Geopolitics was likely only a minor consideration for the oil and gas industry engineers who launched the hydraulic-fracturing revolution that has turned the United States into the world's biggest producer of hydrocarbons. But the geopolitical impact of the fracking revolution has been, pardon the pun, nothing short of earth-shattering. It has destroyed all the old assumptions about U.S. interests in the Middle East and made an already volatile region an even more unstable powder keg.
U.S. military and diplomatic intervention in the Middle East – and especially the Persian Gulf region – was once viewed almost exclusively through the lens of America's dependence on foreign oil and the impact of energy inflation on the U.S. economy. No more, as U.S. reliance on Middle Eastern oil has declined dramatically and dangerous diplomatic flare-ups in the Persian Gulf, such as the current blockade of Qatar by its neighbours, no longer cause panic in oil markets.
In 2006, net U.S. oil imports amounted to nearly 13 million barrels a day, with about half of it coming from members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. In March this year, net imports totalled 4.2 million barrels, with Canada by far the United States' biggest foreign supplier.
While this has liberated U.S. foreign policy in many ways, it has also led to the country's disengagement from the Middle East – notwithstanding the long-shot Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that President Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner has just embarked upon. The short-term impacts of what goes on in the Middle East are no longer felt as acutely in the United States as they were when it depended – literally – on the region's oil to fire up the engines of its own economy. Of course, Islamist terrorism remains a growing threat in the United States, but hardly the existential one that Europeans feel on a daily basis or that, in part, fuelled the blockade of Qatar.
The U.S. retreat from the Middle East began under former president Barack Obama, who withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq (though several thousand have returned to take on the Islamic State) and refused to directly intervene in Syria's civil war. Once Russia moved to fill the U.S. void, backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's bloody grip on power, the West only been able to act on the margins in Syria, lest it risk a military clash with Vladimir Putin. The U.S. move this week to shoot down a Syrian warplane is likely a one-off warning fired at the Assad regime, not a harbinger of a broader U.S.-Russian proxy war.
Indeed, any resolution of the Syrian conflict lies with Mr. Putin and the Russian President appears to be in no hurry to play peacemaker. Indeed, it is in Mr. Putin's interest to prevent the construction of pipelines through Syria that would transport Persian Gulf natural gas to Europe, reducing the continent's energy reliance on Russia. And it goes without saying that there will be no new pipelines through Syria as long as war and terrorism ravage the country.
Russia also holds the key to ending the blockade of Qatar enacted this month by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain. Russian hackers have even been accused of being behind pro-Iranian "fake news" posted on a Qatari state news site that was first said to have sparked the embargo by Saudi Arabia and its allies. But the Saudis did not need that excuse to retaliate against Qatar for what they have long considered its dangerous flirtation with Iran, its harbouring of Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood leaders and the provocative reporting of its Al Jazeera news network.
Still, nurturing tensions among Arab countries enhances Russia's role as a power broker in the region. It is allied with Sunni-led Saudi Arabia in attempting to prop up oil prices – so far unsuccessfully – and with Shia-led Iran in propping up Mr. al-Assad. It is allied with Qatar and Iran in developing the massive offshore gas fields those two countries share. Qatar's sovereign wealth fund has also partnered with Mr. Putin by buying a stake in state-owned oil company Rosneft.
While the clueless Mr. Trump tweets his support for Saudi Arabia in the standoff with Qatar – seemingly equating U.S. interests with his own business interests in the region – his national-security team is left scrambling to mediate a conflict that threatens the future of the U.S.-backed Gulf Cooperation Council and perhaps even a critical U.S. air base in Qatar.
Mr. Putin, it seems, has been thinking several steps ahead of them all.