Engaging exploration of the politics behind cruel paradoxes of oil wealth


BOOK OF THE DAY: Crude World: The Violent Twilight of OilPeter Maass; Allen Lane 276pp; £20

THIS ENGAGING and insightful book explores the global politics and national impacts of oil dependence. Its overarching goal is to explore the resource paradox that many of the countries with the richest natural resource endowments are among the poorest.

Often there is conflict over oil. In Nigeria it is estimated that 80 per cent of the hundreds of billions of dollars of oil revenue have accrued to just 1 per cent of the population, while the vast majority of people have gotten poorer, leading to a rebellion in the oil rich Niger Delta.

Meanwhile, the former head of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest private oil company, earned $145,000 a day during his tenure as oil production brought environmental destruction to local communities from spills and the flaring of gas from oil fields.

Acid rain is so bad in parts of Nigeria that it eats through corrugated iron roofs every few years. Roads built to access oil supplies in the Amazon have speeded deforestation and massive global climate disruption also looms.

In Ecuador, Texaco gave Native Americans bread and cheese in exchange for permission to prospect for oil. Maass notes that just as oil has to have dirt, sands and poisons taken out of it, there is a parallel process of political refining so that publics in the West don’t learn about what is done to assure continued access.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 mirrored the western-inspired toppling of Mosaddeq in Iran 50 years earlier, condemning that country to years of dictatorship under the shah and the horrors of the current regime.

The vast wealth which can accrue from oil is corrupting.

Western support for the unelected and profligate Saudi monarchy has led to popular discontent. The regime has deflected criticism by sponsoring Islamic fundamentalism overseas, helping give rise to al-Qaeda.

In Saudi Arabia, young men are so disaffected that 80 per cent of deaths in state hospitals are from road accidents, many from “drifting” or skidding cars. Youth is also attracted to Islamic fundamentalism to give meaning to their lives.

In Equatorial Guinea, the average income per head is higher than Ireland’s in terms of what can be bought locally. However, hospital dispensaries are bare as the ruling family monopolise oil wealth and imprison and kill those who dispute their rule.

While oil executives and the US military fete the regime, there is not a single bookshop in the country. Some of the American oil company compounds are in the Texas, rather than the Equato-Guinean, area phone code. Little wonder that oil platforms in West Africa are known locally as “mosquitoes”.

While there has been much concern in the media about China’s recent involvement in Africa, Maass notes that the “China threat” is useful to the West as it allows it to work with dictators in resource rich countries under the auspices that if it didn’t the Chinese would, with even worse results.

The book is replete with interesting insights, such as Ronald Reagan convincing the Saudis to raise oil output to drive down the price and thereby undermine Soviet exports.

While oil has often been a curse, Maass notes that “geology is not destiny”. Oil-rich Texas is relatively peaceful and prosperous as there were already strong institutions and a more diversified economy in place when oil was discovered.

The author places his hope in renewable energy, such as wind farms, to reduce global oil dependence and enable those countries whose economies depend on it to “reset their priorities”. However, as global energy scarcity looms, the likelihood of further conflict is surely very high.

Pádraig Carmody is a lecturer in human geography at Trinity College Dublin. His book, co-edited with Peadar Kirby, The Legacy of Ireland’s Economic Expansionwill be published by Routledge in early 2010.