Ask yourself this question: If the U.S. did not lend a hand to help the Saudis defend their oil production and export infrastructure, what would happen? There are two possibilities: (a) the Saudis leave their security — and that of oil, their economic lifeline — to chance; or (b) they would pay for those security investments themselves. Which do you think is more likely?
If you think like an economist, you would answer (b). Simple economics suggest that oil producers will provide for their own security needs as long as the cost of doing so results in greater profits than equivalent investments could yield. Because Middle Eastern governments typically have nothing of value to trade except oil, they must secure and sell oil to remain viable. Given that 70–80 percent of the Saudis’ state revenue — and 44 percent of their GDP — comes from oil sales, Middle Eastern governments have even more incentive than we do to worry about the security of oil‐production facilities, ports, and shipping lanes.
The conceit that such undertakings are beyond the abilities of the Saudi government is risible. According to the Energy Information Administration, the desert kingdom earned $194 billion from oil sales last year. And it’s not as if the Saudis won’t spend it on security when they feel that they must; recall that they spent $33 billion to underwrite the costs associated with the 1990 Persian Gulf War, 55 percent of the total bill, and more than five times what the U.S. spent on wartime operations ($6 billion).
What if all the money in the world can’t turn the Saudi military and security apparatus into a capable defensive force? While we doubt there’s something in the Saudi DNA that prevents that country from defending itself, the Kingdom could always pay others for security services if necessary.
If you think like many American foreign‐policy analysts, however, you would probably answer (a). Nation states (except ours, of course) are routinely characterized as thoughtless, counterproductive, or irrational actors on the world stage when bereft of adult (that is, U.S.) supervision.
While we’re skeptical about that proposition, what if the Saudis were to under‐invest in security for some reason? The correct response would be a global effort to subsidize those investments. After all, given that oil is a fungible, global commodity, a successful terrorist attack on a Saudi oil installation would increase the price of crude to all consumers everywhere to the same degree.