Since coming to office, US President Donald Trump has grabbed headlines for his loud declarations; that he called the Saudi king and demanded more “protection money”, that he has demanded oil producing countries increase supplies and reduce costs, and most recently that Iran must buckle under the pressure of his sanctions and agree to new terms to end the blockade.
The “protection of US interests” trumps any moral or political argument. With the American government unashamed of the benefits it reaps as the world’s oil hall monitor.
This approach is very different from the presentation of earlier motives for conflict, particularly the 2003 Iraq War. Then, before the US-led coalition invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, the argument that the war was nothing more than to feed the West’s hunger for Arab oil was met with theatrical astonishment from politicians.
“Let me just deal with the oil thing … the oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd when you analyse it,” former UK prime minister Tony Blair told Jeremy Paxman on the BBC’s “Newsnight” in 2003.
Both US president George Bush and Blair repeated, like a slogan, that the mission was to prevent Saddam’s use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) on his citizens.
Unlike Blair and Bush, current US National Security Advisor, John Bolton, didn’t hide America’s motives when he announced the deployment of a military task force to the Arabian Gulf earlier this month.
It was to “send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States’ interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force,” Bolton told reporters.
The “interests” the US is concerned with are Israel, and the flow of black gold from the world’s cheapest exporter – Aramco – the Saudi state-run petroleum company.
Though boiling down the entire reason for the Iraq war to oil is reductive, many analysts consider it a significant factor.
According to a 2001 report on “energy security” – commissioned by then US vice-president Dick Cheney, Saddam would “turn its [Iraq’s] taps on and off when it [he] has felt such action was in its strategic interest to do so.”
To this day, most US oil comes from the US itself, followed by Latin America and then Canada. Only 8.1 per cent of America’s oil comes from Saudi Arabia. In 2003, Iraq made up for around five per cent of American imports.
This lack of product reliance on the Gulf poses the question of why US policy continues to support Saudi’s interests in the region when it does not need its oil.
The title of the “world’s last superpower” does not come from military might alone. This position comes from America’s ability to facilitate the smooth and cheap journey of oil from producers to buyers.
“Since 2003, there’s been a major segmentation of world oil trade,” Valerie Marcel, oil affairs analyst at Chatham House, told MEMO.
“Oil is, broadly speaking, traded in the Atlantic basin between the Americas and West Africa, and then between the Middle East and Asia. There are sort of two different hemispheres of oil trade.”
This makes the US less dependent on Middle East oil. It can turn the tap on or off without as much pain – as seen most recently with its restrictions on Iranian exports, Marcel says.
For those countries reliant on Iranian oil, Saudi Arabia has offered to plug the shortfall.
“I confirm our commitment to meet all these requests [to replace Iranian oil],” Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih told RIA news agency in April. “But at the same time, we will do this remaining part of the OPEC+ [Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries] deal, we will stick to it.”
It is possible that the Saudis could be making a global power play to take over Iran’s percentage in Asian markets. According to Toby C. Jones, associate professor at Rutgers University and author of “America, Oil, and War in the Middle East”, this route is lined with hazards.
“The shortfall on what would come would aggravate their OPEC colleagues. It would massively undermine Venezuela. It will not only hit the Iranian economy, but the Venezuelan economy. It will harm Iraq’s economy. In the UAE, they’re not going to suffer in any meaningful way, they’ll be fine,” he tells MEMO from his home in New Brunswick.
A more reasonable, less earth shattering reason for Saudi’s commitment, is a fear that the US will abandon it.
“The Saudis are acutely concerned the US, during the Obama administration, was willing to abandon them,” he says.
“Obama wanted to undertake the Iran nuclear deal refreshment. I don’t think they see all of this as an opportunity to capture Asian markets. They desperately want to make sure the US doesn’t abandon its strategic commitment to the Gulf.”
In 2015, the Obama administration, with allies the UK, France, Germany, China and Russia – signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran – where Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear development programme in exchange for sanction relief.
This normalising of relations with Saudi Arabia’s arch-adversary in the region seemed like a movement from the status quo of the ‘special relationship’ between the US and the kingdom.
In a statement released in Foreign Policy in November last year, Trump praised the kingdom for its investment in US industry. This was despite the abduction, torture and assassination of Saudi citizen and Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, just a few weeks earlier. An attack which the CIA said was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
“The kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States,” Trump said.
According to Jones, speaking of the Gulf in such materialistic terms isn’t a new phenomenon. Rather than a rule, the Iraq invasion of 2003 was an exception, where the motives of the expedition were hidden behind the slogans of imposing democracy and stopping Saddam from releasing deadly weapons on whichever country took his fancy.
Saudi Arabia will not help the US realise its goals in the region but it will ensure that America keeps making money. It will not help facilitate a lasting peace process between Israel and Palestine, it will not aide the withdrawal of US troops from Syria or for the suppression of Hezbollah in Lebanon or militias in Iraq.
Trump is realising after campaign promises to disengage from conflicts in the Middle East, Syria in particular, that it could be more profitable to stay, according to Jones.
“This is the 40th year of the US being militarily committed to providing for the stability and security of the Persian [Arabian] Gulf. When has the region ever been stable and secure?” Jones says.
“A global money laundering operation is a good metaphor for it,” Jones says. This laundering operation is based on the transference of accrued oil money into US bought arms, funnelling back to the American economy.
It leads from the Gulf’s psychological need for security, bolstering its military might to stop the Shia crescent expanding to its shores.
Trump has returned us to an hour where our pocketbooks, our material interests, our ability to drive the cars we want and to have access to cheap oil is more important than disposable lives in the Middle East
However, Trump may be having second thoughts about the conflict with Iran. Last week he was reported to be frustrated by the “gung ho” attitude of his advisors. Apparently, “regime change” in the Islamic Republic sounds a little too similar to the lead up to Iraq in 2003, and more importantly, just as expensive.
It’s easier to back down for Trump than it was for Bush in 2003. With a narrative of saving souls and American beneficence, there was no way Blair and Bush could have turned back on their speeches. Trump’s material focus and late realisation may be saving the region from further chaos.
Update on 28 May 2019 at 09:55am Marcel’s quote was corrected to include the Americas and West Africa.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.