Marc Carlisle: Families a world apart
On the Marc
In many respects, a gathering of the Saudi royal family in the desert outside Riyadh is no different than a farm family reunion near Fort Carson. At both conversation revolves around the children, how big and how old, and how many one daughter has, and how few another, as well as the logistics of who is arriving when and staying where, and whether there will be enough food and drink to go around.
Sure, there is a difference in scale between the two gatherings, what with the royal family of Sa’ud having 5,000 sons, grandsons and nephews. In both places, the lives of the absent are discussed, distorted, and deliberated in detail, although attendance in Riyadh is almost always 100 percent.
When the royal family gathers, it’s to parse out the incredible revenue from the oil pumped from beneath the sands, and as with the lottery, family members must be present to win. And they do recognize that the oil is a lot like winning the lottery. The Saudis understand that eventually the oil and the revenue will either dry up or be replaced, leaving them no worse off than when they started, but conceivably very well off indeed if they manage production and price for maximum profit.
At Fort Carson, the talk will eventually turn to the war. Even though thousands of lives are at stake, not one of them has made a serious effort to actually learn about the Gulf region or its peoples, although to listen to the talk of some of the family you’d think they were all experts on the religions, culture, and character of the “aye-raab”.
The Saudis, on the other hand, have made studying America and Americans a priority for the simple purpose of self-preservation. Revolution is behind every dune, and the family knows that the U.S. military is sine qua non of their political power, although exactly why the supposedly freedom loving Americans support their intolerant and dictatorial ways is a curiosity.
The American as a consumer, at least, they thought they understood. After all, the royal family is in training as consumers in order to use their oil wealth and spend it wisely. Besides, if they can understand how American consumers react to price, then they can use their influence to move the price of oil to a level that extracts the most revenue from the U.S. without damping demand.
In the spring of 2007, when the price of a gallon of gasoline rose by 50 percent from $2 to $3, the Saudis worried the higher price would squelch demand or worse, trigger a recession. Certainly they expected American drivers to use less gas, so imagine their consternation when gas consumption actually rose 2 percent in 2007. This year, as the price of gasoline rose yet again, by 30 percent, the Saudis expected consumption to fall.
Their expectation was met, American drivers did react to the higher price by reducing the amount of gas they purchased, by 1.7 percent through the end of May. Price goes up, Americans use more. Price goes up again, Americans use 1.7 percent less.
Certainly family members are kicking their camels for not working on a higher oil price long before 2008, but they’re also thinking of kicking the Americans who haven’t let higher prices curb their waste of gasoline. The Saudis know that in the 1970s and 1980s many Americans adjusted how and when they drove when the price of gas got too high, first 50 cents, then 75 cents, then a dollar! They know too that the belief that Americans love their cars is flat wrong; enough Americans changed what and how they drove over the past 35 years to make Toyota the largest car manufacturer in the U.S., and to drive the Big 3 automakers to the verge of bankruptcy.
They hear for the 35th straight year national leaders urge Americans to properly inflate their tires, and for the 35th straight year other national leaders sniggering at the idea, even though the amount of oil saved during that time with free air would have equaled all the oil produced by Iraq.
And the Saudis understand something about the true cost that the sniggering Americans do not, which is that if Americans inflated their tires, they could have saved not only money, but lives. No serviceman should have to pay that high a price just to preserve the rights of a few to snicker.
Marc Carlisle writes a Thursday column. He can be reached at
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