"Oil Kings" and "Barbarians of Oil"

Two recent books examine America's addiction to crude oil, blaming it on the oil "kings" and "barbarians" of the Middle East.


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    The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East, by Andrew Scott Cooper, Simon & Schuster, 544 pp.
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Facilitators are not responsible for an addict’s problems, but they often share guilt by ensuring his or her supply. By doing so, they make it easier for the addict to sink deeper into a deadly quagmire.

“Americans are addicted to oil,” said President George W. Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address. His presidency, of course, will never be confused with an attempt to end our national addiction. Instead, a sputtering energy transition surrounds us and promises to drag on for decades.

Two recent books seek to connect the dots of America’s crude addiction by assigning blame. Who and what caused Americans to become addicted to crude? The authors root the problem far from home and lay the blame at the feet of “kings” and “barbarians,” respectively.

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Much like journalists Peter Maas and Paul Roberts, Andrew Scott Cooper and co-authors Sandy Frank and Sara Nunnally start from the conviction that the end of oil is undeniably upon us. In very different ways, Cooper’s Oil Kings and Frank/Nunnally’s Barbarians of Oil grow from the belief that to move forward we must understand the past – our addiction to crude. Cooper writes that America’s chronic economic addiction to oil is well known, but, “Less well known is the story of when that addiction began and why the United States became so reliant in particular on Saudi Arabia for its continued goodwill and cooperation.”

Although their different accounts are very worthwhile, the authors’ level of expertise with this topic varies considerably. Cooper – albeit with slight documentation – creates a record that adds significant insight to one of the most important periods in the American relationship with petroleum. In fact, Cooper’s tour inside the oil crisis of the 1970s adds depth and nuance to the event that defined the end of the 20th century and very likely the start of the 21st. It's an event that we have only just begun to fully comprehend. Franks/Nunnally’s effort is much more general and fails to add new insight to our current energy conundrum.

But if knowledge of the past will better compel our shift to new sources of energy, "Barbarians of Oil" might provide more ammunition than any other book on the subject of crude. Cast in the formulaic organization of Franks/Nunnally’s "Barbarians of Wealth," "Barbarians of Oil" throws loads of information at the reader – in the form of brief, encyclopedia-like entries – with little effort at synthesis or analysis. After five sections chock-full of historic and industry detail, "Barbarians" then becomes more of an investment manual. “Part Six: Where to Invest Now and Why” likely captures the overall goal of Franks/Nunnally, and, very possibly, many readers will appreciate their advice about where to find new investment opportunities (alternative energy, etc.). Gleaned from secondary sources, 200-plus pages of history becomes context for a paean to owning rentals for college students (as gasoline prices make commuting impossible).

My biggest problem with "Barbarians of Oil" is its organizing principle. “Most often money is the oil industry’s only allegiance,” Franks/Nunnally write in the preface. Used in this context, “barbarians” is a caustic term applying to anyone seeking to profit from petroleum. “The truth is,” write Franks/Nunnally, “for the past century, oil has ruled the world…. Our quest for oil has led us on a path of destruction with barbarians leading the charge.” Such massive over-simplification does little to forward the dialogue on future energy possibilities; instead, the authors' paradigm is very clearly an “us versus them” model that places little or no blame on consumers.

Certainly, there is enough blame to go around in explaining our addiction to oil; however, absolving consumers does little to compel change. Sustainable choices, argue Franks/Nunnally, provide consumers the chance to “push back” against the "Barbarians of Oil." (Readers might, however, wonder if the authors are not merely setting the stage for "Barbarians of Lithium" a few years hence.)

While Cooper’s "Oil Kings," begins from many of these same points, it excels by virtue of focus, discipline, and original research. Supporting his account, Cooper draws from significant sources – most of which were classified until recently – that re-create the personal relationships that proved crucial to world history. The story of the emergence of Middle East power through oil is enthralling enough; however, Cooper is careful to tie his narrative to the personalities of the major figures – some actual kings, others politicians posing as influence brokers. In dealing with two of this period’s most enigmatic players – the Shah of Iran and President Richard M. Nixon – Cooper’s account adds crucial human texture to the historical record.

In a particularly striking correction to the accepted historical record, Cooper’s use of recollections of the personal communication between Nixon and the Shah place US-Iran relations at the center of the 1970s Middle Eastern conflicts, including the 1973 oil embargo. Informing conflicts of the 21st century, Cooper’s “hidden history” of US-Iran- Saudi oil diplomacy from 1969 to 1977 acts as the backstory to the era when the United States went from being the world’s number one oil producer to its biggest importer.The US-Saudi oil arrangement that took shape post-Nixon was more about their mutual interests than it was about undercutting the Shah of Iran.

In fact, though, Cooper presents a compelling case that Nixon used the Shah (selling him arms and loosening oil import quotas) when it was convenient to help him manage OPEC and the embargo of the early 1970s. When Saudi production fueled a drop in oil prices in the second half of the 1970s, Iran’s economy, which was overly dependent on oil exports, combined with the Shah’s failing health to break the leader and set the stage for student revolution and the emergence of the Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s leadership of the 21st century. Although historians may quibble with its supporting documentation, "Oil Kings" follows the model of the film "Syrianna" in portraying the back-channel politics that control the flow of oil and the global politics that emanate from that dynamic.

“Now, in the 21st century,” write Franks/Nunnally, “the United States is still nothing more than an oil addict, dependent on oil barbarians – crude dealers – for a steady stream of fuel….” In fact, we are much more than this; however, the work before us requires that we prove it.

We live in an extended moment of energy transition. In an effort that resembles the way that friends and family may intervene in the life of an addict, scholars and journalists work hard to expose the nuances of our dependence on petroleum over the last century. While more information may make choosing our energy path easier, going forward remains fraught with difficulty.

Brian Black teaches history and environmental studies at the Pennsylvania State University. He writes on energy history and is the author of "Petrolia" and the forthcoming "Crude Reality."

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