Commentary Magazine


What to Do in the Middle East
A Proposal for a General Settlement

Western policy in the Middle East has for the moment come to a dead end. Twelve months ago the Suez debacle eliminated Britain and France as active influences in the Arab world. Now the Syrian crisis has destroyed whatever utility the Eisenhower Doctrine ever had as a foundation for American activity. If the main aim of Western policies, as their sponsors claimed, was to keep the Russians out of the Middle East, they have achieved the opposite: for the first time since the end of the war, all the Arab states have lined up with Russia against the West.

Indeed the situation is even worse than it seems. After Suez all the Western governments swore that they would never again allow themselves to tread different paths in the Middle East. But what has happened? Each of the major Western powers (except Germany) has picked on a different Middle Eastern state as its own particular client, and is committed to pursue its client’s special interests against the rest. America has chosen Saudi Arabia, Britain sticks to Iraq, France has settled on Israel, and now Italy has turned to Iran. There is no sign that the Western powers are trying to harmonize either their own policies in the Middle East, or those of their clients.

There is desperate need for a common Western policy. But it must be a policy based on the realities of Western interests and Middle Eastern politics. British policy failed in part because it was more concerned to protect past privileges than present interests. Characteristically enough, American policy was distracted from its real task by the pursuit of principle, not privilege. But both alike pursued mistaken ends by methods which took no account of the habits and feelings of those whom they desired to win over.

What is the major Western interest in the Middle East? It is not military alliances, or even the exclusion of Soviet influence as such. The one fundamental interest, to which all others are now contingent, is access at an economic price to the oil which is produced around the Persian Gulf. The West was shaken last year by a temporary reduction in its Middle East oil supplies. But even that experience gave little clue to the situation that will develop over the next twenty or thirty years. If the Western world is to continue increasing its industrial production at the present rate—doubling the living standard in one generation is Britain’s modest target—it will require some 70 per cent more power by 1985. Western Europe cannot hope to find more than a third of this addition from its own resources, even if the most optimistic estimates of progress in nuclear power come true. The rest must come almost entirely from Middle Eastern oil. Meanwhile, America will soon be preempting all the oil supplies in the Western hemisphere, and will herself need more oil from the Middle East—where, incidentally, the cost of new development is less than a third of that in the United States.

As the world’s need for oil soars, the proportion which must be met from the vast Middle Eastern reserves will rise faster still. In 1928 the Middle East accounted for only 5.9 per cent of the world’s oil output, in 1947 its share was 10.2 per cent, in 1955 21.2 per cent, and the estimate for 1975 is 50 per cent. In concrete figures, Western Europe’s need for Middle Eastern oil will rise from 100 million tons in 1955 to 200 million tons in 1965 and to some 300 million tons in 1975. Meanwhile total Middle Eastern oil production will have to rise from 161 million tons in 1955 to 300 or 400 million tons in 1965, and 500-600 million tons in 1975.

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These estimates must of course be taken to represent orders of magnitude, since they depend on many complex variables. But they show beyond any possible doubt that Western Europe’s economic progress in the next ten, or twenty years will depend above all else on access to steadily increasing supplies of Middle Eastern oil. Britain’s particular interest is at present even greater than that of the rest of Europe, since under secret agreements between the British Treasury and the major oil companies, the sterling area now receives over 200 million. precious dollars a year from the sale of Middle Easttern oil. In terms of sterling, the little oil sheikhdom of Kuwait alone is said to provide the London capital market with a quarter of its funds. America’s direct interest in Middle Eastern oil is much less absolute, but she has a vital interest in the prosperity of Western Europe, and at least a marginal one in the survival of the sterling area.

Western Europe would face catastrophe if it had to do without oil for any length of time. But Europe could probably do a good deal more than it has so far attempted to provide cushions against a temporary interruption of supplies. There is a strong case for stockpiling oil in disused mine workings and other containers: this would at least reduce the Arab capacity for casual blackmail. It is less difficult to reduce the West’s present dependence on carrying oil through the non-producing countries of the Levant. Since the capacity of the Suez Canal is limited, the West will soon be compelled to build giant tankers for the Cape route, and for most of Europe this is likely to prove as cheap a means of transport as sailing smaller tankers through the Canal. It is probably wiser to concentrate new investment exclusively on such tankers and the terminal facilities they require, rather than on new pipelines or Canal development, until the Arab countries offer better guarantees of transit.

Meanwhile the supply and movement of Middle Eastern oil raises problems almost as complex and far-reaching as the political stability on which it depends. At present the production and movement of oil is in the hands of private companies from five Western countries which escape complete control even by their own governments, not to speak of the Arab governments in whose lands they operate. Moreover, these companies are forbidden by the U.S. anti-trust legislation from cooperating fully even, with one another. It is impossible to believe that this extraordinary situation can continue over a period when the amount of oil produced and moved must increase threefold.

Until now the companies have been permitted to fix oil prices at a level which allows them to finance new development out of their profits, relying on, their own governments to insure local conditions under which new development is possible. This system may soon become unworkable. In the first place, the countries in which the companies operate may either nationalize their local installations or demand agreements which reduce their profit margin below the level required to finance development. The recent Italo-Persian agreement does in fact give Persia 75 per cent of the profits, as against the 50 per cent now standard in the Arab countries, but makes Persia responsible for half the cost of development. If oil is found under this agreement, it is almost inevitable that the Arab states will demand revision of their own agreements along the same lines. In the second place, as the amount of money required for development goes up, the oil companies will grow more and more reluctant to risk their profits in so unstable an area. Thus Western nations will be compelled to join the Arab governments in providing a growing proportion of the capital for development.

In the circumstances there will undoubtedly be growing pressure to create an entirely new framework for oil production and supply in which all the Middle Eastern governments participate on one side, and the governments of all the major oil users on the other.

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In my view, such a development is highly desirable. Imperialism is dead, not only as a system of political control, but also as an economic system in which private traders have their foreign profits guaranteed by the power of their governments. However little we deplore its passing, we must admit that it did work as a basis for international economic exchange—and though unfairly, not to the exclusive benefit of one side in the system. But now that it has gone, it must be replaced by a new system which provides greater justice with no less security for the indispensable international exchange. That was the real issue behind the nationalization of the Suez Canal. The great blunder of the British and French governments was to ignore the Asian powers whose stake in free transit through the Canal was proportionately even greater than their own. A generous and constructive Western offer to create a system for oil supply along new lines could contribute more than anything else toward friendship and stability in the Arab world.

Nothing that is done in the technological field can remove the irreducible Western interest in obtaining vastly increased amounts of oil from Iran and the Arab states which border on the Persian Gulf. What is the main threat to this interest? Not the extension of Soviet influence as such—though this does carry obvious dangers. In the broadest terms the threat can be defined as hostility or instability in the Arab states concerned. In theory, these states have an even greater interest in increasing supplies of oil for Western Europe than Western Europe has in obtaining the oil. Oil is their only indigenous source of wealth, and Western Europe he only adequate market for it, since the Soviet bloc plans to meet all its own oil needs and produce a surplus for export as well. Asian demands for oil are most unlikely to equal those of Western Europe for at least two generations.

Yet for a variety of reasons, Arab hostility to Western Europe or to the United States could easily take precedence over this economic interest. The notion that beggars cannot be choosers is no more valid in international than in national affairs. And experience has shown that once the oil supplies are interrupted, the millionaire rulers of a date-and-camel economy can survive, the consequent loss of revenue more easily than an industrial democracy can survive the loss of fuel. We cannot separate the sources of Arab hostility from the factors which make the Middle East the most unstable area in the modern world. The impact of Western political ideas on a society already disrupted by rapid and uneven economic growth has produced an instability which can erupt at any time into armed conflict among the Arab states. Quite apart from the danger of accidental damage, the Western oil installations make a natural target for destruction as being the source and symbol of the wealth owned by the possessing states or classes.

This revolutionary ferment has several aspects. There is the struggle between the anti-colonial radicals for whom any formal commitment to the West means treachery, and those who accept a degree of Western tutelage as a means to more rapid development or as a protection against their enemies. There is the clash between pan-Arab nationalism and the local patriotism of ruling groups which have a vested interest in the maintenance of the state boundaries established by the West after the First World War. And finally there is the rise of the new urban intelligentsia suddenly pitch-forked into the 20th century against the oligarchs who control the existing regimes.

Broadly speaking, it is true to say that revolutionary forces predominate in the states of the Mediterranean seaboard—except Lebanon—while conservative forces still prevail in the oil-producing states on the Persian Gulf; but even here popular support for anti-colonialism and pan-Arabism is strong enough to force the governments to identify themselves verbally with these ideals.

The revolutionary forces which threaten the stability of the Middle East were greatly strengthened by the creation of Israel. Because Israel was established on Arab territory, with the agreement or support of the leading Western nations, it became a target for the pan-Arabs and the anti-colonial elements in the Middle East. The moral obligation of the Western powers to prevent the Arabs from liquidating Israel limits their freedom to identify themselves fully with the aims of pan-Arabism. But it does not rule out relations with the Arab states sufficiently good to permit the continued supply of oil—so long as the Arabs have no other foreign power to turn to for aid against Israel.

Though these factors had already threatened Western oil supplies more than once, it was not until the Soviet Union decided in 1955 to intervene that the situation became unmanageable. For the last two years the Middle East has been a major battlefield in the cold war. It has been an unequal battle, because Russia can win in the long run even if she loses every single engagement. Since the major Western interest is stability, Russia gains by simply keeping the conflict alive—she has only a secondary interest in securing victory for her own clients. For this reason she supported the original establishment of Israel, but recognizes no moral obligation for her survival—indeed she is doctrinally committed against Zionism. Hence she can always outbid any Western offer to the Arabs by wholeheartedly aligning herself with them against Israel.

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The decisive factor behind the British government’s action at Suez last year was a feeling that these obstacles to securing Middle Eastern oil would become insurmountable unless the West showed that it was prepared to use physical force. The reaction not only in the Middle East, but throughout the world, proved that there is no prospect of building a long-term policy on this basis. What are the prospects of working out a solution with the cooperation of the local populations?

The whole course of Western policy must depend on the judgment made about the likely trend of the Middle Eastern revolution in the oil-producing countries. In the most important Levant states the revolutionary forces have already won the battle, and any Western attempt to put the clock back, even if it temporarily succeeds, will only insure the final liquidation of Western interests when the revolutionary forces make their counterattack. But the Western interest in the oil-transit countries is in the last resort expendable. The one irreducible Western interest lies in the oil-producing states on the Persian Gulf where the conservative forces still predominate. If there were a real chance that with Western help these forces might remain in power for the next ten or twenty years, the West could have strong grounds for identifying itself with them, as in fact it has done, even though this means alienating the Levant states for good.

But in a sense the battle even here is already lost. Anti-colonialism and pan-Arabism are already strong enough in the Gulf states to have reversed official policies. Saudi Arabia and Iraq now aim to lead pan-Arabism rather than resist it. Moreover, great social changes are inevitable even in the short run. Optimists give the present Saudi regime about twelve years to go, others much less. It is significant that the Saudi Foreign Minister, who attacked Western policy so violently at the United Nations, is a Palestinian Arab who became a Syrian citizen before finally emigrating to Arabia. The fact is that the West has identified itself with forces which are dying even in the region Where they are strongest. It is lagging even behind its most conservative clients in adapting itself to the forces of the future.

The West, it is true, cannot afford to lurch to the opposite extreme and proclaim an unconditional solidarity with the revolutionary forces. It must rather aim to make the revolution as peaceful as possible, so that the inevitable transition does the minimum damage to the pattern of Western interests. In the social field, Britain has shown the way in Iraq. There is a good chance that the Iraqi ruling class will succeed in broadening itself sufficiently to prevent a violent revolution, and that the social and economic reforms financed from oil revenues may produce the most stable and responsible citizenry in the Arab world. But even in Iraq Britain’s refusal to bow to the demands of pan-Arabism threatens to jeopardize her oil interests.

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In principle, the anti-colonial element is the easiest to appease. Following the collapse of Britain’s alliance with Jordan, her position in Aden and the Gulf sheikhdoms remains the biggest obstacle to progress. It is hard to believe that she could not remove the irritant of her present status in Aden without losing the refueling facilities which are its only real justification. The situation in the Gulf sheikhdoms is more dangerous. Britain’s treaties here are archaic survivals from a period when European imperialism was at its peak and oil was undiscovered. They give her total control of the sheikhdoms’ foreign policies, and commit her to support their rulers against internal as well as external opposition. Yet in most cases Britain has no conceivable interest in maintaining these rights and obligations. The Oman imbroglio, to quote the London Times, “proved again that the use of British troops against Arabs—no matter on what grounds—is viewed by members of the Arab League as imperialist aggression. . . . It can be argued that we are jeopardizing our long-term interests in the developed sheikhdoms, such as Kuwait, by intervening with force in the backward territories.” Yet though last August everyone agreed that a revision of these treaties was urgent, no step has yet been taken in that direction.

But it is not enough to remove the last vestiges of the old imperialism. Throughout history, liberation from imperial control has been accompanied by a violent revulsion against “entangling alliances” with the former masters. This is as true of the Arab Middle East as of the United States. It is surprising that America, which after nearly two hundred years has only just recognized the inadequacy of George Washington’s prescription, should give Asia and the Middle East so little time to learn the facts of international life. The pactomania which encouraged Iraq to link herself with Turkey and Britain—both recent imperialist powers in the Arab world—is the biggest single obstacle to good relations with anti-colonialism.

Pan-Arabism comes second to anti-colonialism as a universal and revolutionary force in the Middle East. It has not yet proved strong enough anywhere to insure effective cooperation between Arab states for constructive ends. But though conflicts of interest and ambition have prevented the Arab League from becoming more than a symbol of aspiration, the sense of belonging to a single family is strong enough to create a powerful disincentive against individual commitments to non-Arab states which might seem to imply a break in the solidarity of Arab neutralism. It is doubtful whether any Iraqi leader other than Nuri Said would have dared to join the Baghdad Pact. There was a chance that pan-Arab pressure might have forced Syria to retreat from her recent agreements with Moscow, if subsequent Western blunders had not provided a more obvious target.

It would be difficult for the West to get pan-Arabism actively on its side, and British disappointments after 1945 suggest that in any case it would not make a very effective ally. But recent experience has already proved that pan-Arabism can be a deadly enemy. The West can at least avoid inflaming it, by renouncing unnecessary commitments on which the Arab world is internally divided. This means accepting Arab neutrality in the cold war and agreeing to release Iraq from membership of the Baghdad Pact whenever she demands it. There has always been a case for bridging the gap between NATO and SEATO on Russia’s southern frontier by bringing in Iran. But it was a serious error to include Iraq as well, since that country lies well behind the so-called “Northern Tier” and is part of the Arab world. The case against direct British membership of the Pact was stronger still, and it is possible to argue that it was the establishment of the Baghdad Pact which simultaneously turned Nasser against the West and provoked the first large-scale Soviet intervention in the Arab world.

Though the members of the Pact are now trying to play down its military aspects, the attempt to give it economic meaning is no less ill conceived. It is always a mistake to make economic aid dependent on military cooperation, and the economic framework of the Pact no less than the military separates Iraq from her Arab neighbors. Yet economic cooperation is one of the few fields where the West would turn pan-Arabism to its own advantage. Nearly all the economic problems of the Middle East demand a regional solution. It is very much a long-term Western interest that the oil-producing Arab countries should spread their wealth among their less favored brethren. If current estimates are sound, the countries on the Persian Gulf will, over the next ten years, earn some fifteen billion dollars in royalties, and they will be unable to absorb more than a third of this inside their own frontiers. Unless they voluntarily make some of the remaining ten billion dollars available for investment in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, their poorer neighbors will have an irresistible temptation to grab a share by military action or political subversion.

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It is dangerous to generalize too boldly about the social forces now disturbing the Arab world, but it can be said that the old slogan “peoples against Pashas” is wide of the mark: some of the revolutionary groups are more reactionary and obscurantist than the regimes they hope to supplant. Yet there is developing in nearly all the Arab countries an opposition which is based on social foundations different from the traditional ruling class—foundations which will grow broader and stronger as the Arab economies develop. There is an under-employed intelligentsia to provide revolutionary èlan and an officer class to supply the opposition with physical backing. In Egypt and Syria the opposition has already captured power. It could do so any day in Jordan. It is active in all the oil-producing states except Saudi Arabia. It represents the future, with which the West must come to terms.

The real complaint against the West is not so much that it has failed to support these new forces—it could not easily do so against the will of the existing governments—but that it has actively intervened against them. When the Sultan of Bahrein recently arrested leaders of his opposition, they were taken by a British warship into custody on the British island of St. Helena. In Oman, Britain carried out a punitive expedition on behalf of a slave-owning Sultan against rebellious tribes. In Jordan and Syria, the United States has openly declared herself against the new forces, and by making Saudi Arabia the main base for her Middle Eastern policy, she appears to have identified herself with the most backward and cruel of all the Arab regimes. As a result the West has not only made enemies of the Levant states, but has discouraged the governments of the oil-producing countries from broadening their basis. Given a more intelligent policy, the external factors which at present aggravate our task would automatically become more manageable. The Arab world might then be prepared to view the USSR in a less rosy light.

Better still, it would be reasonable to aim at an agreement with Russia to exclude certain forms of intervention by either side in the cold war. As things are, an agreement with Russia not to intervene politically, even if it were observed, would make little real difference to the instability which is the main threat to Western interests. The one field in which genuine agreement would be useful right away is the limitation of arms deliveries to all major countries in the area.

At present the West gains nothing from its existing commitments to arm certain Middle Eastern states, since the Arab governments have made it clear that their aim in re-arming is to prepare for the final war against Israel. In fact, however, they are just as likely to use the arms in fighting one another. Last spring the Jordan crisis threatened to set at least three Arab states at one another’s throats, each fighting with arms supplied by the West. A few months later a conflict did break out in Oman, in which one side was supplied with British arms, the other with arms coming from the United States. Arms deliveries, whatever their origin or recipient, are a major factor of instability in the Middle East. As Arab oil wealth grows, they could constitute a threat to peace in the world as a whole.

Yet it is impossible for the West to control arms deliveries without cooperation from the Soviet Union, since all the Arab states want arms. Moreover, because Russia’s aim is to increase instability, she can afford to offer arms without political strings, unlike the West. So long as the Middle East remains a major battlefield of the cold war, the cards are all in Russia’s hands. The case for at least trying to reach agreement on neutralizing the area is therefore irresistible, and it is difficult to see why the Western governments persist in viewing Russia’s repeated offers of negotiation as proof of her unwillingness to negotiate.

The case for trying to reach agreement on the Middle East with Russia is greatly strengthened by the West’s moral obligation to save Israel from ultimate destruction. In an all-out diplomatic struggle for Arab good will between Russia and the West, Israel is so great a handicap that in the end the West is likely to regard her as expendable. There are some Zionists—but few Israelis—who take the opposite view. They argue that Arab hostility will finally compel the West to accept Israel as the keystone of its Middle Eastern policy. The hard fact is that this can never happen so long as the West needs oil more than it needs orange juice. Moreover, Israel requires stability and friendship in the Arab world as much as does the West. Nothing can do more to harm her prospects of survival than for her to justify the Arab suspicion that she is essentially the spearhead of Western penetration in the Middle East.

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At the moment one can do little more than sketch the main considerations which should guide policy-making in the Middle East. There is no ready-made blueprint for an Arab-Israeli settlement. Nor is it clear what action the British government can take if next week there is a successful revolution in Kuwait—a recurrent nightmare in Whitehall.

Situations can easily arise in which the West must sacrifice long-term general considerations for the sake of avoiding immediate catastrophe. The Jordan crisis last spring was such a situation. Yet Western policy in the Middle East is certain to fail unless it has a sense of direction—unless it is guided by a general view of how the whole situation can and should develop over the period of ten or twenty years in which oil interest will remain decisive.

At present there is little sign of such a general view. One has the feeling that the brilliant technical success of American intervention in Jordan, instead of being seen as a regrettable but necessary exception to the general rule, was allowed to set a precedent which deflected American policy as a whole. We have seen the results in Syria. A sense of direction is the only useful contribution which statesmen can ever bring to the formulation and execution of foreign policy. It is certainly the most alarming deficiency in Western policy today—and not only in the Middle East.

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