The WTC Attack, Sep 11 2001

Commentary and Analysis

At Stake: Access to Oil

At stake in the fight against terrorists is access to oil. Conflict will be waged in region that supplies much of West's energy needs.

Wednesday, September 26, 2001

PARIS -- Beyond American determination to hit back against the perpetrators of the attacks Sept. 11, beyond the likelihood of longer, drawn-out battles producing more civilian casualties in the months and years ahead, the hidden stakes in the war against terrorism can be summed up in a single word: oil.

The map of terrorist sanctuaries and targets in the Middle East and Central Asia is also, to an extraordinary degree, a map of the world's principal energy sources in the 21st century. These energy resources -- rather than a confrontation between Islamic terrorists and the West -- will be the primary flash point of global conflict for decades to come, observers in the region say.

"You cannot discuss the violence of this region outside the context of oil," said Vakhtang Kolbaya, deputy chairman of the Parliament in the republic of Georgia. "It's at the heart of the problem."

The terrain of the globe's energy future ranges along a tight circle of mountain and desert with resource-poor Afghanistan and Pakistan at its volatile center.

Outside of this core, where suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and many of his supporters are located, terrorist groups are active in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Bahrain, the Gulf Emirates, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan and Algeria. Their operations also threaten to destabilize regimes in Turkmenistan, Kazakstan and Azerbaijan. They also are active in areas -- such as Chechnya, Georgia and eastern Turkey -- where major pipelines carry energy resources to markets worldwide.

Altogether, this region accounts for more than 65 percent of the entire world's oil and natural-gas production, according to the Statistical Review of World Energy. By 2050, it will account for more than 80 percent, according to forecasts.

The combined total of proven and estimated reserves in the region currently stands at more than 800 billion barrels of crude petroleum and its equivalent in natural gas. By contrast, the combined total of oil reserves in the Americas and Europe is less than 160 billion barrels, most of which, energy experts say, will have been exhausted in the next 25 years.

It is inevitable that the war against terrorism will be seen by many as a war on behalf of America's Chevron, ExxonMobil and Arco; France's TotalFinaElf; British Petroleum; Royal Dutch Shell; and other multinational giants, which have hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in the region. There is no avoiding such a linkage or the rising tide of anger it will produce in a Third World already convinced that it is the victim of a conspiratorial collaboration between global capital and U.S. military might.

Nowhere is that alleged collaboration more reviled than on the Arabian peninsula, where U.S. armed forces have been present at six military bases since the Gulf War and where more than 30,000 Americans work for multinational oil giants. They are seen as the main conduits for the inflow of secular, Western values in a profoundly conservative society -- and for the massive outflow of its resources.

Fueling this resentment in other oil-producing states is the yawning gap between the living standards of expatriate Western oil workers and a small local elite, on one hand, and the vast majority of ordinary citizens on the other.

Azerbaijan, the ex-Soviet Muslim nation on the Caspian Sea -- sandwiched between fundamentalist Iran and violent Islamic insurgencies in Russian Dagestan and Chechnya -- is a case in point. In Baku, the booming capital city, the streets hum with Mercedes limousines. Former state-subsidized housing units have been gutted and refurbished as luxury apartments that rent for up to $5,000 per month.

A scant 20 miles away from Baku, in the rural town of Qaza, just adjacent to an oil field, there is no electricity, no drinkable water and, most astonishingly, no heating oil on sale. "All of our hopes rested on the discovery of oil," a 42-year-old father of three children said. "But we have seen nothing to justify that hope."

Such despair is growing daily, its anger fertilized by the awareness that the region's own political leaders are often the chief beneficiaries of oil wealth, and that corruption is rampant. "It's everywhere, including my own country," said a senior, Cabinet-level official in one oil state, speaking off the record.

The official recounted a ministerial conference he had attended in Kuwait to discuss the suppression of corruption. His Kuwaiti host's bathroom was equipped with solid gold toilet fixtures.

"Even in a corrupt world, there should be limits," the official said, shaking his head.

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De Clarke