May 22, 2016


Pipelines in the Sand : The Middle East After Sykes-Picot (Rachel Havrelock, 5/17/16, Foreign Affairs)

Shortly after World War I, the Allied powers began seeking oil concessions in the Middle East. The concessions conferred the region's oil rights to the Iraq Petroleum Company. Despite its name, the Iraq Petroleum Company had nothing to do with Iraq; it was a consortium of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later BP), Calouste Gulbenkian, Compagnie Francais de Petrols (later Total), Standard Oil's Near East Development Corporation (later ExxonMobil), and Shell. The agreements ensured that local inhabitants could not make any claims to the resources above which they lived. The countries with the most oil gained the least from its discovery.
What's more, the building of the pipelines stoked regional unrest. After various attempts to sabotage the pipelines, including by Yemen's ahl al-Jebal tribe, Palestinian rebels, and right-wing Zionist paramilitary groups, oil company officials and Western governments increased regional surveillance, militarized the area, and encouraged ethnic and sectarian strife to thwart nationalist and communist movements.

The current turmoil in the Middle East has led many observers to ask whether Sykes-Picot has finally reached its end. The Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn, for example, famously portended the end of the treaty while reporting from Iraq. But a better question is whether or not the agreement can be transformed to yield greater regional stability and prosperity. The dissolution of oil concessions could hold the key to this transformation. Consider the Kurdish case. Following the Second Gulf War, private oil companies flocked to Iraq. Iraq's national oil company reserved the right to pump existing wells with partners of its choosing, but local bodies such as the Kurdistan Regional Government were allowed to explore new wells and forge their own partnerships--a boon to the Kurdish economy.

Kurdish oil shares made all the difference when ISIS emerged in 2014. The largely effective Kurdish Peshmerga fight against ISIS owes to Kurds' desire to protect not just their homeland but also the resources within it. Kurds harbor longstanding desires for autonomy, but their jurisdiction over local oil is a form of sovereignty--over resources rather than territory--that models a truly post‑Sykes-Picot Middle East. Because Sykes-Picot divided territory in the name of extracting and transporting oil to Europe, reforming the ownership of oil is the first step in dissolving the legacy of colonial administration and authoritarian rule.

Ideally, people across the Middle East should hold shares in local resources and have a say in their sale, use, and conservation. In an age of increased migration, this principle could help people inhabit new places with a sense of belonging and stewardship. Of course, local officials will still need to partner with global firms to drill, refine, and export oil, but such contracts will work best when driven by local needs rather than corporate profits. The Kurdish case proves that local stakeholders will raise an army where oil companies will not.

A Middle East defined by local sovereignty over natural resources will be richer and more secure.

The key being to have sovereignty over but not ownership of.  Popular sovereignty requires taxation.
Posted by at May 22, 2016 9:08 AM