Empires and Anarchies: A History of Oil in the Middle East

Michael Quentin Morton

£25, Reaktion Books

In this highly readable book, Morton takes us from the mid-19th century to the present day, charting the history of oil in the Middle East (a term, as Morton puts it, ‘variously interpreted’ but which he uses with focus on Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states). We read of the super-wealth of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and the reign of the shah in Iran, set against wars, revolutions and interventions (political and military) from outside interests. The title evokes the mixed blessing of oil – the empire building and the struggle for its control (both as a raw material and to use as an economic weapon).

The book is divided into four parts, of which former barrister Morton devotes the first three to early histories of oil production and sales in Iran, Iraq, and Arabia and the Gulf respectively. The fourth section – the Middle East – brings those histories together and, taking the end of the second world war as a jumping off point, slowly paints a backdrop to today. The Iran/Iraq war, the two Gulf wars and the current complicated situation in Iraq are explored through the sociopolitical implications of the sale of oil.

Morton’s brief look at the ‘dodgy dossier’ and the contribution of oil to the reasons behind the second Gulf war reads sensibly. His conclusion that securing the region’s oil was a byproduct of reactions to 9/11 also seems arguable (although, of course, is far from universally accepted) given the overtness and transparency of many of the historical interventions identified in the book. The treatment is disappointingly brief but it is perhaps understandable to focus on facts rather than supposition.

Morton’s conclusion, that the volatility identified looks set to continue, does not make for easy reading. To doubts over the point at which ‘peak oil’ will be reached he adds the impact of renewables and ongoing tensions for oil producers as the trend for renewables increases. The history of oil in the region has been a tumultuous one, and this, it seems, will continue.

This is a complicated area, incorporating a maelstrom of colonial interests and an emergence of US extraterritorial manoeuvring, but Morton writes soberly, identifying key figures and making a dense subject accessible to the non-specialist. The worldwide impact of the oil industry, nascent just over a century ago, and the machinations for its control mean this is a fascinating, disturbing and concerning story of an industry breeding discontent from the outset.

Tom Garbett is a solicitor