It’s impossible to understand the Middle East and the geo-politics of the region without first understanding its history and how the modern Middle East came into existence. It starts with a map of the Ottoman Empire at its peak, an Islamic empire that spread by the sword starting in the 7th century.
The Ottomans were defeated at the Gates of Vienna in 1683 which halted the military expansion of Islam on Europe soil. However, successful Christian challenges to Islamic rule had been formidable and ongoing since the Battle of Tours (732) which halted Islamic expansion into France and the sea Battle of Lepanto in 1571 that curtailed Islamic power in the Mediterranean. The Christians under Islamic rule began to revolt, and the Balkans and Greece extricated themselves from Ottoman rule. The Russian Orthodox Christians fought many battles against the surge of Islamization into Eastern Europe and Russia. Still, it was a formidable Empire that controlled vast swaths of real estate in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia, even considering the ebb and flow of its holdings and power.
1908: A British company strikes oil in Persia (now Iran). It’s the first big petroleum find in the Middle East, and it sets off a wave of exploration, extraction and exploitation that will change the region’s — and the world’s — history….
Why all the fuss? The automobile was in its infancy, and few people could foresee its future. How did an investor expect to get rich off an oil strike? Well — and we really do mean well — you could run an electric-power plant with oil, you could run factory machinery on oil and, perhaps most importantly, the world’s powerful navies were converting their ships from coal to oil. Almost anything that had run on coal — especially coal that heated water to create steam — could run on oil.
Exactly 100 years ago today, the smell of sulfur hovered in the air at Masjid-i-Suleiman. That was a good sign for an experienced oil hand like Reynolds. At 4 in the morning, the drill reached 1,180 feet below the desert and struck oil. A huge gusher shot 75 feet into the air.
It was soon learned that the entire Middle East was, in fact, one gargantuan oil pond. Oil had been around for a while and a Russian engineer created the first modern oil well in Asia in 1848 (history of oil here).
By 1914 and about a year after the creation of the Federal Reserve, the world got WW I, a very ugly fiasco that killed 35,000,000 folks. WW I was supposedly triggered when a Serbian nationalist shot and killed the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 6/28/14 in Sarajevo but Europe had been ablaze with the aspirations of competing empires (British, Russian, Austro-Hungary and Ottoman) and a rising highly industrialized Germany for quite some time. Moreover, all of these factions had been itching for a war as well as the spoils of war – real estate to control and resources to plunder. The Ottomans and Germany were allies against British interests. The big prize in the post war scramble was to carve up the ailing Ottoman Empire that finally suffered a decisive demise at the conclusion of WW I.
To the victors go the spoils and while they feuded for years over their respective slices of the geographic victor pie, eventually much of the Middle East was put under the control of the English, French and Italians. The French took control of what is now Algeria, parts of Syria and Lebanon, the Italians took control of what is now Libya and the English staked their claims on Mesopotamia and Biblical Israel while forging so-called protectorate relationships with other tribal chieftains in the area. Most of the Middle East was a nation-less landmass at the time. There are many observers who believe that WW I was started to secure oil resources in the Middle East and the Sykes–Picot Agreement validates this assumption because it was a secret agreement between Britain and France to plant their imperial flags in the Middle East and stakeout their oil interests as well as control of land and peoples they believed they should dominate, rule and exploit.
The defining characteristic of empire is war and war is always about plunder.
Rich and well educated British aristocracy had a passion for hanging out in conquered territories because they had a vested interest in serving the interests of imperialism and empire – a hobby of the landed gentry and idle rich. Gertrude Bell was one such British aristocrat and she spent many years in the Middle East but particularly in what is now modern Iraq.
Gertrude Bell literally drew the borders of Iraq with a red pen in a geographic location where no nation had existed since ancient times. As was the custom of the British, they installed a British lackey on a newly created throne who was to serve the British Empire.
The Muslim people are basically accustomed to living tribally and have never had any concept of the modern nation state. Under Ottoman rule, the tribes more or less lived happily under an Islamic Caliphate which is a defining characteristic of Islamic history and theology; the last Caliphate was the Ottoman Caliphate. For a Muslim, it is unacceptable to live under infidel rule even if a traitor Muslim sold out to an infidel nation.
Accordingly, the Middle East underwent a series of revolts against infidel rule and throughout the process all these nations were created that had never really existed as modern and functioning nation states. However, many European nations also had a presence and/or a form of control of a Middle East territory for a very long time that predates WW I.
Algeria became a sovereign nation in 1962 after being under various types of French control since 1830, a period known as French Algeria. Algeria was also a component of various Arab and Ottoman empires.
Libya declared its independence and became a sovereign nation in 1951, after a long history of being under Roman rule, Arab rule, Ottoman rule and Italian Rule.
Syria gained independence in 1946 and is another nation that was born mid-20th century after unstable periods of British and French rule that had followed Christian rule, Islamic rule, Ottoman rule and a French Mandate.
Tunisia became a nation in 1956 after a long history of Phoenician, Roman, Arab, Ottoman and French rule.
Saudi Arabia was officially created in 1932 when the House of Saud militarily squashed all opposition to its absolute rule. The House of Saud was heavily supported and funded by the British to destabilize the Ottoman Empire prior to WW I. The Arabs never liked being ruled by the Turks even though Ottoman rule of the Arabian Peninsula was relatively benign and non-intrusive. The absolute worst legacy of the House of Saud is that it allied itself with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of “Wahhabism”. Whhabism is an exceptionally violent, virulent and non-tolerant strain of Sunni Islam. Some Sunni Muslims reject Wahabbism but many, especially in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan thoroughly embrace Wahabbism as the only valid form of Islam. PBS did a nice chronology of the House of Saud, here.
The House of Saud created a Wahhabist terror group known as the Ikhwan. Ikhwan translates to ‘Muslim Brothers’ and while the Ikhwan greatly assisted the House of Saud in securing power in a civil war, the House of Saud feared these warriors and ended up attempting to crush the organization. However, the Ikhwan lives on in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, another radical group of Wahhabist Islamists who now control Egypt, courtesy of the US fueled ‘Arab Spring’.
All terror attacks against westerners are attributable to Wahhabist Sunni Islam. Unfortunately, the US has been in bed with these dudes at least since the days of Jimmy Carter who funded and armed the rise of the Afghan Mujuhadeen, now the Taliban. It’s no surprise that 15 of the 19 911 jihadists hailed from Saudi Arabia with the others being from Egypt, the UAE and Lebanon.
Lebanon is a most unusual Middle East nation because of its historic multi-cultural diversity and the fact that Beirut was once considered the Paris of the Middle East, a beautiful and bustling city that exemplified tolerance and prosperity. If there ever was a Middle East nation that was a success story, it was Lebanon. Lebanon gained independence in 1943 by accident as it became a pawn of Nazi Germany who at the time was occupying France. The German backed French Vichy government cut a deal for Lebanese independence by getting Lebanon to agree to allow the movement of German war materials and supplies through Lebanon. A lot of WW II was fought in North Africa and the Middle East where the British and the Germans locked horns in various battles.
Lebanon survived WW II and flourished, despite a mix of Maronite Christians, Eastern Orthodox Christians and various Muslim sects that included the Druze, Shiites and Sunnis. Somehow, these folks hobbled together a peace and a government that was tolerant and prosperous, although low level civil wars were in progress and brewing. What Lebanon could not survive, however, was Yasser Arafat invading Lebanon and setting up terrorist training camps to attack Israel. This forced the Israelis to enter the Lebanon civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990 with 15 years of sheer hell and misery.
Arafat has previously invaded Jordan in a failed attempt to overthrow King Hussein; he barely escaped with his life and only survived because Arafat dressed as a Muslim woman to escape from Jordan. Arafat then set up camp in chaotic Lebanon.
Unfortunately, Israel just didn’t clean out Arafat and Company and force them to pack up and go elsewhere. Israel proceeded to involve itself in the Lebanese civil war and sided with the Lebanese Christians, thinking they would be more amenable to their cause of a peace treaty and recognition. Of course, the violence only escalated as the Sunnis, the Shiites, the Druses, the Christians, Arafat and Company, Israel and, along the way, Syria jumped into the mess. Things got even uglier when someone convinced President Reagan to send our Marines to that war zone; their barracks were bombed and 241 U.S. Marines were murdered.
Eventually, Arafat was evicted from Lebanon by the Lebanese government and the Israelis packed up and went home. Before it was over, Lebanon was a wasteland, a situation that may have happened anyway. But with the help of Arafat, Syria and later Israel, the destruction of Lebanon was most certainly expedited and along with it an exploding civilian death toll.
Iraq/Mesopotamia/Badhdad has fascinating history. In it’s prime around the 6th century BC, Baghdad was one of the great learning centers of the world as well as an extraordinary civilization but it was conquered by Arab Muslims and declined rapidly. The area ended up under various rulers including the Abbasid Empire and the Ottoman Empire while also being invaded by the Mongols. Nothing much happened until the bust up of the Ottoman Empire and that’s when all hell started breaking loose after the British aristocrat Gertrude Bell literally drew modern Iraq from a map with a pencil.
Woodrow Wilson’s creation, the League of Nations, the predecessor organization to the United Nations, established what was called the British Mandate which put the area under British control. The Brits then created a monarchy and installed a Hashimite on the newly created throne of Iraq in 1916. The Hashimites were actually a tribe from the Arabian Peninsula and the tribal chieftains in the freshly created Iraq opposed being ruled by the foreign Hashimite tribe. Immediately, there were big problems involving the Kurds, who were revolting, unhappy Assyrians and various tribal ethnic groups. Not only were there uprisings, the British sent in troops to quell civil unrest. Anyone who opposed British rule typically ended up dead.
By 1932, the British agreed to Iraq independence. Well, sort of. There was an Anglo-Iraq War in 1941 when the British believed that their oil interests were in jeopardy after a coup. The British tried again to restore a Hashimite to the throne of Iraq which lasted until 1958 when another coup by the Iraqi Army succeeded in dethroning the monarchy. Iraq was then ruled by the military until 1968 when another coup flipped power to the Socialist Ba’ath Party. By 1979 there was another coup and Saddam Hussein seized control after murdering his political opponents.
Iran is a nation with a glorious Persian history of incredible accomplishments. Iranians are not Arabs but an Indo-European people and consider themselves Persians. In fact, the Iranians have a long history of hostility toward the Arabs starting with the Arab Muslim conquest of the Persians. Iraq and Iran have a lot in common as both Baghdad and the Persians had great civilizations that got squashed by the Arab Muslim invasions. In fact, Shiite Islam developed as a revolt against Arab Sunni Islam and retains a lot of the civilizing characteristics of its historic Persian culture. It should also be noted that neither Iran nor Iranians nor Shiite Muslims have been involved in any acts of global Islamist terror from 911 to blowing up 2 US African Embassies to the bombing of the USS Cole to the Madrid bombings, London bombings, Bali bombings, Mumbai bombings and much more. Those honors go to Sunni Muslims who are typically Wahhabists. Not all Sunni Muslims are Wahhabists.
Iran was a functioning democracy that was advancing into modernity until the CIA engineered a coup in 1953, tossed their popular elected leader out of power and installed the hated Shah, a US puppet. Well, the rest really is history. The Ayatollah Khomeini who was languishing in exile in France roused the Iranians to revolt against the Shah, a Shah they never wanted or even liked. The Iranian people had no earthly idea that they were replacing one psychopathic murderer with another psychopathic murderer. The Iranian Revolution that ushered in the era of absolute ayatollah power has been devastating for Iranians.
Still, neither Iranian or Iran fingerprints are on any acts of Islamist terror. Moreover, Iran does not have nuclear weapons nor has it committed any acts of aggression against America, the American people or American interests.
Egypt had always been a sovereign nation since ancient times (the great Egyptian civilization) even thought it was under Ottoman rule, invaded by many including Napoleon who invaded Egypt in 1798 but failed to conquer it. While Egypt was always a prize of foreign conquerors, it became an even bigger prize when the French raised money and started building the Suez Canal. While the project was plagued with horrific problem including the brutal use of slave labor and money problems, it still advanced and opened in 1869. The Suez Canal was incomplete and had problems but the engineering and financial problems were resolved a few years later. The Suez Canal dramatically affected trade because until it opened, trade routes from the far east had to sail the treacherous Cape of Good Hope (tip of South Africa).
The Suez Canal was plagued with early financial difficulties but so was Egypt who ended up selling its shares in the venture to the British in 1875 with money from the Rothchilds banking house. It was a scandal of sorts because the share purchases were not approved by Parliament. In any event, the Suez Canal became a entity under the protection of Britain because Britain has supplied war money and materials for ongoing wars in the Sudan and other parts of Africa. After WW I broke out, the Turks attacked the Suez Canal and by 1951 the Egyptian Nationalist Nasser simply repudiated the treaty with the British, the 1936 British/Egyptian Treaty, and demanded the removal of British troops. Effectively, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal which is a hugely significant toll plaza for world trade.
Then there’s the perennial nightmare known as Israel with a very long and very complicated history. Essentially, Israel is where Judaism, Christianity and Islam converge, butt heads, lock horn and have always fought over a patch of dirt about the size of New Jersey. The history of Israel is a separate story, here.
The Middle East remains a complex maze of frustrated people, autocratic rulers, poverty and continues to be the playground of western interventionists.
Then there is the US-Saudi relationship that dates back to 1945 and Roosevelt who personally met with the Saudi king on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal.
The Saudi-US relationship was always about oil.
There is practically no civil society in Saudi Arabia. The country is run by the al-Saud royal family in partnership with a highly conservative religious establishment espousing a fundamentalist theology known as Wahhabism. The alliance goes back to the mid-eighteenth century.
Both the House of al-Saud and the Wahhabi religious leadership are against freedom of religion, democracy, a free press, and the public mixing of unmarried men and women. Wahhabi clerics are also against movie houses; public dancing; drinking, women’s sports centers; girls exercising in schools, and women driving….
Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Navy, William Knox, told Congress in March 1944 that the war had made the U.S. government extremely anxious about oil. He pronounced what was to become America’s postwar oil policy, namely “to provide for acquisition of oil resources outside the limits of the United States for the safety and security of the country.” That was the rationale for our becoming more and more involved with Saudi Arabia.
In 1944, the California Arabian Standard Oil Company that Chevron had set up became Arabian American Oil Company, or Aramco. Chevron brought in three other partners, the big majors of the United States: Mobil, Exxon, and Texaco. Aramco was not just an oil company. In the early years, the king kept turning to it for loans, because they weren’t earning any money from oil until much later. Aramco became something like a proxy for the U.S. government in Saudi Arabia….
In 1948, a pot of gold was discovered. Aramco discovered the Ghawar oil field, the mother lode of the world’s fields…..
In 1950, to try and solve the problem of how to get the Saudi oil to American and Western markets, the U.S. company Bechtel, based in California, built a 1,000-mile pipeline directly from the Saudi oil fields across Jordan and the Golan Heights to Sidon in Lebanon in order to take the oil directly to the Mediterranean by pipeline….
In 1973, Saudi government led the Arab boycott of oil supplies to the U.S. (Netherlands was also singled out). This led to a quadrupling of the oil price, from about $3 to $12 per barrel. Saudi Arabia was suddenly very much on Washington’s radar screen, and very rich. Saudi oil earnings went from $8.5 billion in 1973 to $35 billion in 1974. With that money, they began building and buying from the U.S. tanks, airplanes, and infrastructure. The U.S.-Saudi military relationship took off. American companies basically built the whole military infrastructure of Saudi Arabia as it is today. Over the next twenty years, the Saudis spent some $85-86 billion on American arms….
In 1973, however, because of the war between Israel and the Arab states, the Saudis began to take over Aramco. They insisted on taking a 25 percent interest in it, paid for in oil—they didn’t try to nationalize without compensation. By 1980 they owned 100 percent of Aramco. But they treated their American partners well. They gave the U.S. partners—Chevron, Mobil Exxon, and Texaco—priority in selling them oil, and they offered special discount rates, to please both Washington and the companies.So the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the oil companies continued to be strong and close.
And that’s precisely how the US came to ignore the dangerous scourge of Wahhabism and Salafist Islam. Oil and oil profits simply trumped everything. For more information on the history of Islam, see:
There can be no question that the West and Islam have had a tortured relationship throughout their respective histories. Oil did in fact significantly buoy Arab-Muslim power. After all, they had the oil to feed our insatiable appetites for the black gold that propelled our economies and lifestyles.
However, there is credible evidence that the Saudis are running out of oil and that their oil reserves are vastly overstated.
According to the report and Bloomberg , Saudi Arabia uses oil for about half of its electricity production, which is growing at about eight percent a year along with population growth.
The 150-page report, written by analyst Heidy Rehman, said that “If Saudi Arabian oil consumption grows in line with peak power demand, the country could be a net oil importer by 2030.”
The country also depends on oil for 86 percent of its annual revenue, and according to the English-language outlet Arabian Business , Saudi Arabia already consumes all of its natural gas production. In 2011, the Saudis produced 11.1 million barrels of oil and natural-gas-liquids a day, according to Bloomberg.
On a per capita basis, Saudi Arabia is the top consumer of energy, even more than the U.S., South Korea, Russia, France and Japan.
Could new global oil ponds be rising as a challenge to middle east oil power? Russia is definitely a major oil and gas producer but the US oil industry is also on a boom.
Not only are Saudi oil reserves highly questionable, it’s been reported that other Middle Eastern nations are running out of oil including Kuwait and Yemen. Many are of the opinion that the Americas will become a major oil patch with Canada, Mexico, the US and South America possessing major oil reserves, here.
The Peak Oil theory is based on fact that the world is running out of oil that is cheap to harvest. Hence, while there is plenty of oil on the planet, that oil will likely come at a far higher extraction and production costs. It’s probably true that the era of cheap oil is at least temporarily dead but so is OPEC oil cartel that controlled oil prices for many decades. OPEC is losing its oil power as production shifts to new oil patches.
What is the Middle East without its oil cartel? Not much. While OPEC nations are in not in danger of immediately expiring, they will face the stone cold reality that the easy oil pond money is close to being pumped dry. Then what happens to the area’s geo-political power?