade groups are often excuses for junkets (and representatives from oil-producing and -exporting nations like Libya and Kuwait must have enjoyed the thought of summering in Vienna), but in this case, at least, Adam Smith was right: "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices." The oil cartel’s height of power was during the 1970s, when, over the course of a decade, they managed to drive up their revenue income by 500% in real dollar terms. The oil embargo induced massive inflation in the U.S., brought about odd and even days at gas stations, and pumped immense amounts of money into the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular.
It kept the medieval and Machiavellian royal family afloat; the rich, swinging Saudi prince became an icon of the times. The FBI chose wisely in disgusing an undercover operative as a bribe-offering sheik during the Abscam sting. After the heights of the late 1970s, oil prices steadily declined for twenty years (although not enough to satisfy a few bold souls who attempted to nail the cartel on antitrust violations), but the petroleum reserves sat under the sands, quietly propping up a country that failed to develop much of an economy outside the petroleum industry. And now people are starting to wonder if the Saudi oil reserves are in decline. In the long term, this cannot be good news for the House of Saud; the "natural resource curse" may eventually chalk up another victim. Unsurprisingly, people prone to getting excited about the geopolitical ramifications of economic events are starting to do so, although other argue that the painful stagflation of the ‘70s was the result of a confluence of factors, not simply the OPEC embargo.
Still, oil is going to run out someday; the estimates of peak oil production are tossed about by environmentalists, oil industry think-tanks, and doom-preaching hysterics, but it’s going to happen. Oil is a fossil fuel, even if it’s not ancient dinosaur remnants (a claim apparently inspired by the dinosaur-logoed Sinclair Oil), and there’s not any more of it being made. Claims that oil is replenishing itself have found a welcome audience, being just the sort of paradigm-breaking eccentricity that traditionally surrounds cold fusion enthusiasts and people who believe Rongorongo was created by aliens, but it might be true. Thomas Gold, a reputable scientist (an astronomer rather than a geologist or chemist, but a reputable scientist in his field nonetheless) thinks so. Maybe the cost of offshore rigs, those marvels of modern technology, will have come down to the point that ever-more-marginal deposits in the North Sea and Gulf of Mexico will start yielding their bounty. Maybe the world economy will have moved away from oil towards hydrogen. Maybe the depolymerization device recently developed by researchers at the University of Illinois will start turning poultry offal into petroleum substitutes on a massive scale. Or maybe, finally, the doomsayers will have been proved right.
Economist Julian Simon and The Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich made a famous bet about commodity prices in 1980, and the non-hyper-inflationary side won spectacularly; even as people have taken resources out of the earth, they’ve become ever more adept at finding new deposits and exploiting the ones that have already found. Contrary to Ehrlich’s prediction, metals from tin to tungsten were cheaper in 1990 than they had been at the time of the bet. But maybe this time it will be different and we’ll have the future we were promised twenty-five years ago — not the happy one, where you drive around undersea tunnels in a shag-carpet-laden van, but the one in which gasoline costs $10 a gallon, angry bands of petroleum bandits rove causing destruction, cities become deserts and roads become battlefields. Economist and Nixon advisor Herb Stein said that if something cannot go on forever, it will stop. Taking oil (or water, or coal) out of the ground is something that cannot go on forever. If it stops because there’s nothing left, the whole world’s going to get a headache. I hear crude oil used to be good for that.