The case that will be documented here is that Venezuela’s people are suffering from a tragic national situation which actually cannot be reversed by anything that’s within the power of Venezuela’s Government to do or to block. In order to understand this very unfortunate reality (if one wants to understand it), one must first understand the relevant parts of the broader situation in the world that affects Venezuela. What’s dooming the country isn’t merely a local situation, but instead is global and environmental. It also is economic, pertaining to the role that Venezuela is playing in the global economy. But the economic factor is definitely not of the kind that it’s commonly assumed and alleged to be. It is instead very different.
Here, this very different reality will be both described and documented (instead of just founded upon assumptions — many of which are false — such as the standard, basically local, economic ‘explanation’ of Venezuela’s troubles is, which focuses on Venezuela’s socialism, or the economy’s being not sufficiently capitalist).
What it all comes down to, stated in its briefest terms, is that no nation can do anything but lose money by selling the world’s dirtiest oil, tar-sands oil, which costs $100+ to clean and produce, into a global oil market that’s paying less than $100 (currently around $65) per barrel. Venezuela was able to sell it profitably when oil-prices were high, but is getting crushed now, because its oil is no longer profitable to produce and sell. But 95% of Venezuela’s export-earnings come from oil. Unless and until oil-prices are again above $100 (which probably won’t happen again, except perhaps for very brief periods), Venezuela is doomed. Venezuela’s only chance to diversify its economy away from “the natural resources curse” (from which it especially suffers) was long ago, decades before the current Government came into power. That chance was missed. This ship is now sinking, and no one can save it. (And the U.S. Government and its allies have no actual interest in saving it, but only in exploiting it, parasitically.)
So, here the real history and context for what is happening in and to Venezuela will be presented, and the reader will be able easily to verify any detail of it (by means of the links) — on one’s own, (not accepting anything on mere ‘authority’, which, in such a politically charged matter as this, is almost invariably propaganda). The reader can verify any allegation here simply by clicking onto the given link, at any point in the presentation that might seem to be questionable.
These links are directly to the items of evidence, in the specific case of: why Venezuela’s people are suffering.
Here is that case — the realistic case, without any propaganda, but with only credible news reports and source-documents as constituting its basis — regarding this question.
The two lands that produce the world’s highest-cost-to-produce oil are Canada and Venezuela. Both extract their oil overwhelmingly from tar-sands, which is the dirtiest of all oil and thus (by far) the costliest to refine. (Thus, it’s called “extra-heavy crude”, and that is the least desirable type. It’s also the type that, in a global-warming world, should remain in the ground, never be burned at all, as will also be explained here.)
An accurate summary statement in Wikipedia is that, “With present technology, the extraction and refining of heavy oils and oil sands generates as much as three times the total CO2 emissions compared to conventional oil, primarily driven by the extra energy consumption of the extraction process.” That reference at “” also states: “As the price of oil rises and as conventional hydrocarbon resources become scarcer, increased exploration and production activity is occurring in heavy oil, tar sands, and bitumen deposits. While these contribute significantly to the global energy …, they also contribute a greater share to … the detriment of the global environment.” (That’s referring to “a greater share” of “detriment” than normal crude does.) As another source phrased this matter in more explicit terms: “85 gallons of water, two tons of soil, 700-1200 cubic feet of natural gas, and 170 pounds of greenhouse gases make one barrel of crude oil” from tar-sands. That oil is simply not usable as-is to go into refining, like, for example, the standard Brent crude is. Furthermore, to produce that barrel of tar-sands-derived oil requires also the production of tons of sheer waste, none of which is left behind from producing normal oil. The cost of dealing with that waste is not factored into the cost of the barrels of oil. For examples, the future “impact upon water supplies,” and that “this water is polluted by toxic substances,” are not counted in. Therefore, the full cost of such oil has never been calculated. And yet, even so, everyone recognizes that tar-sands-derived oils are the costliest to produce.
On 25 January 2013, HSBC Global Research issued a landmark report, “Oil & Carbon Revisited: Value at risk from ‘unburnable’ reserves”. It defined the key concept of “Unburnable reserves: The IEA’s World Energy Outlook (2012 edition) estimated that in order to have a 50% chance of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 2ºC, only a third of current fossil fuel reserves can be burned before 2050. The balance could be regarded as ‘unburnable’.”
The oil in Canada and in Venezuela is the world’s least burnable, the most “heavy,” and therefore it’s not only the costliest to produce, but it’s also the worst environmentally. There is consequently increasing pressure upon large investment funds such as Harvard’s 39-billion-dollar endowment fund, to disinvest in fossil fuels. Because of interlocked boards of directors or trustees, and the needs that such ‘charities’ have to appeal to wealthy donors, these public pressures are often (as in Harvard’s case) ignored, but the movement toward divestment is gradually gaining strength in the less corrupt investment funds.
On 13 December 2018, the environmental organization 350.org headlined “Landmark fossil fuel divestment reached! 1000+ institutions are withdrawing investments from coal, oil and gas companies”, and announced:
The 1000th institution to divest was the Caisse des dépôts et consignations (CDC), which manages France’s public sector pensions, savings, and investments worth €173 billion (USD$196 billion). It recently announced that from 2019 it will no longer invest in companies that make more than 10% of their business from coal – this implies that the top 200 companies in the coal-industry are now effectively blacklisted. …
On the momentum for divestment since 2013 – Nicolas Haeringer, an organiser who supports divestment groups globally, at 350.org said:
“This is a moral movement as well as a financial one. Just five years ago we had 181 divestment commitments and USD$50 billion shifted away from polluting industries and today we’re over 1000 and approaching USD$8 trillion dollars.”
This has already helped to drive many coal companies out of business. Though coal-mine owners and employees might lose from that, the entire world gains vastly more from it. Such a transition is called “progress.” Transition in the opposite direction — toward more bad than good — is called “regress,” or, simply, “harm.” Some people call it “conservatism,” but whatever it is, certainly isn’t progress. Not in any way. But that’s what the U.S. Government and the Canadian Government want: extreme conservatism — not conservation. And they view Venezuela’s tar-sands oil as being a prize that they could profit from if Venezuela’s Government could be ‘persuaded’ to reduce their environmental regulations on extracting it. However, in 2012, Venezuela strengthened, instead of weakened, its environmental laws. That strengthened the motivation for the U.S. and Canada to take over Venezuela. Hugo Chavez died in 2013, and Nicolás Maduro replaced him. Then, in 2016, Maduro instituted a new policy, to weaken environmental enforcement in Venezuela. Perhaps he was hoping that this would reduce the U.S.-and-allied efforts to overthrow him. Venezuela’s economy was already on the ropes. The U.S. continued its efforts to overthrow Maduro. Now desperate, he started selling off 12% of the land to international mining companies. Environmental enforcement at PDVSA also plunged, and on 24 November 2018, Bloomberg News bannered “Venezuela Is Leaking Oil Everywhere”. Apparently, the weaker Maduro gets, the worse he becomes. He had entered a doomed office as the president, and seems willing to do anything not to drown in it. Apparently, the weaker he gets, the more that U.S.-allied billionaires want to take over the country, entirely on their own terms. It’ll be like what had already happened in Greece, when the Syriza Party there capitulated to the international financial firms in 2015, and the Government stripped pensions, education, social services, etc., and privatized the infrastructure. But the path toward that end is quite different in Venezuela.
With the world’s increasing move toward renewables, the disinvestment in oil companies will increasingly be targeted toward selling the stock in the ones that have invested the most in oil fields in Canada and Venezuela. However, the situation is radically different for Venezuela than it is for Canada. Here is why:
The biggest market for Canadian oil is just next door, the United States. Most of the oil that’s imported into the U.S. comes from Canada. And, because most of the oil companies that are producing oil in Canada are U.S. owned or allied (such as in UK), the U.S. Government isn’t sanctioning Canada and trying to bring its Government down by reducing Canada’s oil-sales via sanctions, such as is the case with regard to Venezuela’s oil-sales. The U.S. Government doesn’t need to do that in order for America’s corporations to become enabled to sell the oil that comes from Canada: they’re already selling that oil, and Canada’s Government (as well as America’s Government) is already helping America’s companies to do this. America’s and Canada’s aristocracies are allied — not only with Venezuela’s aristocracy (which wants to replace Venezuela’s existing Government), but also with each others’ aristocracy.
Furthermore, unlike Venezuela, Canada isn’t nearly 100% dependent upon its oil-sales in order to support its economy, such as Venezuela tragically is. Venezuela receives around 95% of its export-income from its oil. That’s ridiculous and, for geostrategic and geoeconomic reasons, should never have been tolerated by Venezuela’s Government, but it nonetheless has been tolerated by them — and, for many decades, not only by Venezuela’s present Government. Indeed, Oil&Gas Journal headlined on 8 February 2010, “All about Orinoco” and reported that there had been “early efforts to produce heavy crude from the [Orinoco] belt” and these efforts “led PDVSA predecessors to output by the early 1980s of 93,000 b/d.” Furthermore, “Petroleos de Venezuela SA estimated 1.18 trillion bbl of oil in place in the Orinoco in 1987 and revised that in 2006 to a median of 1.3 trillion bbl, a maximum of 1.4 trillion bbl, and a minimum of 900 billion bbl.”
At that time, Richard Turcotte, of Peak Oil Matters, warned about this report, by headlining “A Look at Venezuela”, and pointing out that:
Unlike the light sweet crude oil produced by the U.S. and the light oil which has made Saudi Arabia such a force, the Orinoco oil is “heavy oil” found in oil sands — similar in characteristics to the tar sands bitumen found in Alberta, Canada. (See my prior post here.) The Venezuela oil is thus much harder to extract and refine, making it more costly. Significant investments of time and money are required to provide adequate refinery capabilities. Needless to say, extracting this heavy oil is a much more energy-and time-intensive effort than is the process for extracting the more familiar light crude. It is not anyone’s answer in the next few years.
Lead researcher and USGS geologist Chris Schenk admitted that their report is not asserting that the “technically recoverable” oil is in fact “economically recoverable.” That’s a significant distinction, and one that needs to be emphasized. All the presumed underground reserves in the world won’t mean much if it makes no sense to invest the time, effort, and money to try and extract them.
The USGS nonetheless estimates that a stunning 40 – 45% of that resource will be ultimately recoverable. One prominent geologist (and a former board member of Petroleos de Venezuela SA — Venezuela’s state oil company) is already on record as doubting anywhere near that amount can be recovered, and stated that much of what might actually be recoverable would in fact be too expensive to produce.
Perhaps Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez and his predecessors were thinking that if the U.S. Government says that this oil is an asset, then it is reasonable to consider it to be an asset; but if the U.S. Government was instead merely aiming to get Venezuelans to think that it’s an asset so as to keep that country accepting its existing oil-monoeconomy (its over-dependence upon oil), then ultimately as the disappointment hits when the Venezuelan people experience the poverty after having hoped and tried to develop that ‘asset’, the U.S. Government will become welcomed in, to take over Venezuela’s failing Government. Anyway, that would be a conceivable reason why the U.S. Government would be promoting the ‘economic potential’ of the Orinoco belt. The aristocracy’s agents (in this case the petroleum industry) tend to be very clear-eyed about what’s of benefit to their paymasters. For whatever reason, the actual fact — that this oil was no asset — has remained hidden from the Venezuelan public. It still isn’t publicly acknowledged by Venezuela’s Government. Nor is it publicly recognized by America’s.
So, this tragic error (of presuming that tar-sands oil should be developed) goes back even to well before the time of Hugo Chavez. Moreover, it’s worth pointing out that the actual source of the ‘error’ is the petroleum industry itself, which, like the tobacco companies before it, constantly propagandized for increased production and sales, regardless of what the science says. A good example of that propaganda is the Editorial in Oil&Gas Journal on 24 January 2019, headlining “Costs, energy needs discredit ‘keep it in the ground’ agenda”. It says: “Preemptive opposition to oil and gas projects by ‘keep it in the ground’ activists promises needless hardship in two broad areas.” This is a denial of the entire concept of “unburnable reserves.” They want, instead, to burn it all — and even to keep prospecting to find yet more oil and gas (at this time of already greatly excessive inventories of cleaner reserves that should be burned before any of Canada’s or Venezuela’s filth is). They could lay off their entire teams of oil-explorers, who are wasting their time to find yet more dirty energy sources that won’t ever need to be used by anybody. Either these people are stupid and insane, or else they are psychopaths who care only about keeping their existing jobs and don’t care at all about the world that future generations will be experiencing. If their children knew, then what would they think of what their parents had done to the world that they will be living in?
Consequently (perhaps after — for whatever reason — listening too much to self-interested advisors), Venezuela’s Government has allowed itself to become trapped by its addiction to selling its extraordinarily filthy oil. There was no Governmental demand, no sufficient priority placed upon Venezuelan firms, for them to diversify the economy away from petroleum. Neither the present Government, nor any previous Government of Venezuela, did.
Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro didn’t create this problem; but, now, and especially on Maduro’s watch, the oil-market transformations that result from the global-warming phenomenon are accelerating; and, unlike Canada, which is part of the U.S. empire, Venezuela isn’t receiving U.S. Government protection of its investors, and so there is no helping hand from the U.S. Government (i.e., from America’s aristocracy) to assist Venezuela’s oil sales (such as the U.S. does provide regarding Canada). There is, instead, to the contrary — as Venezuela’s Government has become weaker and weaker, and has less and less public support while global oil prices have plummeted — the grabbing hand, of both the U.S. and Canadian Governments, to take over Venezuela’s Government, whose biggest sin, actually, was to have left itself open to such a take-over, by its having failed to diversify its economy away from the country’s doomed, and dooming, extraordinarily costly-to-refine, and undesirable to refine, oil. It’s now just a coffin in the ground, but it’s nonetheless still the source of virtually all of Venezuela’s export sales. No government could sustain supporting such a zombie. It’s a deadweight that’s dragging Venezuela down and economically suffocating all Venezuelans. And the documentation that this situation exists is incontrovertible:
The current WTO report on Venezuela indicates that 96.9% of the country’s exports are of “Fuels and mining products,” and that over 98% of this 96.9% consists of oils. Also shown is that the biggest five importers from Venezuela account for only 1.9% of Venezuela’s exports, and therefore all other countries account for 98.1%. So, when Venezuela loses its U.S. market, that would mean loss of only 0.6% of its total export market.
However, America’s sanctions will additionally cause some U.S. vassal nations such as in Europe to stop importing from Venezuela. So, Maduro is very vulnerable, indeed. Diversifying the markets (to that 98.1%) isn’t what was needed by Venezuelans; diversifying the economy was; and neither he nor his predecessors did any of that.
On February 2018, Petroleum Science headlined “Analysis of Venezuela’s oil-oriented economy: from the perspective of entropy” and reported that, “the current breakeven price has achieved to over $100/bbl in Venezuela.” Right now, oil is selling at around $65 per barrel. So, how can Venezuela make money selling its $100+ oil into the global $65 oil market? It’s just not possible, at least not sustainably. The Petroleum Science article therefore said that “it is unwise for Venezuela to count on selling raw oil to support the country’s economy,” because any per-barrel price that’s lower than Venezuela’s $100+ per barrel production cost will produce a loss on the sale of that barrel of oil, and because there will be very few if any future days when the per-barrel oil-price will again be above $100. The more that the world cuts back on petroleum and increases non-carbon energy-sources, the lower that the price of oil will become. And the more that investment funds steer clear of high-carbon firms, the lower the corporate stock of those companies will sink in value. Both investors and consumers are therefore going to be turning away from them.
When global oil prices were high, Venezuela could sell even its costly-to-refine oil profitably, but those times are now long gone and probably will never return, as the world increasingly switches away from fossil fuels. Especially tar-sands oils, such as from Canada and from Venezuela, should stay in the ground, and not only because today’s oil prices are too low to sustain selling them, but also because those extra-heavy oils are the worst to burn, from the standpoint of causing global warming.
As an example of this economic reality, a major U.S. corporate investor in Venezuelan oil is Chevron Corporation, and Zacks Investment Research headlined on 5 October 2011, “Chevron Sees Carabobo Oil in 2012”. It stated:
According to a company executive, U.S. energy behemoth Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX – News) may see the start-up of an oil field in Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt next year. The super-major is confident that it can commence production from Orinoco’s Carabobo Project 3 – which has estimated reserves of 66 billion barrels – in the third quarter of 2012. …
Chevron holds a 34% interest in Carabobo Project 3, while Venezuela’s national oil company Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (or PDVSA) controls 60%. The remaining stake is owned by Venezuelan and Japanese firms.
Following the first production of 50,000 barrels per day, … [Chevron] is looking to boost volumes by an additional 50,000-100,000 barrels per day every two years. Carabobo 3, one of several Orinoco projects, is estimated to reach a maximum output of approximately 400,000-480,000 barrels of crude oil per day by 2016.
There is no public indication, at least not online, that even the “first production of 50,000 barrels per day” has been yet achieved, though it had been expected to occur within a year. Chevron’s 2017 Annual Report (covering the year 2016) is the latest online, and it doesn’t so much as even mention “Carabobo.” And this was after the 5 October 2011 prediction that “Carabobo 3, one of several Orinoco projects, is estimated to reach a maximum output of approximately 400,000-480,000 barrels of crude oil per day by 2016.” Clearly, that’s a poorly performing investment. Chevron’s current web-page on “Venezuela” says “Chevron has a 34 percent interest in Petroindependencia, S.A., which includes the Carabobo 3 Project,” but it provides no number of barrels of oil being produced there (if any) — not even now, in 2019. Bad investments die in silence and in obscurity, but good investments get trumpeted everywhere — and this one is being trumpeted nowhere.
Any oil sales from those fields will not only be delayed until when oil prices are again high enough to sell those dirty oils at a profit (which is increasingly unlikely ever to happen again). The investment values of those companies will likewise be especially hard hit as the problem of unburnable reserves becomes increasingly widely recognized and understood by the public. The public won’t remain ignorant and deceived about these matters forever. This is like a Ponzi scheme.
Russia’s Government seems determined never to accept this U.S. coup imposing America’s “regime-change” upon the sovereign nation of Venezuela, and has made the decision to send military assets, and to invest both in Venezuela’s Government and in the oil company. On January 29th, Russia’s Interfax News Agency headlined in Russian, “The Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation hopes to get external debt payments from Venezuela”. The neoconservative Jamestown Foundation remarked about that on January 31st by saying that “These debts may eventually be written off by a new opposition Venezuelan government led by the self-proclaimed interim president, Juan Guaido, if it manages to push Maduro out (see EDM, January 28, 2019). Yet, even if Maduro somehow succeeds in clinging to power with Russian help, he will hardly have the resources to service the loans.” That, unfortunately, happens to be true. The only sensible reason why Russia would be committing itself to protecting Venezuela’s sovereignty would be in order to say to Washington that America’s long string of foreign regime-changes (Iraq, Libya, Syria, Honduras, Ukraine, etc.) has now ended — to establish the principle (as Russia has recently done in Syria) that no longer will Washington’s invasions and coups be tolerated, no more conquests (additions to its empire) will be allowed. Somebody has to draw the line, finally, and the other nuclear superpower could be the one to do it. Other than that, however, Russia, like other investors, can only experience losses from investments in Venezuela. Venezuela is now an asset only in “The Great Game”. Russia’s protecting in Venezuela the principle of national sovereignty — no coups, no conquests, at all — is as moral as America’s repeatedly rejecting that principle is immoral; but, as an investment, Venezuela simply is a loss. If “The Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation hopes to get external debt payments from Venezuela,” then Russia’s Ministry of Finance should be expecting to be disappointed in that “hope.” But that hope wouldn’t, in any case, be a sound reason for what Russia is doing there. The only “asset” to be won in Venezuela is protection of the most basic principle of international law: the independence and sovereignty of each nation. Hitler and his fascist allies, and Stalin and his communist allies, violated that principle; but now fascist America and its allies routinely violate it. Venezuela’s allies (unlike Neville Chamberlain) are supporting the foundation-stone of international law: national sovereignty and independence. For the U.S. and its allies to reject the results of Venezuela’s (or of Syria’s or of Iran’s) elections is no basis for invalidating those results, and the U.S. Government’s stooge Juan Guaido is simply a Venezuelan traitor, and should be treated as such, by an appropriate trial for treason. Certainly, there is no Constitutional basis for Guaido’s power-grab, despite the lies to the contrary by the putchists such as in America and its allied regimes.
All oil-exploration should therefore now stop, and existing tar-sands oil fields should simply be abandoned altogether. Only the easiest-to-refine (the “lighter”) oils should be sold and burnt right now. There is going to be a rush for the exits in the stocks of those “extra-heavy oil” companies, and the only question is when it will happen. Regarding that rush, the situation is very different in Venezuela than it is in Canada, because the U.S. Government will delay as long as possible the collapse of Canada’s oil-sales, but the U.S. (and Canada) want to expedite the collapse of Venezuela’s — at least until and unless the current Venezuelan coup succeeds. (And Canada’s Foreign Minister, Chrystia Freeland, did the key preparatory work for U.S. President Trump to pull the plug on Venezuela’s Government; so, both of those governments have actually led in overthrowing and replacing Venezuela’s non-U.S.-allied Government.)
Venezuela became addicted to selling its filthy oil, but now can only lose money with every barrel it sells of its oil. Each day of the company’s operations is simply eating the company’s seed-corn — and there is nothing like Canada has, to soften the blow. That’s not only unsustainable, it has already become a crisis, and Washington is exploiting it.
PDVSA’s latest online financial report is for 2016 and it shows that “Profit before income tax” was $16,317,000 in 2014, then $1,469,000 in 2015, and then $955,000 — less than a million dollars — in 2016. During the three-year period, “Current assets” declined from $55.2 billion to $54.6 billion, and “Current liabilities” declined from $55.7 billion to $50.0 billion. “Financial debt” declined from $40.0 billion to $33.9 billion. “Total assets” declined from $217.4 billion to $189.7 billion; and “Total liabilities” declined from $127.7 billion to $102.6 billion. Probably the company is already operating in the red now, but with every year of deteriorating infrastructure, just wearing out, with more and more and longer deferred maintenance, and with a bad long-term prospect for profitability, could the Government even sell the company? If Trump succeeds and PDVSA and every other state-owned asset in Venezuela becomes privatized, Venezuela’s citizens will be left with nothing, and the only beneficiaries will be the international bankers, even as international investors will need to take haircuts on their existing Venezuelan loans. The oil that PDVSA sells shouldn’t even be bought; it should simply remain in the ground.
According to the latest public information, PDVSA showed less than a million dollars of profit in 2016 — and the trend was downward. Anyone in Venezuela who thinks that the country can be sustained in the future, as it was in the past, from the sale of Venezuela’s exceptionally costly-to-produce oil, isn’t taking into account the broader picture, and the impact that the global-warming phenomenon will inevitably have upon the fossil-fuels industries.
There may be ways to jiggle the books to make PDVSA fool some investors into buying the company, but only the international bankers would be profiting from a sale of that firm.
Foreign Policy magazine, which represents America’s aristocracy, headlined on 5 June 2018, “It’s Time for a Coup in Venezuela”, but even if that turns out to be the final solution to the Venezuelan problem for America’s aristocrats, it won’t solve anything for the Venezuelan public — basically like Hitler’s “final solution” did nothing to benefit Germany’s Jews. Germany’s aristocracy did nothing for Jews then, and America’s aristocracy will do nothing for Venezuelans now. They’re all on their own. The leaders of the U.S.-allied nations don’t want to save them, and instead follow in the fascist and Nazi tradition. The leaders in Venezuela’s current Government, who want to save them, simply can’t save them. It’s far too late for them to start now, to do what needed to start back in “the early 1980s of 93,000 b/d” from Venezuela’s Orinoco belt — which would have been for them to stop what ought never even to have been started there: extraction of that oil.
The poverty and violence that now rack Venezuela result from a broader situation in which selling what shouldn’t even be bought has run its miserable course until the final act, which is a Government that has reached the stage where it can produce income only for international bankers and for the aristocrats who control them. Any oil company now that would want to buy those assets would merely be adding to its assets — chiefly the dirty oil in the ground — ‘assets’ (oil reserves) that can never even be used (unless the propaganda becomes even more effective in the future than it has always been until now, which might be impossible to achieve). Oil companies already have lots more of that dangerous filth than anyone except people in finance will ever be able to benefit from buying or selling.
For Venezuelans, this is a great tragedy. The U.S. and its allies are (and have been) doing everything they can to exploit the tragedy.
It’s like a hungry lion chasing a fleeing exhausted deer, who now is finally trapped.
That’s the ugly reality.
Author’s note: first posted at strategic-culture.org
Indictment of Trump associate threatens UAE lobbying success
This month’s indictment of a billionaire, one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the United Arab Emirates highlights the successes and pitfalls of a high-stakes Emirati effort to influence US policy.
The indictment of businessman Thomas J. Barrack, who maintained close ties to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed while serving as an influential advisor in 2016 to then-presidential candidate Trump and chair of Mr. Trump’s inauguration committee once he won the 2016 election, puts at risk the UAE’s relationship with the Biden administration.
It also threatens to reduce the UAE’s return on a massive investment in lobbying and public relations that made it a darling in Washington during the last four years.
A 2019 study concluded that Emirati clients hired 20 US lobbying firms to do their bidding at a cost of US$20 million, including US$600,000 in election campaign contributions — one of the largest, if not the largest expenditure by a single state on Washington lobbying and influence peddling.
The indictment further raises the question of why the Biden administration was willing to allow legal proceedings to put at risk its relationship with one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, one that last year opened the door to recognition of Israel by Arab and Muslim-majority states.
The UAE lobbying effort sought to position the Emirates, and at its behest, Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed’s counterpart, Mohammed bin Salman, at the heart of US policy, ensure that Emirati and Saudi interests were protected, and shield the two autocrats from criticism of various of their policies and abuse of human rights.
Interestingly, UAE lobbying in the United States, in contrast to France and Austria, failed to persuade the Trump administration to embrace one of the Emirates’ core policy objectives: a US crackdown on political Islam with a focus on the Muslim Brotherhood. UAE Crown Prince Mohammed views political Islam and the Brotherhood that embraces the principle of elections as an existential threat to the survival of his regime.
In one instance cited in the indictment, Mr. Barrack’s two co-defendants, a UAE national resident in the United States, Rashid Al-Malik, and Matthew Grimes, a Barrack employee, discussed days after Mr. Trump’s inauguration the possibility of persuading the new administration to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a designated foreign terrorist organization. “This will be a huge win. If we can list them. And they deserved to be,” Mr. Al-Malik texted Mr. Grimes on 23 January 2017.
The unsuccessful push for designating the Brotherhood came three months after Mr. Barrack identified the two Prince Mohammeds in an op-ed in Fortune magazine as members of a new generation of “brilliant young leaders.” The billionaire argued that “American foreign policy must persuade these bold visionaries to lean West rather than East… By supporting their anti-terrorism platforms abroad, America enhances its anti-terrorism policies at home.”
Mr. Barrack further sought to persuade America’s new policymakers, in line with Emirati thinking, that the threat posed by political Islam emanated not only from Iran’s clerical regime and its asymmetric defence and security policies but also from the Brotherhood and Tukey’s Islamist government. He echoed Emirati promotion of Saudi Arabia after the rise of Mohammed bin Salman as the most effective bulwark against political Islam.
“It is impossible for the US to move against any hostile Islamic group anywhere in the world without Saudi support…. The confused notion that Saudi Arabia is synonymous with radical Islam is falsely based on the Western notion that ‘one size fits all,’ Mr. Barrack asserted.
The Trump administration’s refusal to exempt the Brotherhood from its embrace of Emirati policy was the likely result of differences within both the US government and the Muslim world. Analysts suggest that some in the administration feared that designating the Brotherhood would empower the more rabidly Islamophobic elements in Mr. Trump’s support base.
Administration officials also recognized that the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt constituted a minority, albeit a powerful minority, in the Muslim world that was on the warpath against the Brotherhood.
Elsewhere, Brotherhood affiliates were part of the political structure by either participating in government or constituting part of the legal opposition in countries like Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Indonesia.
The affiliates have at times supported US policies or worked closely with US allies like in the case of Yemen’s Al Islah that is aligned with Saudi-backed forces.
In contrast to UAE efforts to ensure that the Brotherhood is crushed at the risk of fueling Islamophobia, Nahdlatul Ulama, one of, if not the world’s largest Muslim organization which shares the Emirates’ rejection of political Islam and the Brotherhood, has opted to fight the Brotherhood’s local Indonesian affiliate politically within a democratic framework rather than by resorting to coercive tactics.
Nahdlatul Ulama prides itself on having significantly diminished the prospects of Indonesia’s Brotherhood affiliate, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), since the 2009 presidential election. The group at the time successfully drove a wedge between then-President Susilo Yudhoyono, and the PKS, his coalition partner since the 2004 election that brought him to power. In doing so, it persuaded Mr. Yudhoyono to reject a PKS candidate as vice president in the second term of his presidency.
Nahdlatul Ulama’s manoeuvring included the publication of a book asserting that the PKS had not shed its links to militancy. The party has since failed to win even half of its peak 38 seats in parliament garnered in the 2004 election.
“Publication of ‘The Illusion of an Islamic State: The Expansion of Transnational Islamist Movements to Indonesia’ had a considerable impact on domestic policy. It primarily contributed to neutralizing one candidate’s bid for vice president in the 2009 national election campaign, who had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said militancy expert Magnus Ranstorp.
Biden Revises US Sanctions Policy
In the United States, a revision of the sanctions policy is in full swing. Joe Biden’s administration strives to make sanctions instruments more effective in achieving his political goals and, at the same time, reducing political and economic costs. The coordination of restrictive measures with allies is also seen as an important task. Biden is cautiously but consistently abandoning the sanctions paradigm that emerged during Donald Trump’s presidency.
The US sanctions policy under Trump was characterised by several elements. First, Washington applied them quite harshly. In all key areas (China, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, etc.), the United States used economic and financial restrictions without hesitation, and sometimes in unprecedented volumes. Of course, the Trump administration acted rationally and rigidity was not an end in itself. In a number of episodes, the American authorities acted prudently (for example, regarding sanctions on Russian sovereign debt in 2019). The Trump-led executives stifled excess Congressional enthusiasm for “draconian sanctions” against Russia and even some initiatives against China. However, the harshness of other measures sometimes shocked allies and opponents alike. These include the 6 April 2014 sanctions against a group of Russian businessmen and their assets, or bans on some Chinese telecommunications services in the United States, or sanctions blocking the International Criminal Court.
Second, Trump clearly ignored the views of US allies. The unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 forced European businesses to leave Iran, resulting in losses. Even some of the nation’s closest allies were annoyed. Another irritant was the tenacity with which Trump (with Congressional backing) threw a wrench in the wheels of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Despite the complicated relations between Moscow and the European Union, the latter defended the right to independently determine what was in its interests and what was not.
Third, concerns about sanctions have emerged among American business as well. Fears have grown in financial circles that the excessive use of sanctions will provoke the unnecessary politicisation of the global financial system. In the short term, a radical decline in the global role of the dollar is hardly possible. But political risks are forcing many governments to seriously consider it. Both rivals (Moscow and Beijing) and allies (Brussels) have begun to implement corresponding plans. Trade sanctions against China have affected a number of US companies in the telecommunications and high-tech sectors.
Finally, on some issues, the Trump administration has been inconsistent or simply made mistakes. For example, Trump enthusiastically criticised China for human rights violations, supporting relevant legislative initiatives. But at the same time, it almost closed its eyes to the events in Belarus in 2020. Congress was also extremely unhappy with the delay in the reaction on the “Navalny case” in Russia. As for mistakes, the past administration missed the moment for humanitarian exemptions for sanctions regimes in connection with the COVID-19 epidemic. Even cosmetic indulgences could have won points for US “soft power”. Instead, the US Treasury has published a list of pre-existing exceptions.
The preconditions for a revision of the sanctions policy arose even before Joe Biden came to power. First of all, a lot of analytical work was done by American think tanks—nongovernmental research centers. They provided a completely sober and unbiased analysis of bothха! achievements and mistakes. In addition, the US Government Accountability Office has done serious work; in 2019 it prepared two reports for Congress on the institutions of the American sanctions policy. However, Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election significantly accelerated the revision of the sanctions instruments. Both the ideological preferences of the Democrats (for example, the emphasis on human rights) and the political experience of Biden himself played a role.
The new guidelines for the US sanctions policy can be summarised as follows. First, the development of targeted sanctions and a more serious analysis of their economic costs for American business, as well as business from allied and partner countries. Second, closer coordination with allies. Here, Biden has already sent a number of encouraging signals by introducing temporary sanctions exemptions on Nord Stream 2. Although a number of Russian organisations and ships were included in the US sanctions lists, Nord Stream 2 itself and its leadership were not affected. Third, we are talking about closer attention to the subject of human rights. Biden has already reacted with sanctions both to the “Navalny case” and to the situation in Belarus. Human rights will be an irritant in relations with China. Fourth, the administration is working towards overturning Trump’s most controversial decisions. The 2020 decrees on Chinese telecoms were cancelled, the decree on sanctions against the International Criminal Court was cancelled, the decree on Chinese military-industrial companies was modified; negotiations are also underway with Iran.
The US Treasury, one of the key US sanctions agencies, will also undergo personnel updates. Elisabeth Rosenberg, a prominent sanctions expert who previously worked at the Center for a New American Security, may take the post of Assistant Treasury Secretary. She will oversee the subject of sanctions. Thus, the principle of “revolving doors”, which is familiar to Americans, is being implemented, when the civil service is replenished with personnel from the expert community and business, and then “returns” them back.
At the same time, the revision of the sanctions policy by the new administration cannot be called a revolution. The institutional arrangement will remain unchanged. It is a combination of the functions of various departments—the Treasury, the Department of Trade, the Department of Justice, the State Department, etc. The experience of their interagency coordination has accumulated over the years. The system worked flawlessly both under Trump and under his predecessors. Rather, it will be about changing the political directives.
For Russia, the revision is unlikely to bring radical changes. A withdrawal from the carpet bombing of Russian business, such as the incident on 6 April 2018 hint that good news can be considered a possibility. However, the legal mechanisms of sanctions against Russia will continue to operate. The emphasis on human rights will lead to an increase in sanctions against government structures. Against this background, regular political crises are possible in relations between the two countries.
From our partner RIAC
Sea Breeze 2021: U.S. is worryingly heading closer to conflict with Russia in the Black Sea
On July 10th, the 2021 iteration of the joint military exercise, Sea Breeze, concluded in the Black Sea. This exercise, which began on June 28th was co-hosted by the Ukrainian Navy and the United States Navy’s Sixth Fleet. According to the U.S. Navy, the annual Exercise Sea Breeze consists of joint naval, land, and air trainings and operations centered around building increased shared capabilities in the Black Sea.
This year’s Sea Breeze included participation from 32 countries, including NATO members and other countries that border the Black Sea, making it the largest Sea Breeze exercise since its inception in 1997. All other countries bordering the Black Sea were included in participating in the joint drills, except Russia.
Russia’s exclusion from these exercises is not unsurprising, due to its current tensions with Ukraine and its historical relationship with NATO. However, it signals to Moscow and the rest of the world that the NATO views Russia as an opponent in a future conflict. At the opening ceremony of Sea Breeze 2021 in Odessa, it was made clear that the intention of the exercise was to prepare for future conflict in the region when the Defense Minister of Ukraine, reported that the drills “contain a powerful message – support of stability and peace in our region.”
These exercises and provocations do anything but bring peace and stability to the region. In fact, they draw the United States and NATO dangerously close to the brink of conflict with Russia.
Even though Sea Breeze 2021 has only recently concluded, it has already had a marked impact on tensions between NATO countries and Moscow. U.S. Navy Commander Daniel Marzluff recently explained that the Sea Breeze drills in the Black Sea are essential deterrents to Russian assertions in region. However, these drills have consisted of increasingly provocative maneuvers that ultimately provoke conflict in the region.
These drills have done anything but act as a deterrent for conflict in the Black Sea. In response to the Sea Breeze drills, Russia conducted its own drills in the Black Sea, including the simulation of firing advanced missile systems against enemy aircraft. As the Black Sea is of utmost importance to Russia’s trade and military stature, it follows that Russia would signal its displacement if it perceives its claims are being threatened.
Sea Breeze followed another rise in tensions in the Black Sea, when just a week prior to the beginning of the exercise, a clash occurred between Russia and Britain. In response to the British destroyer ship, the HMS Defender, patrolling inside Crimean territorial waters, Russia claimed it fired warning shots and ordered two bombers to drop bombs in the path of the ship. When asked about the HMS Defender, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the ship’s actions as a “provocation” that was a “blatant violation” of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Putin also went on to claim that Moscow believes U.S. reconnaissance aircraft were a part of the operation as well. Despite this, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded with a denial of any wrongdoing.
Russia’s actions to provocations by the United States-led Sea Breeze and interaction with the HMS Defender in the Black Sea signal its resolve to retaliate if it feels as its sovereignty and its territorial claim on Crimea is being impeded on. Despite Russia signaling its commitment to defending its territorial claims in the Black Sea, the United States still willingly took actions during Sea Breeze that would bring the United States closer to a clash with Russia.
Provoking conflict in the Black Sea does not align with the national security interests of the United States. In fact, it only puts the United States in the position to be involved in a costly clash that only would harm its diplomatic relationships.
As Russia has signaled its commitment to its resolve and scope of its military response in a possible conflict, any potential conflict in the Black Sea would be costly for the United States. Over the past few years, Russia has increased the size and capabilities of its fleet in the Black Sea. Two of these improvements would especially pose a challenging threat to the U.S. and NATO – Russia’s drastically improved anti-access/area-denial capabilities and its new Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile. This would mean any conflict in the Black Sea would not be a quick and decisive victory for U.S. and NATO forces, and would instead likely become costly and extensive.
A conflict with Russia in the Black Sea would not only be costly for the U.S. and its allies in the region, but could irreparably damage its fragile, but strategically valuable relationship with Russia. If the United States continues to escalate tensions in the Black Sea, it risks closing the limited window for bilateral cooperation with Russia that was opened through increased willingness to collaborate on areas of common interests, as evidenced by the recent summit that took place in Geneva. After a period of the highest levels of tension between the U.S. and Russia since the Cold War, this progress made towards improving bilateral relations must not be taken for granted. Even if the U.S. and NATO’s maneuvers in the Black Sea do not ultimately materialize into a full-scale conflict with Russia, they will most likely damage not just recent diplomatic momentum, but future opportunities for a relationship between the two powers.
In such a critical time for the relationship between the United States and Russia, it is counterproductive for the United States to take actions that it can predict will drive Russia even further away. Entering into a conflict with Russia in the Black Sea would not only engage the U.S. in a costly conflict but would damage its security and diplomatic interests.
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