Tom Stevenson reviews ‘AngloArabia’ by David Wearing · LRB 9 May 2019
It is a cliché that the United States and Britain are obsessed with Middle East oil, but the reason for the obsession is often misdiagnosed. Anglo-American interest in the enormous hydrocarbon reserves of the Persian Gulf does not derive from a need to fuel Western consumption . [...] Anglo-American involvement in the Middle East has always been principally about the strategic advantage gained from controlling Persian Gulf hydrocarbons, not Western oil needs. [...]
Other parts of the world – the US, Russia, Canada – have large deposits of crude oil, and current estimates suggest Venezuela has more proven reserves than Saudi Arabia. But Gulf oil lies close to the surface, where it is easy to get at by drilling; it is cheap to extract, and is unusually ‘light’ and ‘sweet’ (industry terms for high purity and richness). It is also located near the middle of the Eurasian landmass, yet outside the territory of any global power. Western Middle East policy, as explained by Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was to control the Gulf and stop any Soviet influence over ‘that vital energy resource upon which the economic and political stability both of Western Europe and of Japan depend’, or else the ‘geopolitical balance of power would be tipped’. In a piece for the Atlantic a few months after 9/11, Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne explained that Washington ‘assumes responsibility for stabilising the region’ because China, Japan and Europe will be dependent on its resources for the foreseeable future: ‘America wants to discourage those powers from developing the means to protect that resource for themselves.’ Much of US power is built on the back of the most profitable protection #racket in modern history.
It is difficult to overstate the role of the Gulf in the way the world is currently run. In recent years, under both Obama and Trump, there has been talk of plans for a US withdrawal from the Middle East and a ‘#pivot’ to Asia. If there are indeed such plans, it would suggest that recent US administrations are ignorant of the way the system over which they preside works.
The Arab Gulf states have proved well-suited to their status as US client states, in part because their populations are small and their subjugated working class comes from Egypt and South Asia. [...] There are occasional disagreements between Gulf rulers and their Western counterparts over oil prices, but they never become serious. [...] The extreme conservatism of the Gulf monarchies, in which there is in principle no consultation with the citizenry, means that the use of oil sales to prop up Western economies – rather than to finance, say, domestic development – is met with little objection. Wearing describes the modern relationship between Western governments and the Gulf monarchs as ‘asymmetric interdependence’, which makes clear that both get plenty from the bargain. Since the West installed the monarchs, and its behaviour is essentially extractive, I see no reason to avoid describing the continued Anglo-American domination of the Gulf as #colonial.
Saudi Arabia and the other five members of the Gulf Co-operation Council are collectively the world’s largest buyer of military equipment by a big margin. [...]. The deals are highly profitable for Western arms companies (Middle East governments account for around half of all British arms sales), but the charge that Western governments are in thrall to the arms companies is based on a misconception. Arms sales are useful principally as a way of bonding the Gulf monarchies to the Anglo-American military. Proprietary systems – from fighter jets to tanks and surveillance equipment – ensure lasting dependence, because training, maintenance and spare parts can be supplied only by the source country. Western governments are at least as keen on these deals as the arms industry, and much keener than the Gulf states themselves. While speaking publicly of the importance of fiscal responsibility, the US, Britain and France have competed with each other to bribe Gulf officials into signing unnecessary arms deals.
Control of the Gulf also yields less obvious benefits. [...] in 1974, the US Treasury secretary, William Simon, secretly travelled to Saudi Arabia to secure an agreement that remains to this day the foundation of the dollar’s global dominance. As David Spiro has documented in The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony (1999), the US made its guarantees of Saudi and Arab Gulf security conditional on the use of oil sales to shore up the #dollar. Under Simon’s deal, Saudi Arabia agreed to buy massive tranches of US Treasury bonds in secret off-market transactions. In addition, the US compelled Saudi Arabia and the other Opec countries to set oil prices in dollars, and for many years Gulf oil shipments could be paid for only in dollars. A de facto oil standard replaced gold, assuring the dollar’s value and pre-eminence.
For the people of the region, the effects of a century of AngloArabia have been less satisfactory. Since the start of the war in Yemen in 2015 some 75,000 people have been killed, not counting those who have died of disease or starvation. In that time Britain has supplied arms worth nearly £5 billion to the Saudi coalition fighting the Yemeni Houthis. The British army has supplied and maintained aircraft throughout the campaign; British and American military personnel are stationed in the command rooms in Riyadh; British special forces have trained Saudi soldiers fighting inside Yemen; and Saudi pilots continue to be trained at RAF Valley on Anglesey. The US is even more deeply involved: the US air force has provided mid-air refuelling for Saudi and Emirati aircraft – at no cost, it emerged in November. Britain and the US have also funnelled weapons via the UAE to militias in Yemen. If the Western powers wished, they could stop the conflict overnight by ending their involvement. Instead the British government has committed to the Saudi position. As foreign secretary, Philip Hammond pledged that Britain would continue to ‘support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat’. This is not only complicity but direct participation in a war that is as much the West’s as it is Saudi Arabia’s.
The Gulf monarchies are family dictatorships kept in power by external design, and it shows. [...] The main threat to Western interests is internal: a rising reminiscent of Iran’s in 1979. To forestall such an event, Britain equips and trains the Saudi police force, has military advisers permanently attached to the internal Saudi security forces, and operates a strategic communications programme for the Saudi National Guard (called Sangcom). [...]
As Wearing argues, ‘Britain could choose to swap its support for Washington’s global hegemony for a more neutral and peaceful position.’ It would be more difficult for the US to extricate itself. Contrary to much of the commentary in Washington, the strategic importance of the Middle East is increasing, not decreasing. The US may now be exporting hydrocarbons again, thanks to state-subsidised shale, but this has no effect on the leverage it gains from control of the Gulf. And impending climate catastrophe shows no sign of weaning any nation from fossil fuels , least of all the developing East Asian states. US planners seem confused about their own intentions in the Middle East. In 2017, the National Intelligence Council described the sense of neglect felt by the Gulf monarchies when they heard talk of the phantasmagorical Asia pivot. The report’s authors were profoundly negative about the region’s future, predicting ‘large-scale violence, civil wars, authority vacuums and humanitarian crises persisting for many years’. The causes, in the authors’ view, were ‘entrenched elites’ and ‘low oil prices’. They didn’t mention that maintenance of both these things is US policy.