Smell of Oil

Fred Halliday

  • Arabia, the Gulf and the West by J.B. Kelly
    Weidenfeld, 530 pp, £15.00, May 1980, ISBN 0 297 77759 9

The rise to prominence of the countries of the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf has been one of the stranger chapters in recent world history. Within the space of a decade they have come to impose a rather expensive toll upon the world economy, to play a significant if unpredictable part in the calculations of many a firm and government. This emergence has not been without its theatrical elements, nor without its unexpected consequences, among which the fall of the Shah, the tumult of republican Iran and the current Iraq-Iran war must count as the most momentous so far. Above this carnival hangs what the Russians persist in calling, in a quaint phrase, ‘the smell of oil’. And so serious has the West’s concern with this region become that the US President has proclaimed it to be an area which America will defend at the risk of war. Not only are the Russians apparently being warned by the spotlit preparation of the 110,000-strong Rapid Deployment Force, but we are again hearing rumblings of an American willingness to invade the Gulf states if they themselves threaten the West by new embargoes or if local hostilities should menace oil exports.

The very course of the Iraq-Iran war has a paradoxical character about it. Iraq, the aggressor state, responded to the overbearing nationalism of Iran by launching a punitive offensive, with the result that two non-aligned countries, both proclaiming their revolutionary legitimacy, are locked in conflict. While each of the great powers has armed one of the combatants, neither is able to exert an influence on the course of events and the USA and the Soviet Union have, if anything, been led to sympathise with the state which the other previously armed. Yet even before the present conflict the politics of the region had a distinctive perversity about them.

The prospect of America invading a country like Saudi Arabia when the latter depends for its main defence needs upon thousands of US military technicians may appear illogical, but such reverses of fortune and judgment are common enough in this context. The forces of Islam, deplored in the case of insurgent Iran, are deemed by many Western politicians to have new-found freedom-loving potential in the case of neighbouring Afghanistan. The Baathist rulers of Baghdad, long anathemised as agents of Moscow, have now been courted by Dr Brzezinski and others as possibly the most effective anti-communist force in the Middle East. Beyond the immediate prosperity there would appear to lie the prospect of another reversal: most of the oil-producing states bordering the Gulf are enjoying a temporary boom that cannot possibly be sustained after the oil reserves have been exhausted.

To explain these matters, at a censorious distance from them, is the task J.B. Kelly has set himself in this book, subtitled ‘a critical view of the Arabs and their oil policy’. Author of two previous works on the Gulf and a former professor of British imperial history, Mr Kelly sets out in combative spirit to redress the balance of what has been written on Arabia, Iran and the oil industry. Not for him the ‘treacle’ of the ‘solemn dunces’ and ‘lark-brained’ commentators who have written indulgently on the Gulf. Nor is he impressed by the ‘cloud-capp’d Xanadus’ that pass for industrial development projects. He fulminates against OPEC, whose ‘mawkish appeals’, ‘pious larceny’ and ‘shrill insolence’ have extracted ‘Danegeld’ from the developed countries. Shahs, the Left, the Right, Arab, Persian – all are included in his diatribe. But the chief culprits are located in the British Foreign Office, whose ‘appeasement’, ‘infirmity of will’ and plain ‘funk’ were responsible for the decisions that set the whole baneful process in motion: the scuttling from Aden in 1976, the tearing up of the Protectorate treaties in the Gulf in 1971 and the failure to back the oil companies against OPEC. Mr Kelly’s modish neo-conservative note may find particular favour at a time when the British Government is reconsidering an East of Suez role: ‘The conduct of the nation’s affairs abroad and at home has been marked by futility, duplicity and cowardice; the political air is rank; and the lion and unicorn have yielded place on the arms of the kingdom to the weasel and the naterjack.’

All would have been different, he writes, if Britain had stood firm and upheld the imperial order it for so long defended:

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