PARIS -- While surfing the Internet on Valentine's Day, I came across a love story so poignant that I just have to share it with you. I'm taking really hot and heavy -- as in actual fire.
I noticed a banner advertisement for an event in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in April called the "Kingdom Future Energy Summit," complete with a stunning image of what appears to be an ashen finger catching fire as it reaches out to touch a stream of oil. Ouch. It's the kind of image that you might expect neo-hippies to daydream between trips to the recycling bin, not one put forth by a Middle Eastern petro-state whose oil sector represents about 80 percent of its budget revenues. What's going on here? Apparently a steamy geopolitical liaison, that's what.
I'll bet you probably figured that the "future energy" in Saudi Arabia is oil, since the entire country is floating on a sea of it. No, silly -- it's renewable energy!
Has Saudi Arabia suddenly been hit on the head with some kind of self-sacrificing environmental conscience? Is this a sea change for the founding member of OPEC, the world's top producer and exporter of oil for years, single-handedly able to raise or lower oil prices, (as we've seen in recent months)?
As heartwarming as that would be, it makes about as much sense as some other relatively recent oil interests masquerading as environmental concern. Like, for instance, Chinese billionaire and Communist Party member Huang Nubo pushing to purchase more than 100 square miles in Iceland for "eco-tourism," and later a large tract of land in the north of Norway, again for "ecological" reasons. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that both overtures coincided with China -- a country geographically nowhere near the Arctic -- angling for a place on the Arctic Council alongside nations that are actually located in that oil-rich region.
As with everything else in life, the fastest way to cut through any window dressing is to ask who benefits.
Granted, the Saudis have no shortage of sun to power solar panels, but continuing to pump oil is far less work than going to the trouble of making solar-power equipment. It's not like setting up a tanning station on Miami Beach with a reflector -- this is actual work. And who wants to do work? No one. Except, perhaps, the industrious Chinese. And what do you know -- China is the world's leading installer of solar-power equipment, according to the International Energy Agency. The Saudis signed an agreement in Beijing last summer to benefit from China's expertise on renewable solar and nuclear energy. Saudi Arabia is planning new solar power plants in five regions by the end of the year.
In 2011, China was willing to suck up a loss of billions of yuan in a railway project in Mecca, demonstrating its commitment to infrastructure-for-oil deals with the Saudis. The bilateral cooperation has continued, more recently with Yasref, a Saudi-Chinese venture to refine Saudi oil for Asia, the Middle East and Africa, with the first such shipment taking place just last month. The initiative gives China a return on its Saudi energy infrastructure investment through a 37.5 percent stake in the operation and a place at the oil exporter's head table.
So there we have it. The world's largest installer of solar-power equipment has linked up with the world's largest exporter of petroleum in a relationship that feeds the insatiable appetite of the former for black gold and of the latter for gifts of infrastructure that ultimately benefit both.
Why haven't we heard much about this torrid affair? It's not as if China and Saudi Arabia are keeping it a secret, what with their announcements and displays of cooperation. They probably just can't compete with the Kardashians for relationship media attention.
What does this mean for the rest of us? Saudi Arabia, a longtime political ally of the West, has diversified its economic interests, opening up bilateral trade in Chinese currency and moving away from the U.S. dollar. Political interests tend to follow closely behind economic ones.
Some would rightfully argue that the United States and its allies might soon be distancing themselves from the Saudis economically anyway, as the U.S. moves toward energy independence. What hasn't been given careful consideration is what would fill that vacuum left by the West, and what the likely consequences would be if it's filled by China.
It's kind of like breaking up with someone and trying to go on with your life, only to become upset when you hear that your ex is seeing someone else.
Join us next time, when Russia shows up on China's doorstep with red roses and a jealous Iran tries to run down Saudi Arabia in the parking lot.