For many people, the connection between imperialism, racism and oil was forever burned into our memories by "Nintendo" images of missiles incinerating human beings and the ecological destruction of burning oil fields during the Gulf War. Almost a decade later and further away from the headlines, the people of Iraq continue to starve and the oil industry continues its path of profit, death and destruction.
While Royal Dutch/Shell is hardly alone in committing atrocities in the pursuit of oil profits, it has distinguished itself as among the worst oil industry offenders. Its atrocities read like a whose who of imperialism and genocide: Shell was part of the "seven sisters" oil cartels that during much of the 20th century controlled world oil supplies and helped shaped British and U.S. foreign policy towards the middle-east, including the bloody, CIA support for the former Shah of Iran and the Gulf War; Shell violated international sanctions against the white-supremacist, apartheid regime in South Africa, supplying oil to the brutal military and police, providing pay subsidies to workers drafted into the South African military and paying starvation wages to its own black workforce; Shell created ecological destruction in Nigeria on the homeland of the Ogoni people and was intimately involved in the Nigerian state's persecution of Ogoni resistance, including the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and 7 other Ogoni activists; Shell is a 50% partner with Occidental Oil of California in a project in Columbia which is attempting to turn U'wa territory into oil fields, even though the U'wa people have threatened mass suicide to protect their land; Shell is now pushing a new oil project in an area of Peru where the Nahua and Kugapakori peoples live in voluntary isolation in a reserve that was supposed to be set aside as a homeland for "uncontacted" indigenous peoples.
The relationship between the state and the oil industry has surfaced again in recent years: Royal Dutch/Shell's involvement in the Nigerian dictatorship's persecution of the Ogoni people; Occidental and Shell's collusion with the brutal Colombian military in its oil project on U'wa territory; U.S. vice-president, Al Gore's ownership of $500,000 in Occidental shares and Occidental's contribution to the Gore family fortune. But long before these acts of collusion and genocide and long before the Gulf War flashed across our TV screens with pictures of mostly U.S. and British missiles bombing Iraq, the oil industry and the state were in cahoots to protect profits and secure oil for global capitalism..
In the early 20th century British and French colonialism over people and land in the middle east allowed them to control access to oil fields. Concessions were granted to companies such as British Petroleum at cheap rates and with little return to those people who were not part of the co-opted elite.
By the mid-20th century the U.S. was becoming concerned about dwindling domestic oil reserves and the state became actively involved in struggles between U.S., British and Dutch oil corporations over control of middle eastern oil reserves. The U.S. state department used access to its own oil fields and its country's huge consumption of oil as a lever to help U.S. oil companies such as Exxon, Gulf, Mobile and the various offshoots of the Standard Oil trust get access to oil fields controlled by the British and French, particularly in Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia. While the U.S. government on the one hand made a big public display about investigating oil monopolies, its foreign policy supported oil monopolies by encouraging cartels between U.S., British, French and Dutch oil companies to help get U.S. access to middle eastern oil.
Concerns about middle eastern oil falling under Soviet influence and the rise of nationalist independence movements in the middle east caused the U.S. to take a more aggressive foreign policy. As a U.S. state department paper from the early 1950s stated:
“major sources of foreign oil are, now indispensable to the economy of Europe and in the future may become indispensable even to the peacetime economy of the United States...Since Venezuela and the Middle East are the only sources from which the free world's import requirements for petroleum can be supplied . . . nothing can be allowed to interfere substantially with the availability of oil from these sources to the free world.”(emphasis mine)The importance of oil to U.S. foreign policy was illistrated by the fact that the U.S. Ambassador in London at the time was a man named Andrew Mellon, who happened to be the head of the Gulf Oil Corporation.
“American oil operations are, for all practical purposes, instruments of our foreign policy toward these countries.” (emphasis mine)1
In 1951, the Iranian parliament (the Majlis) under prime minister Dr. Muhammed Mossadeq, nationalized the oil concession of British Petroleum, after BP refused to renegotiate its concession terms. The world's major oil companies, BP, Exxon, Mobile, Gulf, Royal Dutch/Shell and the various Standard Oil companies, refused to buy Iranian oil, sending the country into financial chaos. The Shah, who was supported by Britain and the U.S. attempted to oust Mossadeq but massive demonstrations in the streets of Tehran forced the Shah to flee the country. The Iranian military, supported covertly by the CIA, brutally repressed the people in bloody attacks, Mossadeq was deposed and the Shah was returned to power. After the coup, oil was effectively de-nationalized, with U.S. companies controlling 40% of the formally 100% British controlled oil concession.
This was not the only example of covert CIA influence in the domestic politics of Gulf states. In 1958 a popularly-supported coup in Iraq removed the British prop, Nuri Said. Among those whom the CIA recruited to eliminate the new leader, Abdul-Karim Kassem, was the Iraqi Baath Party, including a young Saddam Hussein. Hussein was actually involved in a CIA supported assassination attempt on Kassem before Kassem was overthrown and killed by the Baath Party in 1963. After the coup, the CIA gave the Baath a long list of communists and others to liquidate.
In the 1960s, Western hegemony in the middle east took a hit with the formation of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) and supplies of oil from the middle east fell out of direct control of the oil companies; however, effective control remained with the big oil corporations as they continued to control the distribution and marketing of oil.
In the 1970s OPEC used its control to impose an embargo on the U.S. and Netherlands for supporting Israel in the 1973 war. Ironically, while prices skyrocketed, oil industry access to reserves and other sources of oil meant that world oil supplies were never threatened and, in fact, both the oil industry and the U.S. state profited from the embargo, the latter by increasing its economic position relative to Europe and Japan, who were much more dependent on oil imports.
The conflict between Israel and the Arabian middle-eastern states caused further concerns in Europe and the U.S. over control of oil in the middle east. The tension between the West and the Persian Gulf states was heightened by Western fears of increasing Soviet influence and rising anti-imperialist nationalism in the middle east, particularly towards the U.S., which had taken over Britain's role as the dominant imperialist power in the Persian Gulf. In 1979, Western insecurity increased even further when a major prop of U.S. imperialism, the Shah of Iran, was overthrown and replaced by an anti-U.S., fundamentalist muslim regime.
By the early 1980s the U.S. was pumping as much as $47 billion dollars a year in military spending into the Persian Gulf, much of it in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. objective was to support anti-democratic, pro-Western regimes that would allow the U.S. military a physical presence in a Gulf region whose populations were decidedly anti-American. This policy was formally backed up by the "Carter Doctrine" which stated that U.S. dependency on Persian Gulf oil for its material wealth required the U.S. to use military force to maintain its control over the region. In 1980 this policy was articulated by U.S. Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown:
"In a world of disputes and violence, we cannot afford to go abroad unarmed...The particular manner in which our economy has expanded means that we have come to depend to no small degree on imports, exports and the earnings from overseas investments for our material well-being...(the) protection of the oil flow from the Middle East (is) clearly part of our vital interest...we'll take any action that's appropriate, including the use of military force."2 (emphasis mine)The Carter Doctrine and its Reagan counterpart, was really just a restatement of the U.S. state department policy articulated in the early 1950s. The only difference being that by the 1980s the U.S. was not constrained in its use of military force in the Persian Gulf by competing imperialist powers such as Britian and France.
In the 1980s and 1990s U.S. foreign policy in the Persian Gulf was pursued covertly through CIA and pentagon involvement in supplying arms to both Iraq and Iran during the war between the two countries that killed over a million people. Overtly, this foreign policy was pursued through the Gulf War and the subsequent bombings of Iraq by the U.S.
Until recently, the CIA was also actively involved in the internal politics of Kurdistan, a country that has been parceled off in chunks to Turkey, Iran and Iraq. The CIA played seperate Kurdish groups off against each other, while suggesting support for Kurdish independence. Apparently, former Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani was paid $14 million by the CIA to help destabilize the Iraqi Baath Party in the 1960s, in return for a promise to turn oil fields over to the U.S. The CIA continued this policy after the Gulf War until the KDP, which in the 1990s was supported by Iraq, defeated its rivals.
Given the historical context of the U.S. and British states in controlling access to oil in the Persian Gulf, the Gulf War of 1991 and the subsequent bombings of Iraq by the U.S. are hardly surprising. This history also reinforces the fact that capitalist states and private corporations are not separate entities but are mutually reinforcing institutions. The power of the capitalist state is dependent upon the accumulation and control of material wealth by corporations and corporations depend on the state's coercive power to protect that wealth.
This context also brings home the danger in recent U.S. posturing around sending a more visible military presence to Columbia, especially considering the eagerness with which the U.S. is willing to spill blood in persuit of its "national interests" and the resistance of the U'wa people to oil being exploited on their land.
"The Cia In Kurdistan", By Husayn Al-Kurdi
1.Multinational Oil Corporations and U.S. Foreign Policy - REPORT together with individual views, to the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, by the Subcommittee on Multinational Corporations; (Washington, Janusry 2, 1975, US Government Printing Office).
2."The United States and The Iran-Iraq War", by Stephen R. Shalom
In Colombia, South America, the U'Wa indigenous people have been resisting efforts by Occidental Petroleum to take over their traditional lands for oil developments. Read about their struggle or review a series of news releases from their campaigns.
|The End of Oil Coalition that came out of the 16th World Petroleum Congress protests in Calgary, Canada|
|Essential Action's Boycott Shell project|
|Nigeria: Behind The Greenwash (EarthFirst! article on Shell in Nigeria)|
|U'wa Defense Project|
|RainForest Action Network campaign on Occidental in U'wa territory|
|Counter Petroleum Congress Backgrounders on the Petroleum Industry|