How oil poisons everything

Published in The Express Tribune

There’s something of the immortal about Saddam Hussein. There are bad guys and there are bad guys, but Saddam’s life reads like Kafka on crack – son of an abusive stepfather, father of a sadistic son, and invader of all he beheld; a man whose career in public service began by opening fire on the prime minister.

The Saddam saga does make for great TV; a reviewer called the H.B.O. miniseries ‘like The Sopranos with Scud missiles’. But stripped of its storyline – the coups and gassings and exploding in-laws – and there’s a recurrent theme: it is a life drenched in blood…and oil.

Oil drove Saddam. It was the method behind his madness, the reason Vice President Hussein was flush enough to splurge millions during Iraq’s brief few breaths of petro-success. It was partly the reason he bounded into Iran, and the whole reason he was thrown out of Kuwait.

And it was the reason over 7,000 Iraqis died this year. As that vulgar little warlord Tony Blair denies, denies, and denies himself dizzy, it’s no longer pasty conspiracy theorists saying the past ten years were, well, all about The Oil.

It was The Independent that leaked minutes of meetings where oil lobbyists ran around panicking that their Shiva B.P. was being ‘locked out’, telling the Foreign Office that Iraq was ‘more important than anything we’ve seen for a long time.’ Not to be outdone, the F.O.’s Middle East boss went and said, ‘Shell and B.P. could not afford not to have a stake in (Iraq) for the sake of their long-term future…We were determined to get a fair slice of the action for UK companies in a post-Saddam Iraq.’

And that’s not touching on the cholesterol levels of Blair’s bigger, dumber masters; those neocon gents that briefed the younger Bush’s Security Council on Iraqi oil as early as 2001.

It’s not touching on Dick Cheney, whose pacemaker melts just saying ‘Halliburton’, that oil-drinking dragon he also happened to run. Want a job as Drilling Project Management Technical Advisor in Basra, Iraq of all places? Try the Halliburton website .

But before you smear it with Iraq, Halliburton has since diversified in ‘building temporary detention and processing facilities’ (read concentration camps), and awarded $385 million to do it by Homeland Security. If a company like Apple could only come from the mind of Steve Jobs, then Halliburton is definitely the kind of twisted Death Star worthy of Dick Cheney.

And forget the evil ones; even the U.S.’s human Defence Secretaries do as little to dress it up. Chuck Hagel, best known in these parts for shaking hands with a bunch of Pakistanis, remarked of the war, ‘People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are.’ Well, so much for ridding the world of Saddam’s Bond Villain bomb.

But we’ve been here before. It was the same sad story in Iran in 1953, even if it was a simpler time – Mohammed Mosaddegh was a better human being than Saddam was, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was a far more sinister-sounding (and obvious) outfit than the cut-glass corporate Halliburton, and Mosaddegh’s nationalization of Iran’s oil sent him to the front of the U.S. waitlist for coup candidates.

Mosaddegh was overthrown, the Shah brought in, and a new government soon in agreement to ‘restore the flow of Iranian oil to world markets in substantial quantities.’ Corporatese for ‘we’ve resumed selling to the Great British.’

And the Anglo-Persian Oil Company? It goes by the name of B.P. (plc) today.

Of course, this is one rat race that everyone’s in on. Saudi Aramco needs no introduction. Vladimir Putin’s red-eyed rampage across the Caucasus has been stunning in speed, driving out the oligarchs and sticking the state back into its Gazproms and Rosnefts (if it ever left).

Putin is a man on a mission, bulldozing all comers for each barrel of crude. Even when he was busy bullying the oil-less Georgia in 2008, Western support for the Georgians largely hinged on it hosting the Baku-Tblisi pipeline, supplying oil to much of Western Europe.

Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Hitler once got a cream cake for his birthday with an iced map of the Caspian; he cut out the slice that said B-A-K-U in chocolate, ate it, and screamed to the heavens as only Nazi loonies could, ‘Unless we get Baku oil, the war is lost!’

Fast-forward from 1941 to today, with the world’s newest country caught up in the same game, and looks like humanity’s made precious little progress. South Sudan is going, going, gone; fighting the other Sudan for oil-rich territory and killing hundreds in the process.

 In a nation where, according to al-Jazeera, literacy totals fifteen percent – with nearly three guns per ten people – the South Sudanese may want to reprioritize. But tell that to a state that gets 98 percent of its budget from oil. Suddenly, skirmishing with Other Sudan doesn’t seem too awful an idea.

But whatever Iraq and Iran and the Sudans may do, this is one finite resource. And regardless of stock, only rising prices shock us into investing in alternatives. The physicist Amory Lovins likes saying, ‘The stone age didn’t end because the stone ran out, and the oil age will be just the same.’ Oil will get just too expensive.

High time then for the world to start investing elsewhere seriously – in wind and solar and hyrdro and bio; renewable energies all of them. If nothing else, it can conserve far better. But that’s for the very long haul.

In the short run, man’s bloodlust for black gold needs shaming. The artist behind Tony Blair’s tormented Lincoln’s Inn portrait said Iraq was on his mind…and it shows. And last October, a war museum in Manchester put up an exhibition of Blair taking a psychotic-looking ‘selfie’ as Iraqi oilfields blaze behind him. It’s horrifying, yet wholly necessary.

As one columnist put it, ‘Art could not stop the war in Iraq. It can influence how that war is remembered.’