World oil supplies have been at the centre of every major crisis in the Middle East for the last seven decades. Having nearly 67 per cent of world oil reserves, the region has dominated every major country’s foreign policy.
The recent crisis between Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the US on the other reinvokes memories of the first major oil crisis of 1973 when the commodity was used for political leverage. On 6 October 1973 Egypt and Syria, supported by many other Arab countries, attacked Israel to liberate their territories occupied by the Zionist state six years earlier. What became known as the October War marked the first time Arabs had hope of gaining back their lands and revenging their humiliating defeat in the June 1967 war.
Suffering heavy losses and fearing defeat, Israel sought help for its ally, the US, which quickly came to the rescue by launching Operation Nickle Grass eventually delivering over 22,000 tonnes of tanks, artilleries, spare parts and other supplies to the Israeli army over a period of 32 days in non-stop air links between the US and Israel. Considering their options, Arab countries – led by the major Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) member Saudi Arabia – responded by imposing an oil embargo on countries that supported Israel’s continuous occupation of Arab lands.
OAPEC’s embargo targeted the US, the Netherlands, UK, Canada and Japan. It later widened to include Portugal, South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The boycott lasted from October 1973 to March 1974 stalling industry, economic growth and leading to huge fuel shortages for consumers in the targeted countries. When the embargo ended global oil prices jumped by 400 per cent to about 12 dollars per barrel.
It was the first time such Arab solidarity manifested itself in an effective coordinated policy in pursuit of legitimate interests; i.e. liberating occupied lands.
Can the Arabs nowadays repeat their success and force Israel, and its supporters, to at least accept just and fair political settlement to end the conflict in the Middle East?
The Arab world and the entire Middle East have changed so much over the last 46 years since oil was legally and legitimately weaponised. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has further aligned itself with American regional policy which says the real threat is Iran and not Israel. This meant that the Palestinian occupied land, or occupied Syrian Golan Heights for that matter, are no longer pan-Arab issues. This gave Israel a free hand to invade Lebanon in 1982, sieging an Arab capital, Beirut, and launching dozens of sporadic attacks in Gaza, the West Bank and southern Lebanon. Since 1973, OAPEC has lost its strength for different reasons including a lack of political will. OAPEC’s member countries, generally, failed to diversify their economies away from oil, as their main source of revenue, making them vulnerable to an oil embargo on the scale of that seen in 1973.
But the Arabs can no longer, at least in the foreseeable future, use oil to their advantage for a fundamental reason; that is the death of Arab nationalism and the demise of Arab solidarity.
Learning the massive lesson of 1973, western countries advanced in finding alternative energy sources while making sure to maintain sufficient supplies should events in the Middle East bring about major disruption.
They also reverted to old, more articulated policies towards the Arab world by making sure to fragment the region’s collective interests.
The ideas of Bernard Lewis (1916-2018), a British American historian, proved to be useful and practical. Lewis once envisioned a fragmented Middle East in which tribal, sectarian and ethnical struggles, rooted or implanted in the region, need to be stirred up in order for their destructive powers to kick into effect. He believed the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, not only obliterated the Iraqi state but, most importantly in his opinion, ended the doctrine of Arab nationalism for good taking with it any manifestations of wider effective Arab solidarity amongst the nation states.
In his article “Rethinking the Middle East” published in 1992 he predicted that the region will be dominated by its latent forces of self-destructive currents. Such forces will not only inhibit the rise of the Arab nation state but also end all forms of solidarity among nations ushering in, instead, support for sects, tribes and ethnicities.
Indeed; this is what is going on now in the region. Since the so called “Arab Spring” in 2011, countries like Syria, Yemen and Egypt, home to different sects and ethnicities, are witnessing increased internal conflicts within their own borders weakening the state itself. In Libya for example, where there is no religious difference as 98 per cent of the population is Sunni Muslim, a different conflict is emerging. People of small minorities like the Tebu, Amazigh and Karaghila – tribes mainly in Misrata tracing their origins to Turkey – are increasingly identifying with outsiders and do not see themselves as part of Libya. This diminishes social solidarity even within countries themselves let alone at the pan-Arab level.
Lewis, regularly, consulted by neocons decision makers, particularly during George W. Bush administration, figured that, given such internal conflicts when properly nurtured, the entire region will be controlled by outsiders where the US should be dominate power.
This is what we are witnessing today, unfortunately. In such circumstances, solid pan-Arab solidarity on the scale of 1973 will only be remembered but never repeated!
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.