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:

There was a time, earlier in this century and in the last, when the powers of Europe were inclined to look upon the realms and principalities of the Middle East with a certain degree of wonder, not unmixed with disdain. While their own interest, ambitions and rivalries might require them to treat with a miscellany of sultans and amirs, sharifs and saiyids, bashaws and beglerbegs in the lands between the Golden Horn and the Hindu Kush, they could not bring themselves to take most of them seriously. To European statesmen these Oriental potentates were at once sinister and absurd, their pretensions ridiculous, their personal conduct repugnant, their administrations feeble and corrupt ... What then has happened in recent decades, we may well ask, to cause the derangement we now see about us, wherein the statesmen of the Western world scurry from one dusty Middle Eastern capital to another, to attend anxiously upon our latterday bashaws and beglerbegs, sultans and amirs, soliciting their indulgence, sympathising with their complaints and listening gravely to their counsel?

Kelly is not quite sure why this change has occurred; indeed, his general tone is one of bewilderment. Nonetheless he is not short of a remedy: the West should act decisively to break up the OPEC cartel, and reimpose its domination upon those countries east of Suez that have so impertinently asserted themselves in recent years.

The torrent of Mr Kelly’s prose, the ferocity of his judgments, might at first carry the reader away. He may be seen to cut through the sycophantic verbiage which has dominated so much writing on the Gulf and which has cast its rulers in the role of enlightened and benevolent monarchs. He rounds on the rapacious foreign firms which have not only falsified the historical record to prove their oil-prospecting boundaries, but have also foisted unneeded supplies of arms upon the governments of the area. The vanities of the Shah, the ‘dour intolerance’ of Saudi Arabia, the ludicrous pretensions of the Kuwaiti ruling family and of the smaller Gulf states, are all assailed. So, too, is the ‘tribal Caliban’ who has, he argues, taken power in Aden, as well as the revolutionary guerrillas who tried to dislodge the Sultan of Oman. Many a Western writer on the area is consigned to the dustbin, not least myself: Kelly gleefully unmasks me as the anonymous author of a report from the Dhofar guerrillas in the Sunday Times of March 1970 (the article was, in fact, signed with my own name), and then goes on to berate me for having reported the education campaign being carried out by the guerrillas, which I witnessed, and for neglecting to report alleged cases of rebel brutality, which I did not witness.

Kelly’s political values are of an open, happily antediluvian character, but this need not have prevented him from writing an interesting book. The real problem is that behind the cascade of invective and counter factual speculation his work is vacuous: it explains nothing that has happened in the past decade, and tells us very little that is even factually new about the Gulf. Despite his upholding of the cause of scholarship, Kelly dispenses with footnotes. He clearly does not like Arabs or Persians, but has also gone to the point of ignoring anything written in their languages. The only two subjects on which original work appears to have been done are boundary disputes and the negotiations on oil prices: the former, a long-standing speciality of his, occupy a disproportionate place in his narrative; the latter yield a plea for a return to ‘fair and orderly’ negotiation and a vindication of the oil companies’ position against the nefarious activities of the OPEC states. It is unfortunate that in one of his rare attributions Mr Kelly says that his account is based on information provided by the chairman of an enterprise that has had its reputation dented in recent months – namely, the firm of Bunker Hunt. The nationalisation of the comparatively small Bunker Hunt concession in Libya in 1973 is compared, in a piece of preposterous exaggeration, to Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956.

There are limits to the range of Mr Kelly’s fire. Sultan Said bin Taimur, who retained medieval tortures and kept educational facilities and hospitals out of his country until his removal in 1970, comes in for predictably indulgent treatment. While he lashes out at the corrupt in all other countries, Mr Kelly has a kind word for the British officers who have served the Omani Sultans ‘gallantly and well’, omitting to tell us of the involvement of some of these gentlemen in enterprises of personal enrichment. He earnestly cites the UN to the effect that states should not use economic and political pressure against others, yet he omits to mention the British cancellation of its aid commitments to South Yemen after independence, or the international oil boycott that helped to bring down Mosadeq in the 1950s. In his account of the Kurdish uprising in Iraq in 1974-1975 he nowhere mentions the deliberate exacerbation of the situation by the Shah of Iran and the CIA, who supplied arms, money and troops to the Kurds in order to weaken the Baghdad Government. Certainly, the CIA-Iranian role was not the sole cause of that war, and the Baghdad Government must bear part of the blame, but this external factor should surely be taken into account.

Kelly’s discussion of Iraq is indicative of his approach. After a modest disclaimer of his ‘competence’ to discuss the country at all, he treats us to a harangue on the iniquities of the Baathist Government in Baghdad. Some of his accusations, concerning the violation of human rights, are sound enough: but his account contains much that is inaccurate or impermissibly simplified. He repeats the common allegation that all the members of the Revolutionary Command Council come from the northern town of Takrit: in fact, of the 15 people who were members of the RCC between 1968 and 1977 five were born in Takrit, while a sixth was born in Baghdad of a family originating in Takrit. He also repeats the analysis of Iraq as a country in which the Shia half of the population is ruled by a Sunni Arab minority: though it has some truth, this picture omits the fact that many Shia also have a stake in the regime and that the most likely threat to the present leadership comes from a conspiracy within the Sunni population itself. Mr Kelly tells us that the Iraqi Government supports something called the ‘Front for the Liberation of Khuzestan’: given Arab insistence that the area of Iran they inhabit is called ‘Arabestan’, this shows small feeling for the politics of the region – it is as if he were to blame the IRA for setting up a ‘Front for the Liberation of Londonderry’.

Mr Kelly’s analysis of Iraq seems to hinge upon the claim that Iraq is ‘a Soviet client’. He does not explain how to reconcile this with the fact that Iraq has executed and imprisoned dozens of communists, and his bold assertions of Iraqi cliency look rather less convincing in the light of Baghdad’s open opposition to Soviet policy in Ethiopia and Afghanistan. He tells us that the Iraqis have turned to the Russians as a way of building up their navy: yet it is the Italians, using American engines, who this year undertook to assist the Iraqis in this regard. He takes rather too seriously the Iraqis’ own claims about their revolutionary role in the Middle East, and passes over in silence their refusal to use the 12,000 troops they had in Jordan during the 1970 civil war there. He speaks indignantly about Baghdad being, along with Libya, ‘the most consistent and at times the most vocal apologist for the gruesome Marxist dictatorship in Aden’, when, in fact, relations between the two have rarely been good: in 1976, the South Yemeni Government denounced the Baghdad authorities as ‘fascists’ and the Iraqis have now set up a South Yemeni government in exile committed to overthrowing the regime in Aden. Far from being passive clients of the Soviet Union, the Iraqi Baathists are more like the Kuomintang in the 1920s – nationalistic, willing to form tactical alliances with Moscow, but quite capable of rounding on their local communists when they deem it necessary. Their latest initiative is all too characteristic of their modus operandi: a sudden, brutal move against a secular enemy designed to inflict crippling damage at a time when that enemy is least able to defend itself. There is no evidence whatsoever that the Soviet Union played any role in instigating this Iraqi offensive, and it has indeed openly deplored the invasion of Iran.

The greatest problem with this book, however, is the fact that it fails the most elementary test for any work of historical analysis. It explains nothing. When one asks why government decisions were taken, or why nationalist movements develop, Kelly can offer only the most banal moralistic categories – greed, timidity, the timeless workings of the Arab mind, a hypostatised Islam. His fulminations against the Foreign Office are doubly silly: they provide no coherent account of what the factors influencing policy were, and they serve to conceal the very real and continued successes of British policy in the Gulf after the formal withdrawal. The book begins with an account of ‘The Abandonment of Aden’ as if this supposed act of perfidy could be taken in isolation, and as if it made any major difference to the affairs of the Gulf: the account sets the tone of Curzonite rancour divorced from historical reality that runs through much of the book. He alleges but never demonstrates that there was a causal link between Britain’s withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971 and the rise in oil prices, as if a few British troops might have been used to bludgeon the Amirs into submission: yet the large American military presences in Iran and Saudi Arabia did nothing to halt price rises there. With no interest in the explanatory concerns that have come, with varying degrees of emphasis, to preoccupy contemporary historians, Kelly remains in a world of his own, inveighing, like some bilious Canute, against the onset of social and political processes which he is unable to comprehend and the force of which he seeks to deny. At the end we are left with the author in doleful tones describing the post-imperial era that is upon us: ‘Most of Asia is fast lapsing back into despotism, most of Africa into barbarism – into the condition, in short, they were in when Vasco da Gama first doubled the Cape.’

An obvious enough topic for him to have discussed with a degree of scruple would have been the rise of Islam in the late 1970s. Instead, we are simply told that Islam is the only belief system the Arabs know. This explains nothing at all. What are the political implications of a belief in Islam? Why are there so many divisions, dogmatic and political, within it, and what does this tell us about the effect of non-religious factors, national and social, on Islam? Why has Islam come to play an important political role in the late 1970s and not before? What accounts for the different social bases of the Islamic movements in Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia? Why is Kelly, who appears never to have set foot there, so confident that the rural population of South Yemen is sunk in religious fanaticism? If they were as aimlessly pious as Kelly implies, one can only wonder why so many tens of thousands of rural Yemenis have left their villages to find jobs all over the world. The rise of Islamic militancy is an important, unexpected and in many ways distressing political development: yet Kelly’s atemporal reflections bring us no nearer to understanding it.

Whatever the future may hold, the social character of the countries bordering the Gulf has changed greatly over the past decade, and changes in politics and values are coming too, albeit more slowly. While some of what is being written about the region is indeed, as Kelly indicates, shallow and servile, some of it is not: the works of Yusuf Sayigh on the Arab economies, of Abdullah Bujra on South Yemen, of Hannah Batatu on Iraq, of Robert Graham on Iran, of John Townsend on Oman, of John Duke Anthony on the Amirates, are serious and balanced studies based on first-hand research that try to grapple with the reality of these countries. By contrast, Mr Kelly’s is, for all its length, a trivial work. His view of the world bears an uncanny resemblance to that of another enragé traditionalist who has recently burst upon the scene – to wit, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Believing in an all-pervading Islam and in the prevalence of corruption, they see the world as peopled by Satans and angels. Both ascribe events to the workings of timeless psychologistic and moral factors. Both fail to provide an account of today’s world that meets even minimal criteria of intellectual coherence. Those wishing to understand this volatile part of the world, on which so many will depend for the next decade or two, will find little to enlighten them in this cantankerous Jeremiad.