Fouad Ajami: How Oil Changed the Politics of the Middle East

Roundup: Historians' Take

Fouad Ajami, writing in the NYT (Oct. 17, 2003):

It was not so much the guns of Oct. 6, 1973, and the assault of the Egyptian and Syrian armies against Israel, that changed contemporary history and remade our world. It was the use 11 days later of the "oil weapon," and the price increases that followed, which tipped the scales of history.

By the time OPEC unsheathed the oil weapon, 30 years ago today, the tide of battle had turned. Israel had regained the initiative: its soldiers had crossed to the western side of the Suez Canal, and were within striking distance of Damascus as well. It was then, on the edge of yet another Arab calamity, that the Saudi monarch, King Faisal, broke with his American protectors and began what turned into a frontal assault on the very bases of the post-World War II international order.

On Oct. 17, 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries raised the price of oil to more than $5 a barrel from $3 a barrel; a day later it cut production by 5 percent a month; three days later, it imposed an embargo on petroleum exports to the United States. Then the shah of Iran struck with a rebellion of his own. In Tehran, just before Christmas, he secured the consent of the other oil-producing nations for yet another price increase, to $11.65 a barrel.

In the "Thousand and One Nights," the recurring theme is of the beggar becoming king and the king a beggar. So it was when OPEC imposed its embargo. It was an attempt to turn the stuff of fantasy into reality, to make the largest transfer of wealth in the annals of nations. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger was among those who realized this. "Never before in history," he wrote in his memoirs, "has a group of such relatively weak nations been able to impose with so little protest such a dramatic change in the way of life of the overwhelming majority of the rest of mankind."

No tears were shed, though, for the old order of things in those countries rich with oil, or in the large stretches of the Arab-Muslim world on their periphery. The peoples of those lands had long dreamt of just such a moment. They hadn't quite foreseen how the dream would play out. Still, the modern nationalisms of the Arabs and the Iranians had always revolved around the use of oil; the grievances of these nationalisms were tales of how Western prospectors and explorers, and their powerful world-spanning companies, had worked their way on the politics of the Arab Middle East and brought about its subjugation.

These lands, it seemed, were now done with that history. Everywhere in the Arab world there was a palpable sense of excitement, of defeats avenged. Nothing was out of reach. New wealth would bring the latest technology and training and secure the withdrawal of Israel from the lands it occupied in 1967. Modern history itself could be short-circuited; poor, unskilled societies would be able to join the era of technology and industry.

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