The United Kingdom’s fossil fuel imports from ‘authoritarian regimes’ have surged in the past year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. According to the Office for National Statistics, the total spent by the UK on non-renewable fuel sources from petrostates amounted to £19.3 billion in the year following the Ukraine war.
The UK has successfully weaned itself off Russian gas since the illegal invasion, with the importation of fossil fuels from the country plummeting from £600 million in February 2022 – the month that Putin ordered troops to attack Ukraine – to zero in January 2023. This has forced the UK to look for alternative solutions for electricity and heating homes, in addition to ensuring the efficiency of the country’s infrastructure is maintained.
Data from the Office for National Statistics reveals that the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Libya have all been loyal providers of fossil fuels to the UK. Since imports from Russia collapsed, these petrostates have become even more crucial in powering the UK economy with reports showing that monthly fossil fuel imports from Saudi Arabia quadrupled from £50.4 million in February 2022 to £263.8 million in February 2023.
However, many of these petrostates are classified as authoritarian by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2022 Democracy Index. Countries are ranked and analysed based on five assessments: a nation’s electoral process and pluralism, their population’s civil liberties, its functioning of government, the level and health of political participation amongst its citizenry, and the more general political culture of the nation.
Dominic Kavakeb, the head of strategic communications of the human rights and environmental pressure group Global Witness, believes the UK is making an error in obtaining fossil fuels from these petrostates. He stated that ‘replacing Russian energy with fossil fuels from other authoritarian regimes is at best short sighted, at worst a gross hypocrisy.’
The UK government is comfortable with propping up its economy by dealing with so-called authoritarian regimes. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office stated in 2021 that the prevalence of arbitrary detention in Saudi Arabia is ‘a hallmark of authoritarian regimes.’ This admission has not prevented the UK from providing Saudi Arabia with billions of pounds worth of weapons, or from quadrupling the amount of non-renewable fuel sources it has purchased from the Western Asian kingdom. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have all been involved in the ongoing Yemeni War since 2014, which has contributed to hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians being killed.
The significant increase in the importation of fossil fuels is indicative of the realpolitik politicians are facing and acting upon. The cost-of-living crisis and high inflation continues to diminish many British citizens’ quality of life and purchasing power. Some suggest that the decision to increase fossil fuel importation may only be a short-term fix to get through the current economic and political crises. However, if this is a long-term strategy, the UK government’s commitment to achieving net-zero by 2050 will be one that is likely to be broken.
In recent years, the domestic oil industry has also been provided with more support. In 2020, renewable energy support was greater than fossil fuel support for the first time on record. Yet, in 2021 fossil fuel support increased by £1 billion (10 percent) compared to the £1 million given to the renewable energy sector which amounted to a 0.01% increase. Since 2015, the UK government has bequeathed £20 billion more to the domestic fossil fuel industry than to renewable energy.
The increased in fossil fuel expenditure, both foreign and domestic, reflects the UK’s post-Brexit environment alongside the wider geopolitical environment since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Dr David Wearing is a lecturer in international relations and believes the decision to import more fossil fuels from Gulf states is both an economic and a political calculation. He identifies that the Gulf states pump ‘a big chunk of their petrodollars into our financial system’ which can assist with Britain’s ‘huge deficit on its current account.’ He also believes it is an attempt to keep these nations ‘aligned with the western bloc.’
In their roadmap to achieving net zero, the International Energy Agency declared that global governments across the world need to implement policies and enact on strategies that will lead to ‘huge declines in the use of coal, oil, and gas.’ They added that this will require ‘nothing short of the complete transformation of the global energy system.’ Future governments will inevitably be forced to alter the political economy of the UK and will require international co-operation if they aim to reach their goal of net zero.
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