The cry that It is all about oil! have gone up several times in the last ten years regarding engagement in the Middle East. I am not concerned here with the degree of truth in the claim, though personally I believe all is a great exaggeration. There is, I suspect, very little all in international relations.
What the cry suggests is that it is all about the big oil companies and their share holders. That is no doubt part of it, but what it forgets is how much oil is about us too in a world where access to oil is vital.
I am thinking here of the fuel blockade of September 2000 where, in the face of rapidly rising prices and a promised increase in fuel tax, farmers and taxi drivers instigated a blockade of refineries. This is a brief summary of the events and their effects:
Protests were triggered on September 5, 2000 when it was announced that fuel prices were to rise again following a rise in the price of crude oil. The Channel Tunnel was blockaded in protest on September 6. On September 7, the first oil refinery, at Stanlow, Chesire, was blockaded. Protests spread rapidly with more refineries blockaded on September 8 resulting in nation-wide panic buying of fuel on September 9. On Sunday, September 10, the protests had closed Britain's largest oil terminal at Kingsbury, West Midlands, and huge queues at gas stations were reported. By Tuesday, September 12, protesters had blocked six of the UK's eight refineries. Over half of Britain's gas stations were shut. The protest ended almost as quickly as it had begun. On September 14, the Stanlow blockage ended and on September 15 the first fuel deliveries were reaching some gas stations, although it was estimated that 90 percent of gas stations were empty of fuel.
The italics are mine, but I well remember the event as I was about to fly off to Trinity College Dublin to be their first International Writing Fellow and I didn't know whether, in view of the lack of fuel, a coach would be running to the airport. The whole country seemed to be coming to a stop. That's after just a week of no fuel. Nor was this about me getting to an airport - it was ambulances getting to hospitals and all the rest. This was all about oil.
This is not to argue that a nation should do anything to ensure its supply of oil, certainly not an argument for war, but the flow of oil is clearly important. Oil isn't just about them - the hugely wealthy - it is also about people's daily lives. In 2007 there was the Russian oil blockade to Belarus that took just three days to reach crisis point.
As I also recall, the shift in the western view of Israel at the time of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 happened to coincide with the squeeze on oil by the OPEC countries.
In 1972, the price of crude oil was about $3.00 per barrel. By the end of 1974, the price of oil had quadrupled to over $12.00. The Yom Kippur War started with an attack on Israel by Syria and Egypt on October 5, 1973. The United States and many countries in the western world showed support for Israel. Because of this support, several Arab exporting nations and Iran imposed an embargo on the countries supporting Israel. While these nations curtailed production by 5 million barrels per day other countries were able to increase production by a million barrels. The net loss of 4 million barrels per day extended through March of 1974 and represented 7 percent of the free world production.
Any doubt the ability to control crude oil prices had passed from the United States to OPEC was removed during the Arab Oil Embargo. The extreme sensitivity of prices to supply shortages became all too apparent when prices increased 400 percent in six short months.
So moral grounds slowly shift with economic pressure. People begin to 'see reason', to 'see the other side'. Realpolitik changes hearts and minds.
Most wars have, at bottom, been about resources and control of resources. Under conditions of global warming the prediction is wars about water. If an alternative to oil was found the oil producing countries would suffer economic collapse. Like all slogans which are meant to suggest one thing, 'It's all about oil' is about a great deal more.
The poem is one in An English Apocalypse (2001), from 'The Pickets' section. The poem, written just weeks after the blockade itself - as was the whole Apocalypse sequence - responds to the fuel blockade of 2000 and how, through technology and legislation, the power seemed to have shifted from unions with their history of solidarity and ideology to individuals with a brief common interest and no ideology, except, as I remember quite clearly, the flag of St George around which the taxis and trucks gathered. It felt like the beginning of a new psychological order (as it did in 'Orgreave', another poem in the same section, about the miners' strike). The new order wasn't lovable, nor is it now, which may be partly why the rising of people - the people as the phrase has it - in the Arab world seems so exhilarating.
Where ideology fails, mere livelihood
takes over, seeking its bottom line,
wherever that is, in vision or in blood
or further regions impossible to define.
The cross of St George flutters on the pole
behind men picketing in a benign
huddle, comfy, but barely in control
of the world that they are bringing into being.
They form a solid yeomanry in droll
revolt against powers that even now are fleeing
the cities they rule from. From what far regions
have the yeoman risen? Where are their all-seeing
leaders and prophets? Their everyday religions
are bottom-line affairs with few demands,
offering basic warmth for mild allegiance,
composed of mostly affordable deodands:
crumbs for the ducks, a tip for the paper-boy,
a Christmas kiss, holding a mother's hands,
comfort for the dying. I'm thinking of Joy,
Ruby, Ted and Jerry, their children trapped
in kitchens and sheds a real storm would destroy
in minutes, and Stan, hollow-eyed, flat-capped,
whose tools we inherited, and Percy Bunn
the handyman and glazier who dropped
dead at the church fete, and gangling Ron
the caretaker, whose wife left and he drank
for weeks, and every picket the son
(or daughter) of people of such social rank
as drop away now, lost in the dawn retreat,
the tankers rolling past them, faces blank.
Sometimes being of foreign birth can make one feel like a sad, slightly removed observer, not one of Benjamin's angels of history, but one of the fleas of history, hopping around on history's back.