Energy future rides on U.S. war
Conflict centered in
world's oil patch
Chronicle Staff Writer
Paris -- Beyond American determination to hit back against the
perpetrators of the September 11 attacks, 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. The defense of these
energy resources -- rather than a simple confrontation between Islam and
the West -- will be the primary flash point of global conflict for
decades to come, say observers in the region.
"You cannot discuss the violence of this region outside the context of
oil," says Vaktang Holbaya, 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 swath of
mountain and desert with resource-ppor Afghanistan and Pakistan at its
volatile eastern end.
Outside of this core, where suspected terrorist leader Usama 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 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 stands
at more than 800 billion barrels of crude petroleum and its equivalent
in natural gas. By constrast, 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, Exxon/Mobil and Arco; France's
Total/Fina/Elf; 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 developing nations already
convinced they are victims 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 huge 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," says a 42-year old father of three children. "But we
have seen nothing to justify that hope."
Such despair is growing daily, its anger fed 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," says 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," says the official,
shaking his head.
San Francisco Chronicle
September 26, 2001
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