It's All About Oil ... Again

by Mark Lynas guardian unlimited

Saddam Hussein is right again. The US was "reaping the fruits of its crimes against humanity," the Butcher of Baghdad muttered darkly after hearing about the horrific destruction of the World Trade Centre. And it's true.

Difficult though it may be for the Americans to admit, they seem now to be suffering the consequences of nearly fifty years of neo-colonialist dominance in the Middle East. There is a way out of this mess, but it means that we in the rich world - and the United States in particular - need to face up to some uncomfortable realities.

As Said K Aburish shows in his groundbreaking 1997 book A Brutal Friendship, first the British and later the US secured control of the Middle East by supporting dictatorial client regimes against the wishes of their Arab peoples.

It was the British who gave a country to the obscure House of Saud, and established equally illegitimate monarchies in Jordan and Iraq - ironically with the justification that the new Hashemite kings were direct descendents of the Prophet Mohammed.

The policy of fostering friendly rulers was continued by the US after 1945, when it took over Britain's repressive role. The CIA helped to overthrow a populist and anti-western Iraqi government led by General Abden Karim Kassem in 1968. The agency even prepared lists for the coup leaders of people it thought should be butchered. One of the most enthusiastic killers, of course, was a young man called Saddam Hussein. Several thousand are thought to have died in the massacre.

Throughout the century, grassroots movements - occasionally flaring into open rebellion - challenged western supremacy from below. What is now described as "Islamic fundamentalism" is only the latest of these challenges, but it has become a serious threat to pro-US rulers in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yasser Arafat's Palestine authority.

As Aburish puts it: "Because the west and its clients have succeeded in destroying all the secular movements in the Arab Middle East without making any attempts to solve the real problems of the region, Islam has emerged as the only force opposed to the western-Arab establishment hegemony."

And the results of this hegemony are plain - a total lack of democracy, massive corruption, and widening gaps between the haves and the have-nots. In Saudi Arabia, a steadfast US ally with over fifty billionaire princes, per capita income actually declined by half between 1982 and 1993. Is it any surprise therefore that the backstreets of Riyadh provide a fertile recruitment-ground for a new generation of activists against the

Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organisation is only one of a plethora of Islamist groups opposed to US power in the Middle East, and his key aim of "pushing the American enemy out of the Holy Land" encapsulates the fusion of religious and anti-western sentiment.

As long as American troops continue to be stationed within spitting distance of the holiest Muslim sites of Mecca and Medina, potential suicide bombers from Hamas, al-Qaida and other extremist groups will remain convinced that their fast-track route to paradise is assured.

So why has the west spent a century subverting the legitimate aspirations of an entire people? The answer can be summed up in a single word: oil. The US imports nearly 9m barrels of crude oil per day, over 20% of it from the Persian Gulf states.

After Canada, Saudi Arabia is US's largest oil supplier, providing over 1.5m barrels a day to keep America's thirsty economy moving. US military might is the guarantor of steady oil supplies, and when this monopoly was threatened by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, the renegade Saddam was quickly stamped on.

Now talk of war is again in the air, and the Middle East region (including the long-suffering Afghanistan) seems likely once more to be the main theatre of conflict. This time the fighting could be ugly and drawn-out, quite unlike the blitzkrieg against Saddam in the 1991 Gulf war.

In almost every oil-producing state, Islamist opposition movements are challenging US control in increasingly aggressive ways, and defeating them will require slaughter and repression on a massive scale.

Continued dependence on oil not only threatens the future of humanity through prolonged and bloody conflict, but through another even more insidious threat - climate change and ecological collapse. Already it has cost us the world's coral reefs, now thought to be unsaveable because of global warming, according to a Glasgow University marine biologist speaking only last week.

Predicted rates of climate change over the coming century mean that every plant, animal and insect will have to migrate tens or even hundreds of miles towards the poles to keep up with rising temperatures. The "required migration rates" for plant species are 10 times greater than at the end of the last Ice Age,
according to a recent study by the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

Many species, finding themselves blocked by seas, human development or simply unable to keep up with the pace of change, will simply go extinct.

The result will be a series of mass extinctions and a dramatic fall in the planet's biodiversity, as well as its ability to support humankind. In short, global warming - caused largely by industrial society's addiction to oil - will destroy the capacity of the Earth's atmosphere to support life as we know it.

The choices are stark. On one side lies war, insecurity and eventual ecological collapse. On the other lies a brighter future involving a reduction of poverty and global inequalities, ending western military dominance and achieving ecological sustainability.

For other countries to follow the lead of the Bush administration, wedded as it is to both the oil industry and the American military-industrial complex, would set the scene for total disaster. But choosing the latter course would mean calling an end to the Oil Age. How many of us really have the courage to face up to this reality?

· Mark Lynas is currently writing a book for HarperCollins on the human effects of climate change around the world.