Is it that simple? Flickr/Vectorportal. Some rights reserved.
Speaking in the House of Commons in January 2003, just two months before the US-UK invasion of Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair stated “The very reason why we are taking the action that we are taking is nothing to do with oil or any of the other conspiracy theories put forward.”
Blair’s analysis was amplified by newspaper columnist David Aaronovitch who, ironically, would go on to write a book dismissing popular conspiracy theories. Addressing the more than one million people who marched through London in opposition to the impending war on 15 February 2003, Aaronovitch asked “Do you really believe that this parroted ‘war about oil’ stuff is true? If so, what were the interventions in oil-less Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan about?”
In contrast, in 2011 Zogby International polled 3,000 people in the Arab world, asking what they thought were the most important factors driving American policy in the Middle East. The top answer, given by 53% of respondents, was “controlling oil”. Suggesting that the hackneyed phrase “people are the same the world over” is actually pretty accurate, a 2003 YouGov poll of the British public found the most popular answer to a question asking why the US and UK wanted to invade Iraq was also “to secure and control oil supplies”.
So, who’s right? Blair and his highly-educated supporters in the media like Aaronovitch or ordinary people across the world? Let’s look at the evidence.
“We’re not there for figs”
As early as December 2001 the Chief of MI6’s private secretary wrote to Sir David Manning, Tony Blair’s foreign policy adviser, explaining that the “removal of Saddam remains a prize because it could give new security to oil supplies.” Oil also seemed to be on Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s mind when he addressed 150 ambassadors in January 2003, telling them “bolster[ing] the security of British and global energy supplies" was one of the UK’s top foreign policy objectives.
Top US policymakers had made similar calculations. Asked at the May 2003 Asia Security Conference why the US invaded Iraq and not nuclear-armed North Korea, US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said “Look, the primarily difference – to put it a little too simply – between North Korea and Iraq is that we had virtually no economic options with Iraq because the country floats on a sea of oil.” Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who became the US Secretary of Defense in 2013, was also at the conference. In 2007 he confirmed Wolfowitz’s comments, stating “People say we're not fighting for oil. Of course we are. They talk about America's national interest. What the hell do you think they're talking about? We're not there for figs.”
Recently released previously confidential emails to then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton suggest similar concerns about energy resources were behind the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. The US-based online newspaper Al Monitor reported that the emails show French spies secretly organised and funded the Libyan rebels who overthrew Gaddafi. According to one of the memos from March 2011 the French intelligence service “indicated that they expected the new government of Libya to favour French firms and national interests, particularly regarding the oil industry in Libya.”
Similarly, in September 2011, with Libyan Government forces in disarray, the US Ambassador reopened the US Embassy in the country, telling reporters “We know that oil is the jewel in the crown of Libyan natural resources”. For the New York Times the Ambassador’s remarks “were a rare nod to the tacit economic stakes in the Libyan conflict for the United States and other Western countries.”
Gilbert Achcar, Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), is far blunter is his assessment of NATO motivations for intervening. “It’s absolutely obvious that oil is a key factor”, he told Democracy Now! in August 2011. “And had Libya not been an oil country, they wouldn’t have intervened.”
Achcar’s conclusion may seem simplistic but it’s backed up by a recent study conducted by academics from the universities of Portsmouth, Warwick and Essex and published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution. Analysing 69 civil wars between 1945 and 1999, the study found foreign intervention is far more likely when the afflicted country has high oil reserves than if it has none.
“The biggest prize in the world”
These examples from recent Western wars in the Middle East fit perfectly with the broader historical record. Even the language stays the same. US Secretary of State Cordell Hull, 1943: “The oil of Saudi Arabia constitutes one of the world’s greatest prizes.” British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, 1957: Middle East oil is “the biggest prize in the world”. David Wearing, who lectures on the Middle East at SOAS, confirmed the West’s long-term interests in the region in a recent tweet: “Just reviewed 40 academic accounts of history of UK-US involvement in Gulf &MidEast. Not one thinks oil isn’t strategic priority.”
With the US largely energy self-sufficient, it’s important to understand Western intervention in the Arab world isn’t about access to Middle Eastern energy supplies but about control. Speaking about the 2011 NATO war in Libya Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, explained: “It’s not about access to the oil itself. That will be on a global market. It will be part of it. It’s about control. It’s about controlling the terms of those contracts. It’s about controlling amounts that are being pumped at different times. It’s about controlling prices. It’s about controlling that crucial resource.” Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski provided a Machiavellian take on Bennis’s argument in 2003. "America has major strategic and economic interests in the Middle East that are dictated by the region's vast energy supplies”, he noted. “America's security role in the region gives it indirect but politically critical leverage on the European and Asian economies that are also dependent on energy exports from the region.”
And it’s also important to realize that what the West wants – control of Middle Eastern energy supplies – the West doesn’t necessarily get. As Donald Rumsfeld infamously said, “Stuff happens”. For example, Libya is mired in chaos and violence (in no small part because of the Western intervention in 2011), so is unable to maximise its oil exports. And, in Iraq, a number of very lucrative oil contracts have been awarded to Russia and China – both of whom opposed the invasion in 2003.
However, all of this doesn’t change the central, inconvenient (at least for Western leaders) fact: far from being a “conspiracy theory”, arguing that oil is the key factor behind Western actions in the Middle East is one of the most evidence-based statements that one can make.