Protest Movements Fueled By Oil?


It’s hard to keep up with the news out of Egypt. Huge crowds gather in Tahrir Square, demanding the resignation of the president they democratically elected just a year ago. The army steps in and deposes him. The crowds celebrate.

News reports, in general, seem to praise these and other uprisings as a reaction against autocratic rule, a struggle for democratic reform. They portray the protests in Egypt particularly as a rejection of ideology based on religion.

Something makes me skeptical. I can’t help wondering why all these popular uprisings seem to happen in countries crucial to the flow of oil to the industrial western world.

The so-called “Arab Spring” started in Tunisia, spread through Libya and Egypt, turned into civil war in Syria. Add the invasions of Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan, and the recurring threats against Iran.

Then mark those areas on a map or globe. They form a vast swath spreading from North Africa to the central Asian steppes. Which coincides nicely with the bulk of the world’s petroleum reserves, excluding Venezuela and Alberta.

And right in the middle of that swath sits Iran.

Iran does not have nuclear weapons, yet. North Korea does. North Korea also has a far more repressive government than any Middle Eastern or North African nation, including Iran. And far greater human misery. But North Korea has no popular protest movement for western media to gush over.

Could it be because North Korea has no oil?

Of reserves and pipelines

Granted, some countries within that swath of Middle Eastern nations don’t have oil either.

By some cruel irony, the Jews chose as their divinely destined homeland one of the few places in the Middle East that doesn’t float on a subterranean sea of oil. A cynic might call this Moses’ ultimate revenge against what the biblical book of Exodus called “a stiff-necked people.”

But tiny, overpopulated Gaza, the perpetual burr under Jerusalem’s backside, apparently has huge natural gas reserves just offshore. Might that influence Israel’s blockade of Gaza?

Another tiny nation in that oil-bearing region, Georgia, has no oil either. But it happens to be a key route for a potential pipeline from the enormous reserves around the Caspian Sea to a Mediterranean port, and thus to the industrial western world.

Rebellious Chechnya, a neighbor of Georgia’s, forms a similar bottleneck for getting oil and gas to Russia.

Syria doesn’t rank high in world reserves either. But Syria once had a functioning oil pipeline, from Kirkuk in northern Iraq to Banias on the Mediterranean coast – until U.S. forces mistakenly blew it up while deposing Saddam Hussein. There’s talk of restoring it, or even of building a newer, bigger pipeline.

Control of Syria, then, becomes key to feeding our oil addiction.

Ditto for Afghanistan, that fiercely independent black hole that humiliated the British Empire, Russia, and now the U.S. It’s the only possible route for a pipeline from the oilfields east of the Caspian Sea to Pakistan’s tanker ports on the Indian Ocean.

Which is where Egypt enters the equation. Egypt does have proven reserves of oil and gas — much of it out under the Mediterranean, like Gaza – but not much more than Syria. But Egypt controls the Suez Canal – effectively the world’s biggest oil transmission route. The oil that comes out of Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, the Emirates, and Saudi Arabia – in short, the oil that keeps most of the world running – travels by supertanker through the Suez Canal.

Sink one supertanker in the Canal, and that seagoing pipeline has to detour around Africa.

In all of this, Iran is the wild card. Iran’s backing for Bashar Al-Assad precludes building a new pipeline out of Iraq through Syria. At the same time, Iran’s ability to close the Strait of Hormuz – through which all tankers leaving the Persian Gulf must pass – makes such a pipeline all the more urgent.

Collaborating for mutual benefit

Now it seems clearer why Syria and Egypt get attention, and North Korea does not. For the oil addicted world, Kim Chung-Il is irrelevant. He has nuclear warheads and a hair-trigger mouth. But no oil.

As Noam Chomsky’s famous 2008 headline stated, “It’s the oil, stupid!”

I’m tempted to call Western oil interests a vast conspiracy. Not an authoritarian body, with a shadowy Godfather issuing orders, but a collection of independent entities, from national governments to petro-corporations, all motivated by their common need to control the flow of liquid gold for their own purposes.

Or maybe there’s more than one conspiracy. Pro-western and anti-western, each manipulating popular passions in the hope of gaining control over a destabilized region.

Okay, that’s off-the-wall hypothesis. But it seems to me a more rational explanation for the uprisings around the Mediterranean than a naïve belief that the Middle East and North Africa are suddenly awash in a desire to establish democracy.

Jim Taylor is a Canadian author and freelance journalist, with over 50 years experience in radio, television, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of 17 books, and continues to write two newspaper columns a week.

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