United States now #1 oil-producing country in the world

The United States is again #1 in oil production, passing Saudi Arabia:

The United States has overtaken Saudi Arabia to become the world’s biggest oil producer as the jump in output from shale plays has led to the second biggest oil boom in history, according to leading U.S. energy consultancy PIRA.

U.S. output, which includes natural gas liquids and biofuels, has swelled 3.2 million barrels per day (bpd) since 2009, the fastest expansion in production over a four-year period since a surge in Saudi Arabia’s output from 1970-1974, PIRA said in a release on Tuesday…

Last month, China surpassed the United States as the largest importer of crude, according to the U.S. government, as the rise of domestic output cuts the U.S. dependence on overseas oil.

“(The U.S.) growth rate is greater than the sum of the growth of the next nine fastest growing countries combined and has covered most of the world’s net demand growth over the past two years,” PIRA Energy Group wrote.

Three quick thoughts:

1. People don’t often think of United States as having lots of oil though the natural resources within the US have been important throughout its history. With this new information, does this change how US residents and others around the world view the US? Does it then change how the US views the Middle East and other nations with lots of oil?

2. The article notes that this was the fastest production increase in over four years. The average person may not be terribly aware of this but those opposed to fracking should be able to use this info: this is quite a rapid change.

3. When will peak oil really arrive? One article recently suggested this oil boom is not the last; there is more untapped oil in the oceans. As the article suggests, this supply may make it even more difficult to talk about the impact of oil on the environment.

Saudi Arabia counsels militants, Al Qaeda sympathizers with sociology courses

Saudi Arabia just released some militants but only after they went through a counseling program that included sociology classes:

Saudi Arabia says it has released 272 former militants and Al-Qaeda sympathisers after putting them through a “long-term counselling program”.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said the militants had undergone Islamic, professional, technical, psychological and sociological courses at Prince Muhammad bin Naif Counseling Center in Riyadh and Jeddah.

The rehabilitation program was designed to encourage the hardliners to adopt the moderate path of Islam. He did not specify the length of the programs.

They were released after showing “positive signs of benefiting from the counselling programs”, the spokesman said.

It would be fascinating to know what was said in those sociology classes…

New developments tower over Mecca

Several new developments in Mecca threaten to dwarf the holy sites:

Shooting 26 searchlights 10km into the skies, and blaring its call to prayer 7km across the valley, the Abraj al-Bait is also the world’s second tallest building. Encrusted with mosaics and inlaid with gold, it is the most visible (and audible) sign of the frenzied building boom that has taken hold of Saudi Arabia’s holy city over the last 10 years. “It is truly indescribable,” says Sami Angawi, architect and founder of the Jeddah-based Hajj Research Centre, who has spent the last three decades researching and documenting the historic buildings of Mecca and Medina, few of which now remain. In particular, the house of the prophet’s wife, Khadijah, was razed to make way for public lavatories; the house of his companion, Abu Bakr, is now the site of a Hilton hotel; and his grandson’s house was flattened by the King’s palace. “They are turning the holy sanctuary into a machine, a city which has no identity, no heritage, no culture and no natural environment. They’ve even taken away the mountains,” says Angawi…

Along the western flank of the city are the first towers of the Jabal Omar development, a sprawling complex that will eventually accommodate 100,000 people in 26 luxury hotels – sitting on another gargantuan plinth of 4,000 shops and 500 restaurants, along with its own six-storey prayer hall. The line of blocks, which will climb to heights of up to 200 metres and terminate in a monumental gateway building, share the clocktower’s Islamic-lite language: a cliched dressing of pointed arches and filigree grillwork plastered over generic concrete shells…

Another development of repetitive slabs, echoing Jabal Omar’s toast-rack urbanism, is slated for the northern side of the Grand Mosque, at al-Shamiya, while a $10bn plan to provide an extra 400,000 sq metres of prayer halls there is almost complete. Standing like a gigantic triangular slice of wedding cake, this building will accommodate 1.2m more worshippers each year, but it has come at a price…

The Kaaba is the holy black cube in the centre of the Grand Mosque, around which pilgrims walk; proximity to it has become the ultimate currency, allowing hotel suites with the best views to charge $7,000 per night during peak seasons. This unique concentricity, with everything determined by its orientation towards the hallowed centre, has spawned a strangely diagrammatic radial urbanism. From above, like a sea of iron filings pulled by a magnet, the whole city appears to crowd round a core, the vortex of pilgrims giving way to an equally swirling current of tower blocks. It is the axis of prayer writ large in concrete.

The contrast seems stark: a holy site versus ultra-modern development. Is this growth machine development, meaning development primarily about generating profits from pilgrims, run amok? That this is emerging in Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be too surprising. Oil money has to be spent somewhere. Plus, cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been getting a lot of attention in recent years for their massive developments and I imagine Saudi Arabia would like to match some of that. Yet, Dubai and Abu Dhabi aren’t also known for being major religious sites.

Also, whenever I see stories like this, I am reminded of the amazing pace of development in some cities (particularly in China and oil-rich Middle East nations) around the world: from populated, primarily low-rise cities to massive, tall, expensive developments.

Saudi Arabia’s women-only city within a city

Saudi Arabia is doing something unusual by creating women-only portions of big cities.

How will this all-female city work?
The inaugural one in Hofuf is essentially a female-only industrial zone that’s expected to employ about 5,000 Saudi women in the textile, pharmaceutical, and food-processing industries. Women will run the companies and factories. “I’m sure that women can demonstrate their efficiency in many aspects and clarify the industries that best suit their interests, nature, and ability,” says Saleh al-Rasheed, deputy director general of the Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon), which is in charge of the project. The women will live in adjacent neighborhoods.

Who came up with the idea?
A group of Saudi businesswomen, according to the business newspaper Al Eqtisadiah. But Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy embraced the concept as a way to lower female unemployment while staying “consistent with the privacy of women according to Islamic guidelines and regulations,” Modon said in a statement. The government had little choice, says Sarah Goodyear at The Atlantic. “Restrictions on women’s lives and productivity there are so extreme — Saudi women need a male guardian’s permission to travel, seek employment, or marry — that the country is in effect letting a potentially huge sector of the productive economy sit idle.” About 60 percent of college graduates in the country are women, and 78 percent of them are unemployed, according to recent surveys; only 15 percent of the Saudi workforce is female…

Will this city work as intended?
Some women who work in these new cities “will no doubt distinguish themselves, but they will still be laboring in segregation,” says The Atlantic‘s Goodyear. If the goal is unleashing the female workforce, “a segregated city will never be as productive or creative as one where the free exchange of ideas among diverse converging people is allowed.” Actually, I think “Hofuf will be exceedingly productive,” says Zoe Williams at Britain’s The Guardian. For one thing, “as an industrial town with no men in it, it will presumably contain none of those mini-impediments to productivity known as ‘children.'” In a few years, these Saudi women will be South Korea to their male counterparts’ North. These cities will either fail or they’ll succeed in further segregating women from the public sphere, says Homa Khaleeli at The Guardian. Maybe women should “flock to them, close the doors, and refuse to leave until the kingdom’s rulers understand just what it is like to live without women.”

Is this a step forward for women?
That’s a tough question, says The Guardian‘s Williams. It’s not really “a move forward in women’s liberation, not unless you think apartheid was a good system for black people because they got their own swimming pools,” but at the same time, we can’t know yet that “Ladytown won’t boost women in unintended ways.” As I suspect the Saudis will soon learn, “when you educate people, refuse to let them work, and then suddenly unleash them, en masse, into economic productivity,” that’s a recipe for change. Look, in this kingdom, this is the only opportunity for women “to have an income, be financially independent,” at least for now, Saudi radio host Samar Fatany tells ABC News. Putting women to work feels inevitable, even in Saudi Arabia, says Doug Barry at Jezebel. And “everyone should have the right to fall into the daily grind, because only then can all people truly appreciate how awesome it will be when robots do all our work for us.”

“Ladytown” sounds like it could be an odd title for a film…

It would be interesting to hear how these new developments will look and be experienced differently. In other words, does a city planned for women look and feel different than a city designed for men or both genders? For example, do women desire more parks?

The descriptions of operations in Hofuf make it sound like many of the jobs will be low-trust, relatively low-wage jobs in fields like textiles and food processing. Are there plans for more white collar positions or will these remain concentrated in the “male sections” of the city?

American TV shows help limit extremism in Saudi Arabia

The cables Wikileaks has put out contain all sorts of interesting information. According to the Telegraph, some American cultural products, such as Desperate Housewives, The David Letterman Show, and Friends, are valuable forces in combating jihad in Saudi Arabia:

In a message sent back to Washington DC, officials at the US Embassy in Jeddah said the shows, starring Jennifer Aniston and Eva Longoria, were successfully undermining the spread of jihadist ideas among the country’s youth.

Such programmes, broadcast with Arabic subtitles on several Saudi satellite channels, were part of a push by the kingdom to foster openness and counter extremists, according to the cable…

The diplomatic cable was headed “David Letterman: Agent of Influence,” referring to the US chat show host who is also being broadcast to a Saudi audience.

The May 2009 cable said: “Saudis are now very interested in the outside world and everybody wants to study in the US if they can. They are fascinated by US culture in a way they never were before.” American sitcoms and chat shows were said to be finding a popular audience even in remote, conservative parts of the kingdom.

I’m glad such shows can be put to use – but this probably wasn’t a use that American TV executives expected…

On a more serious note, this highlights how American cultural products can be exported to other countries. Whether these shows reflect “American culture” can be debated but they certainly can introduce new ideas and values. Our military power might be impressive but American TV, movies, music, and more often have their own powerful influence.