Oil and the "war on terror": why is the United States in the Gulf?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
9 January 2002

The "war on terror" is best seen in the context of the geopolitics of oil, especially since the 1970s. In particular, the US’s oil dependency and its determination to ensure security of supply has shaped its military policy in the Gulf region. Paramilitary coalitions like the al-Qaida network are one response to perceived US domination of the Islamic "holy places": as long as this lasts, such groups will not be easily defeated.The war goes on

As the United States bombing campaign in Afghanistan resumes, it is important to assess the core strategic reason for American persistence – its perceived need to retain its military presence in Saudi Arabia.

First, in the Afghan campaign itself, the civilian death toll is rising, and US marines and special forces are seeking out elements of the Taliban leadership. After three months of war, one of the main aims – to kill or capture the leadership elements of both the al-Qaida network and the Taliban regime – had achieved few results, one reason for the distinct lack of triumphalism in the Pentagon.

According to a press briefing from the US Embassy in Islamabad, given on 26 December, thirty-four out of forty-two members of the al-Qaida command structure remained at large, with six believed dead and two captured. Of twenty-seven members of the Taliban leadership, one had been killed, two captured and twenty-four remained at large. There have been a handful of further instances of the capture or killing of senior Taliban and al-Qaida figures since 26 December, but it would be wise to expect that US military operations will continue through the winter, with very heavy pressure put on the Musharraf regime in Pakistan to seek out those elements of both organisations now in northwest Pakistan.

As operations continue, it is becoming apparent that there is a central tension between US attempts to carry out their military operations and the need of the regime in Kabul to bring stability to the country. It also explains the continued US opposition to any large-scale peacekeeping operation, the stabilisation force so far agreed being a small number of units operating in Kabul and a few other locations.

In these circumstances, and with the conflict set to continue, it is appropriate to reflect on the wider context in which al-Qaida and other paramilitary organisations have developed in the region. Given that US operations may, in due course, extend to attempting to destroy Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, it is worth looking, in particular, at the nature and evolution of the US military presence in the region.

The roots of paramilitary action

Paramilitary coalitions and networks in the Middle East and south-west Asia operate, in part, from religious convictions, not least in relation to what they see as the bias of the United States towards Israel and the latter’s control of Jerusalem. Some of them also develop from a persistent resistance to the presence of US military forces in the Persian Gulf region, and especially in Saudi Arabia. This is particularly true of the al-Qaida network, the 11 September attacks forming part of a strategy that has developed over more than a decade and is unlikely to be ended by the short-term, if substantial, disruptions caused by the current war.

The Saudi connection is central, especially if one takes into account that the United States and its Israeli ally are together “occupying” the three holiest places in Islam. A common feature of the long-term paramilitary strategy is to force the United States from the region, to defeat Israel and to ensure the downfall of those neo-feudal elite regimes that are considered to have “sold out” to the United States.

The US presence in the Gulf is not recent, there are established historical and geopolitical reasons for it and there is little likelihood of any withdrawal. Analysing this is an important component of understanding the motives of those bitterly opposed to the US presence in the region as a whole.

The first oil shock

The development of the oil reserves of the Persian Gulf were originally undertaken primarily by oil companies with European connections, but US oil companies became highly significant in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and there was a close relationship between the US and Iran in particular from the 1950s. Until around 1970, the very extensive oil fields of Texas, Louisiana, California and elsewhere enabled the United States to be self-sufficient for oil, but rising demand and slowly depleting reserves meant a dependency on cheap imported oil began to develop in the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, the oil-producing countries began to organise themselves, with the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) being formed in 1960. For more than a decade it remained a very weak producer group, but by 1973 it had developed a degree of unity and strength of purpose that was to lead to the “oil shock” of 1973-4.

The prompt for this came in October 1973, when Arab members of Opec attempted to use the oil weapon to curtail Israeli military gains during the latter part of the Yom Kippur/Ramadan war, and these resulted in a series of events that included severe oil shortages together with price rises of about 450% over eight months. Opec’s action caused profound shock in the United States and western Europe and demonstrated a vulnerability that had previously been discounted.

As a result, during and after this crisis, assessments were made in Washington of the likely success of US military intervention in the Gulf should oil supplies be substantially interrupted. These assessments indicated that the US simply did not have the military means to intervene with any prospect of success, especially as it lacked the capacity for rapid deployment of appropriate forces.

What made this more worrying was that the American dependency on imported oil was steadily increasing, and most of the best new reserves were being found in and around the Persian Gulf. Even the massive oil field at Prudhoe Bay in northern Alaska, developed in the early 1970s, represented barely 1% of known world oil reserves at the time.

During the latter part of the 1970s, intensive military planning was therefore undertaken and this resulted in the establishment of the multi-service Joint Rapid Deployment Task Force, known more commonly as the Rapid Deployment Force, in 1980. Although theoretically capable of deployment anywhere in the world, the emphasis from the start was on the Persian Gulf region.

Reagan and Centcom

Although the Rapid Deployment Force originated after the oil shortages instigated by Opec, the Reagan administration developed it into the much larger Central Command (Centcom) to counter possible Soviet aggression in the Gulf. This was during the heightened cold-war tensions of the early 1980s, with Centcom established as a full regional military command covering an arc of noneteen countries stretching from Kenya to Pakistan across the middle east.

Centcom could call on over 300,000 military personnel including the third army, the ninth air force, three carrier battle-groups, elements of strategic air command and substantial intelligence, reconnaissance and special forces units. During the 1980s, substantial air bases and other facilities were constructed in the western Gulf states, especially in Saudi Arabia, far larger than local forces required, so that CENTCOM forces could be moved in if required. The British island territory of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean was built up into a very large logistical centre, the Ilois inhabitants having been previously “resettled” against their will in Mauritius.

Although intended to operate in the face of a threat from the Soviet Union, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 provided Centcom with the opportunity to form the core of the coalition that ousted Iraq from Kuwait six months later. In the process, all of the pre-positioning and base construction activities of the 1980s came into their own.

After the Gulf war, the United States maintained a military presence in many west Gulf states including the establishment of the fifth fleet in the Gulf and, for the first time, a permanent presence of significant forces in Saudi Arabia. Thus, just as US help had enabled opposition forces to evict the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, so the US was there to be seen as an occupying force in the greatly more significant Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Oil and US security

While the continued presence of large US forces in the Gulf can be explained in part by the ongoing confrontation with Iraq, this in turn is only understandable in terms of the geopolitics of oil. This stems from two features – the remarkable quantity of reserves in the Gulf region, and the steadily increasing dependence of the United States on imported oil.

The decade of the 1990s shows this particularly clearly. Take oil reserves first: in 1990, the United States oil reserves represented 3.4% of world oil reserves, whereas Kuwait alone had 9.5% and the Gulf states had 63.5%. Ten years later US reserves had declined to 2.8% of the world total whereas the Gulf states now had 66.5%. Then look at oil dependency – in 1990, the US imported 42% of its total oil requirements; ten years later this had risen to 60%.

Moreover, the rate of discovery of new reserves in the United States was not keeping pace with demand, whereas discovery of reserves in the Gulf region was exceeding production. Iraq, for example, increased its proved oil reserves in the decade up to 2000 by a figure rather more than half of that of total US reserves in 2000.

The Bush administration is pinning much of its hope on intensive oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, east of the Prudhoe Bay oil field in northern Alaska. But there are serious doubts as to whether there really are large reserves there, the most recent estimate from the US Geological Survey giving a best case estimate of 11.8 billion barrels, about the same as the original Prudhoe Bay field. In other words, Alaska is not the answer (see the current issue of New Scientist, 5 January 2001, for an informative article on this).

Oil dependency, and the US determination to ensure security of supplies, is therefore at the heart of the US presence in the Gulf. Because of trends in production, consumption and discovery of reserves, this policy is highly unlikely to change. In much of the Arab world, and elsewhere in southwest Asia, it is seen as a form of neo-colonial occupation, in which a distant superpower retains control of a key resource in its own interests. From this perspective, both the Kingdom of the Two Holy Places, and Jerusalem, are under the heel of US military forces or (in the latter case) their Israeli proxy.

Although there are important subsidiary factors, this is a major reason for a deep and abiding antipathy to the United States among a significant proportion of the region’s population, from which radical paramilitary coalitions have developed. In recent years these have attempted extensive paramilitary actions against the United States. Some have been intercepted. Others, like the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, did not achieve their full aims. Still others did succeed, including the bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks complex in Dharhan in 1996, the US Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and the attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbour.

Only with the attacks of 11 September 2001 did the full impact of these developments come to the fore, but hardly any connection has so far been made between the paramilitary coalitions responsible and some of the core underlying motivations relating to energy geopolitics. The much-vaunted "war on terror" is aimed at destroying these paramilitary coalitions without apparently facing up to these motivations. The destruction of the paramilitaries may well not be possible. Even if it is, it will have little more than a short-term effect unless some of the key underlying factors empowering their development are recognised.

A change of policy?

The US military presence in the most significant country, Saudi Arabia, is actually quite small – fewer than 10,000 people, so the obvious question is why is this is considered so important? Would it not make sense to withdraw from Saudi Arabia, thus removing a substantial part of the motivation for al-Qaida and other groups? There are several reasons why this is unlikely in the extreme.

One is that any withdrawal would be regarded in Washington as a defeat for US Gulf policy and would be considered a victory for anti-US sentiments in the region. In addition, if the US withdrew from Saudi Arabia, regional anti-US groups would focus intensively on US forces in neighbouring countries, especially Kuwait, Bahrain and even Oman.

There are also substantial military reasons for the presence in Saudi Arabia. The first is that the bases are located at some distance from the perceived major threat of Iraq, whereas Kuwait is, so to speak, on the front line. Second, the huge port facilities that were used to pour troops and equipment into the region in 1990-91 are in Saudi Arabia, and provide a bridgehead for reinforcements. Finally, if the US were to withdraw from the region, it would be almost impossible to return in a time of crisis – it is hugely easier to reinforce existing forces than to move in from scratch.

There is another motivation for maintaining forces in Saudi Arabia – the security of the House of Saud. This is very much a two-edged sword in that keeping forces in Saudi Arabia means they are available to help respond to internal instability, but their very presence can foster that instability. In the final analysis, though, Saudi Arabia has more than a quarter of the world’s entire oil reserves, nearly ten times as much as the United States. That alone means that any possibility of withdrawal is highly unlikely.

For the present, the United States shows no sign whatsoever of attempting to control its addiction to oil. Indeed, with the Bush administration in power, any talk of doing so is treated with near contempt. As a consequence, the Persian Gulf will be seen as of the utmost importance to US security, and almost any means will be used to ensure its stability. For this reason, if for no other, paramilitary groups will evolve and respond, and the ‘war on terrorism’ will continue for many years to come.

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