Mirage: Power, Politics, and the Hidden History of Arabian Oil
by Aileen Keating
Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2005. 560 pp. $28
Reviewed by Patrick Clawson
Middle East Quarterly
For eons, oil oozed out of the ground in Iran and Iraq. But this fascinating account demonstrates just how unexpected was the early oil story in the Arabian Peninsula, specifically, in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain. For one thing, leading geologists thought that the prospects of finding oil were slight. As late as 1932, the industry giant Anglo-Persian Oil (the predecessor of BP) concluded, "As a result of our investigations at Kuwait, we have decided to abandon operations in the area." At the news, a British official in Kuwait wrote, "The only consolation is that if Anglo-Persian does not anticipate finding oil there, no one else is likely to do so." By that time, Anglo-Persian had explored for oil in fourteen countries but had hardly bothered with the Arabian Peninsula. As a result of dogged research into many original sources, Keating uncovers the real hero of Arabian Peninsula oil, namely, Frank Holmes. Holmes was a New Zealander who disliked Britain's empire, preferring to work for U.S. oil firms, earning him the determined enmity of British officials. He was also a lifelong friend of Herbert Hoover after the two worked together in their early twenties as mine engineers in Australia.
Keating brings to life the complex double-dealings in which each oil company, each sheikh, each major power, and indeed almost every colonial official was busily conspiring against each other. A major theme of her account is that the main influence in the Arabian Peninsula was not Britain but the British raj. The government of India was of course under British control, but it had its own bureaucracy eager to advance particular Indian interests. India paid the cost of all British Persian Gulf officers, who not surprisingly were as responsive to India as to London. When Gulf Oil got the State Department to complain to the Foreign Office in London about interference against it, the Foreign Office was bewildered since it had nothing to do with Persian Gulf affairs. The Indian criminal and civil codes were imposed on the sheikhs, and appeals from the sheikhs' courts went to the High Court in Bombay. That did not apply to Saudi Arabia, which was independent, but even it depended on the raj. Keating details how it was British forces and arms that ended the 1920s Ikhwan rebellion that threatened the rule of Saudi Arabia's founder King Abdul Aziz. Britain went to lengths to keep its role quiet, but Keating dug out the documents indicating it was the force pushing for the elimination of the Ikhwan.
If there is a fault in Keating's account, it is that her picture of the local Arab actors is nowhere near as rich as that of the foreigners who were so key in shaping the Arabian Peninsula's oil industry.
Related Topics: Oil, Persian Gulf & Yemen, Saudi Arabia | Patrick Clawson | Winter 2007 MEQ
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