Published On: Tue, Mar 1st, 2016

Understanding President Buhari’s oil diplomacy

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President Muhammadu Buhari

President Muhammadu Buhari

By Charles Onunaiju

President Muhammad Buhari weeklong visit to the Arabian Gulf, precisely to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Qatar emirate ostensibly in search of enhanced and stable prices of crude oil might be the most futile of all his diplomatic work since assumption of office last year.

Paradoxically for President Buhari’s oil diplomacy, these countries actually helped drive down the oil price for their strategic purpose of achieving regime change in Syria and containing the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hibzollah. With a partial lifting of international sanctions against Iran, and the country set to return to the international oil market, the least Saudi Arabia and her gulf allies including Qatar would want to see, is a rise in the oil price that would put more money into Tehran’s treasury.

Saudi Arabia and especially Qatar are the two major arrow heads of the Syrian armed opposition that are bent on bringing down the Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus.

Iran and the Lebanese battle-hardened Shia-armed party, Hibzollah has been the indispensible ally of the Syrian government and their stellar military support have frustrated the gulf states led by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the West in effecting their cherished political project of regime change in Damascus.

Russia, the world’s non-OPEC largest oil producer that pumps estimated eleven million barrels a day has long been a target of the West, who has aimed at crippling her oil revenues as a way of circumscribing Moscow’s muscular involvement in the neighbouring Ukraine, where Washington and Brussels have planned to foist a surrogate regime. Russia’s move in Ukraine that re-asserted its sovereignty over the strategic Crimea, originally Russian but transferred to the former Ukraine federation of the defunct Soviet Union rattled the West. Though, happy to have Kosovo yanked off from Serbia without much ado, the reassertion of Russian sovereignty over Crimea was considered a major disruption of the post-cold war geo-political landscape in Europe. The perception in Western policy circles especially in Washington, is that a Moscow brimming with petro-dollars and urged on, by the great power vision of President Vladmir Putin would throw a spanner in the wheels of Western dominated international system.

As if obstructing the West in Ukraine was not enough Moscow’s muscular military forage into Syria that turned the tide against the Western/Saudi Arabia/Qatar heavily backed armed opposition rang alarm bells in the Western capitals.

From the scenario of Iran’s assertive role in the middle East and especially its military role in fending off the Arabian Gulf-supported armed opposition in Syria, it was very evident that regional rivals, principally Saudi Arabia would take whatever measure that imposes heavy costs on Iran’s involvement in the Syria’s conflict. Russia’s irredentist and assertive role, most graphically manifested in thwarting the West’s strategic agenda in Ukraine and surprisingly military intervention in Syria has meant that Moscow’s new found muscular foreign policy and diplomacy would be made to carry heavy cost, possibly an economic squeeze that would come with a dramatic fall in oil revenue and likely trigger a domestic political backlash. The effort at crippling oil price is basically designed to force Moscow into a retreat from some of its bold and assertive foreign policy especially in Ukraine and Syria. Therefore as long Russia maintains its muscular foreign policy especially in thwarting the project of regime change in Syria, so long would the West hang on the illusion that dwindling oil revenue would compel Moscow to rethink its military involvement in Syria. For Ukraine, the West is gradually coming to terms to the status quo Moscow has imposed on them and are currently in search of a face saving measure that would leave it less bruised.

Under the circumstances, it makes no viable diplomatic sense to engage in a shuttle diplomacy to enhance and stabilize the oil price. It is very unlikely that fallen oil price would recover before there is any meaningful settlement of the crises in Syria either through military or political means. Chasing after the enhancement and stability of oil prices is an exercise in futility and President Buhari is ill-advised in chasing it. Saudi Arabia, inspite of whatever it might say in public, would be the least to give a financial life line to arch regional rival or boost Moscow’s decisive military intervention in Syria that is dealing deadly blows to its proxies in the Syrian civil war. President Buhari might get the entire pat in the back, but will not consist in the enhancement of oil price. Even as geo-political and strategic considerations are straight at the root of the current global oil prices, marginal economic factors are also at work.

China’s re-balancing of her economy to what it calls the “new normal”, greatly emphasize the preeminence of the service sector and consumption driven economy. This simply means that China, formerly workshop of the world is entering a post-industrial stage, with less demand for primary commodities like oil. Even with a slow demand, China looks for the best both in quality and pricing.

Against this background, the challenge of President Buhari’s option not consist in a wild geese chase of returning oil to its international hot demand with the attendant high price, but to boldly accept the harsh reality that the oil boom has finally hit the rocks.

It is understood that president Buhari’s oil diplomacy would include praying at the holy places for Nigeria, but one wonders if we are at a throwback of former President Goodluck Jonathan unwieldy entourage to do the same thing in Jerusalem.

The weeklong Arabian tour, except for a retreat for something very serious, beyond the advertized intent to affect oil prices is way off, of any meaning diplomatic engagement with envisaged tangible result.

Moreover, leaders of President Buhari’s stature should help foster the myth of a wellspring of accumulated wisdom, receiving international delegations and guests instead of subjecting himself to extant diplomatic rigour of always been someone else guest.

President Buhari falls into the category of Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping in China, Ayatollah Khomenei in Iran, Ho Chin Minh in Vietnam and the enigma of these men was that they were bold inspirers than micro-managers and they were not easily found, twitching and tweaking on the diplomatic circuit.


Mr. Onunaiju is director, Centre for China Studies, Utako, Abuja

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