[OUTLOOK]Nothing ventured, nothing gainedHow can a country with abundant natural resources, especially oil, have the same view of the world as a country with scarce resources? As the globalization of industrialization accelerates, international competition to secure stable supplies of oil becomes more intense, and oil producers and non-oil producers are attempting new horizontal and vertical partnerships and collaborations in order to maximize their gains.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia made the first state visit by a Saudi ruler to Beijing on January 23, and at a meeting with China’s President Hu Jintao, the two leaders signed energy agreements on oil and natural gas. The deal between Saudi Arabia and China is an event with potentially explosive power that could change the realm of international politics in the future. The energy agreements between the world’s largest oil producer, with an absolute monarchy, and the world’s second-largest oil importer, with a communist government, cast significant economic and political shadows.
In his State of the Union Address a week later, U.S. President George W. Bush announced a plan to develop alternative energy sources and to cut the U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil by 75 percent in the next two decades. Mr. Bush’s proclamation must have been a result of an analysis of the power balance in international politics and the race for resources. After all, the time has come when a guaranteed supply of oil and resources is as important a factor as trade and industrial technology in determining the security and prosperity of a nation.
Having abundant oil reserves does not mean you are necessarily in good shape. The Creator might have been unfair to the Middle Eastern countries by giving them the wilderness of the desert with sands and winds, but the discovery of oil reserves completely changed the fate of the region immediately. God has once again proven that he is fair. But is oil a blessing or a disaster? The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman claims that oil and democracy cannot coexist in the Middle East.
Monarchs and dictators monopolize the profits from oil development and can maintain arbitrary rule by controlling their citizens’ political participation and improvements in their welfare. In other words, oil makes autocracy possible. The fact that Lebanon, which does not have oil reserves, is the only Middle Eastern nation experimenting with democracy supports Mr. Friedman’s theory. The United States advocates the spread of democracy around the world, and from America’s point of view, Middle Eastern oil might seem more like a curse than a blessing.
But when I met with Egypt’s former prime minister, Atef Ebeid, in Cairo a few days ago, he poignantly pointed out that everything God has given us can be a blessing or a curse depending on human decisions, especially the choices of a leader. Oil does not automatically guarantee economic development, but if a leader is willing and capable of achieving economic development and has the political leadership to systematically encourage the participation of the people, the future of the Middle East is not necessarily bleak.
Mr. Ebeid stressed that normal development can be expected when the Middle Eastern economies, including that of Egypt, have to operate smoothly as a part of the global economy. He also expressed serious concerns about Iran’s attempt to use oil as a diplomatic weapon. Iran’s offensive might cause not only a so-called clash of civilizations between the Middle East and the Western world, but also an internal contest for hegemony within the Middle East.
The dilemma of the Middle Eastern oil producers seem luxurious in the eyes of Korea, which does not have any oil reserves. Just as the JoongAng Ilbo series, “The World is in a Resource War,” pointed out, we have already been ensnared in the intense competition for resources. In the course of the transformation of the international power balance, Korea might find itself in a crisis in the future unless it acts fast and secures its position. We do not have time to hesitate. A commander in charge of the general preparations for a competition for resources should be appointed, and a drastic and aggressive policy has to be implemented.
For example, although the Zaytun Division in Iraq has made tremendous efforts and successfully established trust with the local Kurds, we have not yet gotten any real economic gains from our involvement in a region so rich with oil reserves. While the government is right to prioritize the safety of the citizens of Iraq while a guerrilla war is going on, we can hardly find an example of a victory in the history of resource wars without strong determination and a risk-taking mindset. Now is the time for us to display Koreans’ own convictions of a sure victory in the front lines of a resources war in the Middle East and other regions around the world.
* The writer, a former prime minister, is an advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo