When I look back at the wars that Britain has fought in my lifetime, from The Falklands through to Libya, four out of six were in oil rich territories.
The reason this is interesting is because when the left are often dismissed when they argue that a conflict is “about oil”. But how can we dismiss such a striking statistic? I was born before the oil-spikes of the 70s, by the way.
The Falklands (1982) has massive reserves of oil and gas. Although it is remote and difficult to reach, the high oil price has recently made it commercially viable and there is now a North Sea rig, which had been towed down to the South Atlantic at a cost of $250,000 a day, just in the hire charges alone. They are drilling as we speak.
Prime Minister Thatcher told us that the war was fought purely on a point of principle; to take a stand against an aggressive military dictator. I don’t dispute that there was a principle, but it is curious that massive mineral wealth happened to exist in exactly the place that this point of principle was to be made.
The Gulf war of (1990-1991) was always about oil. The politicians are open about this. They feared that Saddam would go into Saudi Arabia and take control over a considerable portion of the world’s supply and make himself all-powerful. So the west intervened.
Then came the Kosovo War (1999). This was not about mineral wealth. It was to stop a genocide.
The Afghanistan War (2001 – present) also has nothing to do with oil. It began with the pursuit of a terrorist, and continued with us being bogged down trying to run the country.
Then came The Iraq War (2003-2009) which again pitted us against our old oil-rich foe. The politicians told us that it wasn’t about oil, because if it was, then they could have done a deal with Saddam. More of that later.
Then we have the Libya uprising (2011). Again they tell us that the UK already had licenses to extract the oil, so the war was not for that reason. But the coincidence is too much, but maybe this is the point: When we say it’s about oil, do we mean a colonial-style appropriation of natural assets, or is it more nuanced than that?
In the case of the Falklands it may well have been about ownership of a massive resource. If we hadn’t fought that war, the Argentineans would have been drilling there a long time ago. In fact, one of the reasons it has been un-commercial for us, is because the islands are so remote, due to Argentina being unavailable for supply lines, or as a dock for landing the extracted oil and gas.
However, what is more interesting is the second war against Iraq. After years of sanctions, it is true that there were no motives of colonial appropriation. Since the war, the Chinese and Turks have been active in securing licenses, with no objection from the UK or US.
The argument for the Iraq war was a mixture of an overblown fear of weapons, and a desire to spread democracy and human rights. I leave aside the “unfinished business” argument.
I find it curious that the first Gulf war was to protect Saudi Arabia, yet the Iraq War was for democracy and human rights. Saudi is described as the biggest women-only jail in the world. Only the other day a woman was arrested and put in jail for posting a film on YouTube of herself driving a car. Yet we fought one war to protect this country and another to achieve human rights and freedom.
So how do we explain the inconsistent motives claimed by politicians, when balanced against the consistent fact that oil and gas are in the ground beneath those soldiers boots in two out of every three wars in the last thirty years?
Perhaps the “Oil Curse” offers an explanation? When oil brings massive wealth to a poor country, rather than being a blessing, if often inspires greed, which leads to conflict, and delivers misery.
The Oil Curse is a reasonable argument, but still flawed, as it’s not only petro-states that have mad dictators, nor does it explain why Saudi is considered safe, when 12 of the Sept 11th hijackers were from that country, and they voted in the Arab League for the Libya intervention on the same day that they sent 200 tanks into Bahrain.
The Oil Curse doesn’t explain why the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe, has been left alone. We’re told that the African countries have objected to an intervention against Mugabe, but it’s not as if much effort has been expended to persuade them. Perhaps if Zimbabwe produced oil rather than grain we would have had a different attitude.
It could be that there is another phenomenon at work, one that we might call The Second Oil Curse. The curse comes from abroad, and is against the country that has had the oil strike. It comes from the attitude of the western world to these countries.
The Oil Spikes of the 1970s caused world-wide recession. Anger towards the Arabs caused a change of attitude in the Saudi Kingdom. Children of the royal family were bullied in their English schools with their country being blamed as the cause of economic misery.
The royal family changed their attitude and began to recognise “customer service” as being vital to their relationship with the west. They became a client state and an ally on the powerful price-fixing cartel of OPEC. They avoided the Second Oil Curse by becoming a reliable supplier to the west, regardless of how they ran their home affairs.
Saddam Hussein was never a reliable supplier. Colonel Gaddafi is not a reliable supplier. General Galtieri may have made an unreliable supplier, although we chose to deny him the opportunity to demonstrate this.
When it comes to the true priorities, where we judge things by actions not words, it is of considerable concern to the western powers that the supply is reliable. They would rather the oil and gas stayed in the ground than have to deal with a supplier who causes instability. This attitude formed as a direct consequence of the oil spikes of the 1970s.
The reason this argument is important to consider, is not simply that we get to know ourselves better, but also that others get to know us and find us less unpredictable. Colonel Gaddafi was baffled when the West attacked him. Although this conflict came about for a number of reasons, he might have benefitted knowledge of my argument.
There are few things more important than avoiding wars where possible. If countries that supply us with oil and gas are aware of how sensitive the west can be over our supply, then they will make better efforts to ensure a good working relationship. Their failure to make that relationship work can result in the kind of massive violence that Iraq and Libya have experienced recently, as well as Argentina more historically.
We must strive to avoid imposing this kind of violence on any country, except when absolutely necessary, and the oil producing countries must understand us better, if they are to avoid the beckoning of it.