A New Age of Empire in the Middle East,
Courtesy of the US and UK
by Sasha Lilley
November 12, 2002
British Member of Parliament George Galloway says that a plan for the division of the Middle East is circulating in the corridors of power on both sides of the Atlantic. In a recent interview, Galloway asserted that ministers and eminent figures in the British government are deliberating the partition of the Middle East, harking back to the colonial map-making in the first quarter of the 20th century that established the modern nation-states of the region. An Anglo-American war against Iraq, he tells me, could be the opening salvo in the break up of the region. Galloway, who met with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad this August, states that the war aims of the US and Britain go well beyond replacing the Iraqi leader. “They include a recasting of the entire Middle East, the better to ensure the hegemony of the big powers over the natural resources of the Middle East and the safety and security of the vanguard of imperialist interests in the area – the state of Israel. And part of that is actually redrawing boundaries.”
Galloway is privy to such information as he is the Vice-Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party Foreign Affairs Committee with close relations to Britain’s Ministry of Defense. Galloway says that British ministers and former ministers are primarily focused on the break-up of Saudi Arabia and Iraq in the wake of an attack against Saddam Hussein, but are also discussing the possible partition of Egypt, the Sudan, Syria and Lebanon. These officials have become taken with the realization that the borders of the Middle East are recent creations, dating back only to World War I when Britain and France divided the region between themselves. Galloway adds, “There are many ways in which a new Sykes-Picot dispensation could be drawn up in the Middle East to guarantee another few decades of big power hegemony over the area.”
The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, codified by the League of Nations in 1920, parceled out the crumbling Ottoman Empire extending over much of the Middle East between Britain and France. By the early 1920s Britain, which as the reigning imperial power already effectively ruled Egypt, the Sudan, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar, made off with the lion’s share. This divvying up of the region by imperial powers led to the creation of the states of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq among others. Under the aegis of Britain, the modern state of Saudi Arabia emerged in the late 1920s, absorbing the hitherto separate eastern, central and western regions – including the holy sites of Mecca and Medina – of what constitutes the country today.
The partition of the Middle East was partially driven by the oil conglomerates of the time. Britain pushed through the interests of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (British Petroleum’s predecessor) and Royal Dutch Shell, over American oil companies Exxon and Mobil by means of the colonial mandate it had established following WWI. Jockeying over oil resulted in an Anglo-French agreement giving Britain the northern Iraqi province of Mosul. This lead to in Iraq’s modern boundaries, formed in 1921 when Britain combined the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, which were predominantly Kurdish, Sunni and Shi’a Muslim respectively.
Today British and American petroleum interests dominate the scene once more, although Britain is reduced to the role of junior partner. The United States and Britain are home to the four biggest petroleum producers in the world – Exxon-Mobil, Chevron-Texaco, British Petroleum-Amoco and Royal Dutch-Shell – with the French-Italian TotalElfFina following in fifth place. While a massive upheaval in the Middle East would hurt oil revenues initially, a new constellation of power there could in the long run safeguard the interests of the petroleum conglomerates from the present instability of the region. While the US government has been considering alternate sources of oil in the Caspian Sea area, Russia and Africa, analysts admit that none of these compare to the known riches of the Persian Gulf.
Not surprisingly then, if hawks on both sides of the Atlantic have their way, Saudi Arabia would be at the core of a hegemonically reshaped Middle East. Saudi Arabia alone contains a quarter of the world’s petroleum reserves and is one of the only countries able to increase production to meet rising demand for oil, expected to grow by fifty percent in the next two decades. Yet Saudi Arabia is no longer seen by the US and UK governments as a trustworthy ally, and certainly not one on which they can afford to be so dependent, given the kingdom’s internal vulnerability and its sponsorship of Islamic fundamentalist insurgents (Saudi nationals comprising fifteen of the nineteen September 11th hijackers) – even though such patronage had been coordinated by the United States in earlier, happier times.
“I think the United States in particular has lost confidence in the ruling family in Saudi Arabia, so far as their interests are concerned,” Galloway maintains. “They realize that the radicalization of the Saudi Arabian population has proceeded at very great pace, has reached very great depths, particularly amongst young people.” The United States and Britain are fearful that the unreliable House of Saud will be overthrown and that the new anti-American rulers will shut off the flow of oil. “The United States is afraid that one day they’ll wake up and a Khomeini type – or be it Wahhabi Sunni Khomeini – revolution would have occurred, and they would have lost everything in the country.” The British Foreign Office has warned that dissent, bubbling up from a dissatisfied population that sympathizes with Osama bin Laden and seethes at the pro-American stance of the ruling elite, has reached the point where the country risks being taken over by al-Qaeda.
“Saudi Arabia could easily be two if not three countries,” Galloway says, summarizing the neo-imperialist position discussed in British government circles, “which would have the helpful bonus of avoiding foreign forces having to occupy the holiest places in Islam, when they’re only interested really in oil wells in the eastern part of the country.” According to him, the US troops based throughout Saudi Arabia could be withdrawn from the areas containing Mecca and Medina, the most hallowed sites in the Islamic world, where US military presence is a source of great resentment for many Saudis.
Instead the soldiers would occupy only the Eastern Province of the country, which borders on the Persian Gulf and is inhabited by Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a minority. This area contains the major oilfields, including the largest oilfield in the world, Ghawar, as well as the industrial centers of the kingdom. “The theorists of this idea have fastened on to the fact that a very substantial proportion of the population in the Eastern Province, where the oil is, are Shi’ite Muslims with no particular affection for the ruling Wahhabi clique who form the House of Saud.” Galloway adds that for the first time, leaders in the West are becoming concerned with the human rights of the Shi’a population, which “now that they coincide with Western interests, are moving up the agenda.”
In the United States, those in interlocking circles around the Bush administration have been calling for the dismemberment of Saudi Arabia. This past July, an analyst from the US government-funded Rand Corporation presented a briefing in Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s private conference room titled “Taking Saudi Out of Arabia,” which advised the assembled luminaries of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board that the US government should demand Saudi Arabia stop supporting hostile fundamentalist movements and curtail the airing of anti-US and anti-Israel statements, or its oilfields and financial assets would be seized. A month later Max Singer, co-founder of the rightwing US think tank the Hudson Institute, gave a presentation to the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, in which he counseled the US government to forge a “Muslim Republic of East Arabia” out of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
Whether the imperialist strategem of the neo-conservatives comes to pass remains to be seen. What is apparent, however, is that the potential for such a cynical adventure to go wrong would be quite high. Colonial undertakings have a tendency to not work out as expected, even if the fantasies of draughtsman in the Pentagon and Britain’s Whitehall are implement through “native” proxies. This is especially the case when the populations of the areas to be shaped, rather than viewing the US as deliverers of a pipedream of “democracy,” are intensely hostile to the imperial designs of the West.
Sasha Lilley is an independent producer and correspondent for Free Speech Radio News.