Is the projected war against Iraq really turning into an oil war, aimed at
safeguarding Western energy supplies as much as toppling a dangerous dictator
and source of terrorism? Of course no one can doubt the genuine American hatred
of Saddam Hussein, but recent developments in Washington suggest oil may loom
larger than democracy or human rights in American calculations.
The alarmist briefing to the Pentagon by the Rand Corporation, leaked last
week, talked about Saudi Arabia as 'the kernel of evil' and proposed that Washington
should have a showdown with its former ally, if necessary seizing its oilfields
which have been crucial to America's energy.
And the more anxious oil companies become about the stability of Saudi Arabia,
the more they become interested in gaining access to Iraq, site of the world's
second biggest oil reserves, which are denied to them. Vice-President Dick Cheney,
who has had his own commercial interests in the Middle East, baldly described
his objection to Saddam in California last week: 'He sits on top of 10 per cent
of the world's oil reserves. He has enormous wealth being generated by that. And
left to his own devices, it's the judgment of many of us that in the not too distant
future he will acquire nuclear weapons.'
If Saddam were toppled, the Western oil companies led by Exxon expect to have
much readier access to those oil reserves, making them less dependent on Saudi
oilfields and the future of the Saudi royal family. The US President and Vice-President,
both oilmen, cannot be unaware of those interests.
Of course Western policies towards Iraq have always been deeply influenced
by the need for its oil, though they tried to be discreet about it. The nation
of Iraq was invented in 1920, after the First World War. The allies had 'floated
to victory on a sea of oil' (as the British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon put
it), but they preferred to conceal their dependence on it: 'When I want oil,'
said Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister, 'I go to my grocer.'
But both Clemenceau and Curzon, while they talked about Arab interests and
self-determination, knew that what really mattered in Iraq was the oil that was
emerging in the North; and the British and French succeeded in controlling the
precious oilfields at Mosul.
Iraqi oil became still more desirable after the oil crisis of 1973 which enabled
the Arab producers to hold the world to ransom; and the discovery of huge new
oil reserves in the South made Iraq more important as a rival to Saudi Arabia
- and Saddam more exasperating as an enemy.
It is true that since the Seventies, as the shortage turned into glut, producing
countries have become much more dependent on the global marketplace. Countries
which hoped to develop political clout by allocating oil supplies soon found they
had to compete to sell their oil wherever they could. And Western companies developed
new oilfields nearer home, or in friendlier countries.
But America and continental Europe still depend on uncertain developing countries,
mostly Muslim, for much of their energy, and in times of crisis the concern about
oil supplies returns. Western oil interests closely influence military and diplomatic
policies, and it is no accident that while American companies are competing for
access to oil in Central Asia, the US is building up military bases across the
In this security context the prospect of a 'terror network' controlling Saudi
Arabian oil, which last week's briefing to the Pentagon conjured up, presents
the ultimate night mare: a puritanical Islamist regime in Saudi Arabia, and perhaps
in other Gulf states, would be prepared to defy the marketplace, with much less
need to sell their oil than corrupt monarchies or sheikhdoms. Bin Laden, himself
a Saudi, made no secret of his overriding ambition to rid his country of corrupt
rulers and return to its austere Islamist roots.
In this scenario Americans would be more determined to get access to oil in
Iraq, and the demands to topple Saddam would be reinforced.
There are undoubtedly many different and sometimes conflicting strands behind
Washington's attitudes to Iraq. Certainly the public sense of outrage about 11
September, and the fear of terrorism, remains the most potent political force
behind the moves against Saddam - reinforced by Israel's dread of Iraq's weaponry.
But there are also the longer-term geopolitical arguments in the Pentagon and
the State Department, with commercial pressures behind them, about the need for
energy security. And these have become more urgent with the growing worries about
The crucial question remains: would toppling Saddam safeguard Iraq's oil for
the West? After all, both previous American Presidents - Clinton and George Bush
Sr - were persuaded not to overthrow Saddam, because the alternative could well
be a more dangerous power vacuum. That danger remains. If Iraq were to split into
three parts, as many expect, the new oil regions in the South might be become
still less reliable, in a region dominated by Shia Muslims who have their own
links with the Shia in Iran. And a destabilized Saudi Arabia could make a power
vacuum still more dangerous.
The history of oil wars is not encouraging, and oil companies are not necessarily
the best judges of national interests. The Anglo-American coup in Iran in 1953,
which toppled the radical Mossadeq and brought back the Shah, enabled Western
companies to regain control of Iranian oil: but the Iranian people never forgave
the intervention, and took their revenge on the Shah in 1979.
The belief that invading Iraq will produce a more stable Middle East, and give
the West easy access to its oil wealth, is dangerously simplistic. Westerners
live in a world where most of their oil comes from Islam, and their only long-term
security in energy depends on accommodating Muslims.
Anthony Sampson is the author of 'The Seven Sisters', about oil companies
and the Middle East.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002