Academic

The Curse of Oil

Written by Finlay Cormack. The history of oil is one steeped in colonial discourses and imperial ambitions. With continuing conflict arising from this commodity in the Middle East, how can we understand the influence of the global north in the origins of oil disputes?

Ever since substantial and commercially viable amounts of oil were discovered in the Middle East by British geologist George Bernard Reynolds, the race to control the land under which they sat has been underway. As the empires of Britain and France were reaching their territorial heights in the early twentieth century, the control of these swaths of land became more prevalent for the economic benefits they provided. These empires of old were able to control the globe’s economic future for at least a few more decades before their terminal decline. The effects of carving up the Middle East based on potential oil revenues, largely disregarding the region’s languages, religions and traditions – the usual identifiers of cultures and establishers of nations, has inexorably damaged the Middle East, both in terms of the relationships between Middle Eastern countries and their relationships with the Global North. Oil’s properties, including being one of the most profitable and useful substances in the world, has led those who possess it to become rich or those who lack the means to act on the worth of the black gold beneath them to become prey. Through colonisation, greed-led western powers such as Britain, France and, the USA were able to control vast amounts of oil plants in the Middle East. These countries still have spheres of influence in the region to this day, and other world powers are taking advantage of underdeveloped nations to exploit their wealth. 

The story of oil and the race to secure it in the Middle East begins after the fall of the Ottoman empire. After the fall of the Ottomans at the hands of the allies in the First World War, the local people fighting against their rule, the people of these regions where promised their freedom and right to self-determination. However, two other men had a different idea for this resource-rich region. An agreement was made between Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot on the orders of the French and British empires. This carved up what is now parts of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq into a northern French region and southern British region. The two areas were coincidentally constructed around the locations of naturally occurring oil fields. The citizens of these countries were almost powerless to stop the curse of having oil bringing empires into their homes, and the agreement sowed the seeds of conflict, revolution, and war into the Middle East – all because these great powers cared more about obtaining this resource rather than respecting the promises they had made to the people who lived there. After these resources were successfully obtained, another global war was looming around the corner. Due to the immense oil reserves in the Middle East, and with the knowledge that oil control would be vital to any side during the conflict, efforts were made to quickly secure the territories. The Nazis, like the British and French, knew how valuable oil was, and made efforts to take control of British and French occupied oil fields. However, due to stronger resistance forces than expected in Egypt, Erwin Rommel – Hitler’s top general in Africa – was unable to secure control of the region. This led the Nazis to search for oil in different areas including the Soviet Union, and their search for oil became a contributing factor in their decision to invade this region. This shows that where oil exists, and when someone is willing to take advantage of fractured hierarchies and structures, it is the residents who ultimately suffer. After the Second World War, European countries whose borders had been front lines of fighting had a lot of recovery to attend to, and running empires was an expensive luxury that many could hardly afford. This, coupled with the Middle Eastern peoples’ realisation of the wealth that lay beneath them, led to France and Britain losing their influence and both retreating from the region in 1946. The USA, however, was one superpower which did not need to rebuild after the Second World War, and their craving for oil was ever-increasing. 

In the 1950s, America’s relatively untouched factories could see the huge profits which could be made from plastics, a heavily sought-after material in America’s time of a domestic economic boom, and a material which happened to be derived from crude oil. However, America’s allies in the region, France and Britain, had, by this time, largely left the Middle East. This meant America had to find a new way to secure the oil supply on which they had now become reliant. From cars to plastics, the American appetite for oil was unstoppable. This began a new type of colonisation, as America looked to greatly increase their sphere of influence and keep the oil producing nations in check. America intended to make deals to secure this supply, and where better to go but to the single greatest oil producing country in the region, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In 1951, the USA made a deal with Saudi Arabia, which is still in effect to this day and significantly shapes the political workings in the region. The deal effectively boiled down to this: the Americans would provide weapons and would receive oil in return. This was a mutually beneficial arrangement for the two countries, but Saudi Arabia’s influx of new weapons also forced other nations to stay in line. The US had made the Saudis their allies in the region and, with US-supplied ammunition, they acted like America’s envoy, influencing and controlling other producers.  

Not all the Middle Eastern nations shared the same interest as the Saudis or the United States. Iran, for instance, wanted to control their own oil and its revenues, and was determined not to give in to western pressure. The democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, didn’t believe in having the same relationship as the Saudis did, maintaining that the oil should – first and foremost – be for the people of Iran. Subsequently, he nationalised their oil fields and expelled many British and American oil companies and diplomats. In order to both more oil, set a precedent, and exert some strength in the region, the CIA and MI6 organised a coup and returned the previous Iranian Shah to power. This demonstrates that, when oil is threatened, global powers will not hesitate to intervene and ruthlessly secure their interests. Their actions have led to many modern-day tensions with Iran. Indeed, the Iranian Revolution (1979) and the country’s return to the status of an Islamic Republic, has been interpreted by commentators as a reflection of Iran’s increasingly severe mistrust of the West. 

Entering the twenty-first century, the oil producing nations in the Middle East had become very wealthy from their giant reserves of oil and the constant international demand for it. Nations across the globe buy oil and, as the global population has grown, the need for easy-to-use plastics and increased air, rail, and car travel through petroleum and diesel oil has remained an instant money maker. This has certainly come at a cost to the people of the Middle East, as many wealthy nations – including superpowers such as the USA – are perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to the treatment of the citizens in oil-rich countries, as long as the barrels continue to roll in. This extends to the leaders of Middle Eastern countries as well; many of these nations had dictators in command, and many other nations were willing to look past that in order to secure a certain amount of stability in the region. The previous Dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, changed this narrative. He was not only a brutal leader, but also wanted to be more influential both in the domestic region and the wider world, and, with this ambition in mind, oil could be used as a weapon. The first Gulf War began after Iraq invaded the neighbouring Kuwait and a coalition of Western nations stepped in to protect the Kuwaitis. One of the motivations for this invasion was that Hussein claimed they had been cheating on their oil quotas, and he, consequently, attempted to seize their oil fields. This disruption of one of the region’s major oil arteries was certainly a reason that international powers moved to stop the invasion. This would not be Hussein’s last attempt to disrupt oil in the region and, because of this and a global addiction to oil, there would be another war in the Gulf, one with much more lasting implications. The second Gulf War resulted from somewhat dubious reports that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Subsequent investigations revealed that no such weapons existed, and the source of the original claims are highly disputed. A possible intention for Western involvement in Iraq was to remove Hussein, especially after displayed autonomy with the distribution of Iraq’s oil supplies, deliberately stopping supplies to the West, and reinstating them when he liked. Whatever the true motivations for the invasion of Iraq, it’s clear that stopping the interference of the oil was a benefit. The invasion of Iraq has had massive ramifications on the entire world to this day and has partly been blamed for the heightened tensions between many Middle Eastern nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

The curse of having oil, especially in the Middle East, has left the region plagued with war and violence for decades and the ramifications of colonization and a thirst for oil has led many countries to war and caused the death of hundreds of thousands of people. However, with renewed interests in attempting to stop, or least slow down global warming, oil and its by-products are increasingly viewed as the cause for a lot of pollution and climate change. This shift has even led oil-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia to consider their future relationship with oil, looking towards renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. The Paris climate accords saw a multinational recognition of climate change and a collective promise to cut Europe’s own emissions by moving away from oil and fossil fuels. However, oil and its products are still very prominent today, and attempts to control both the Middle East and other oil producing nations are still in effect. For example, China is showing increased efforts to control oil fields in over 20 different countries in Africa. Similarly, France continues to support a web of warlords and dictators in order to have a continuous supply of fresh oil. Coming out of COVID-19, it is unlikely that the oil drills will come to a stop or that countries will stop attempting to seize the means of oil production. In the Middle East, while oil has bestowed riches and blessings, it has also been a curse for the countries that contain it, and too tempting an opportunity for many nations to deny. 

Written by Finlay Cormack 

Bibliography 

Shepard, Wade (2019). ‘What China is Really Up To In Africa’, Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/wadeshepard/2019/10/03/what-china-is-really-up-to-in-africa/?sh=2a6ac1bb5930.  

Al Jazeera (2020). France in Africa: Is it all about the oil? Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/program/counting-the-cost/2020/2/9/france-in-africa-is-it-all-about-the-oil.  

Dietrich, Christopher R. W. Oil Revolution: Anticolonial Elites, Sovereign Rights, and the Economic Culture of Decolonization (Cambridge: Cambridge university press, 2017). 

Shwadran, B. The Middle East, oil and the great powers (New York: Fredrick A. Praeger, 1985). 

Jones, Craig, Toby. The Journal of American History, America, Oil and War in the Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). 

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