Black Gold: US Foreign Policy and Its Relationship With Oil

I remember talking to some Syrian officials whilst I was in the Turkmen mountains. They were asking me why nobody was doing anything about the situation that was unfolding in their country. Why were the US not interfering, and preventing the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians? The only answer I could give was based on my limited knowledge of American foreign policy.

I told the Syrians that the US cared little for the people of Syria because the US had little to gain from the country. Unlike in Iraq, there were no oil fields and so the US would not risk their own men, and spend their own money, if they were going to get nothing but thanks in return.

I walked away from these meetings content with my answers, but wondering if perhaps I was being a little too simplistic. Surely making decisions in the White House was a more complex procedure than simply asking: “What can we gain?”

Fast forward 18 months or so, and I found myself ricocheting between various articles and Wikipedia pages. Eventually I came across one that held my attention. It was a list of countries by proven oil reserves, and the list seemed to prove that my answers in Syria were not so far from the truth.

Not to over-simplify US foreign policy, and not to state that I am anywhere near an expert on the subject, but it is fairly clear that US foreign policy is dominated by oil. That is its main motivation, that is what drives the decision making process, and that is what helps to explain, and can also help to predict, American action overseas.

One of the positions on the oil-wealth list is the United States’ neighbour to the North, Canada. The two nations share a long history, as well as a long border, and the relationship between the two is clearly a positive one. However, Canada are not the only nation on the list that the US is close to. It seems that the list of oil richest countries read as a who’s who of US chums.

Saudi Arabia is a nation that is deeply Islamic conservative. Sharia law forms the primary basis for the legal structure, and punishments for crime range from lashing, amputation, stoning and public beheading. Since the end of Ramadan in late July of this year, Saudi Arabia has executed 17 people. The most recent coming on Tuesday August 19th where two men were publicly beheaded for smuggling hashish. It is a nation void of any sort of democratic model, instead being ruled absolutely by a monarchy and royal family. Numerous human rights groups have voiced concern over the treatment of Saudi people, which covers not only capital punishment for adultery or robbery, but also the use of torture, the poor treatment of homosexuals, the highly disadvantaged position of women, and the lack of religious freedom. If the culture of the country isn’t enough to put off American citizens, then it should also be noted that 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11th 2001 were Saudi citizens.

A multitude of reasons present themselves as to why the US should see Saudi Arabia as an enemy. Yet, despite this disregard for freedom, liberty and equality; despite the intolerance of other religions, sexes and sexual preferences; and despite the fact that 9/11 was by-and-large a Saudi operation, the US shares a special relationship with the country. And the reason that this is the case is because of oil. Saudi Arabia have the second largest oil reserves in the world and the deal is that as long as the US provides security and friendship, Saudi Arabia will continue to provide the black stuff.

The United Arab Emirates are another nation that, on paper, does not seem to fit the American model. UAE is another who have been singled out by human rights groups and activists. Freedom House issue yearly reports on the freedoms in the world, and each and every year since 1999, UAE has been given the title of “not free”. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are restricted, arbitrary arrests and tortures are common, and the death penalty is enforced for a number of crimes. As well as this UAE have an appalling record with regards to workers rights and employment, and Human Rights Watch see the issue of sexual abuse as major concern.

Once again though, despite all this the United States has good relations with the nation. According to the US Department of State Website: “The U.A.E…  is a key partner for the United States… The two countries work together to promote peace and security… in the region and around the world.” The reason for this close relationship is of course, once again oil. The UAE ranks number seven in the richest oil nations in the world. “U.A.E. ports host more U.S. Navy ships than any port outside the United States” and in July 2012 UAE began operating an overland oil pipeline which bypassed less American-friendly nations in the area.

Nigeria are the only African based nation in the top 10, and like Saudi Arabia and UAE, they too would cause some concern if you were to invite them round for dinner with your parents. There are a mountain of problems within Nigeria, yet the US seems to turn a blind eye to them so long as oil demands are met. Human rights abuses and government corruption go hand in hand, and together can form a list as long as your arm. Anything and everything that would be deemed a violation of human rights, or an illegal activity, occurs in Nigeria and very little gets done about it. As well as arbitrary arrest, beatings, impunity of security forces, rape, torture, legal corruption, and vigilante killings, there is also restrictions on freedom of assembly, movement, press, speech, religion and privacy.

On top of these are also serious issues relating to sex and children’s rights. Child labour is common in Nigeria, as is child abuse, child sexual exploitation and child marriage. Nigeria is also home to the abhorrent practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), and according to Medical & Health Sciences Research:  “account(s) for about one-quarter of the estimated 115–130 million circumcised women in the world”. 41% of adult women in Nigeria have been the victims of such horrific treatment. Prostitution, human trafficking and slavery add to an already extensive list of human rights violations. In October 2013 The Scotsman reported figures from The Global Slavery Index which stated that 701,000 people are slaves within Nigeria.

If this were not enough to force the US to rethink a friendship with Nigeria, then the recent introduction of some of the worlds harshest anti-homosexual laws should tip the scales. The Washington Post recently reported on the moves to criminalise homosexuality and arrest those participating in it. Anyone who enters into a same-sex union faces 14 years in prison, anyone who supports gay clubs, societies or organisations face 10 years in prison, and public displays of affection by gay men and women are illegal.

Unsurprisingly the US does not concern itself with issues of human rights, and slavery, and draconian discriminatory and homophobic laws, instead they choose to focus on the positives. Nigeria has the tenth largest oil reserves in the world. It is this fact that the US pays most attention to, and it is this fact that has led to the close ties between the two nations. The US Department of State says that the US “is the largest foreign investor in Nigeria”, with this investment being rewarded in the form of oil shipments.

Of course not all nations are as welcoming and as friendly to American advances. With Canada, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Nigeria representing four of the top 10 oil rich countries, the other six can be split into two camps. Those that the US has invaded and successfully turned in their favour, and those that the US has attempted to invade, or has not invaded yet.

Kuwait has the sixth largest oil reserves in the world. During the first Gulf War in 1990, US forces at the head of an international coalition, entered Kuwait and waged a war on its behalf against invading Iraqi forces. Iraq actually finds itself one place above Kuwait on the list. Its oil reserves place it as the nation with the fifth largest in the world. As we all know Iraq was invaded by the US in 2003. Libya is another nation in the top 10 that has had US military personnel cross its borders and wage a war. In 2011 Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown as leader of the country, and was subsequently captured and hanged.

So with four friends, and three invasions, that brings the number of nations the US is in bed with up to seven. The other three spots are inhabited by nations that have resisted US intervention and form a collective which some members in the White House have called “Virus”, according to The TelegraphThe nations are Venezuela, Iran and Russia. All three of these nations hold anti-American sympathies, and all three have been the subject of attempted overthrow or invasion in the not-so-distant past.

It is clear then where American priorities lie. In terms of foreign policy the US has one aim, and that is to ensure the continued supply of oil to its shores. If that means invading Middle Eastern nations on jumped-up charges then so be it, and if it means having to be best friends with some of the worst human rights violators in the world, then it must be so. Of the top 10 oil-rich nations in the world, the US has special relationships with four, it has invaded three, and has blacklisted the rest for being uncooperative.

There is a reason nothing will be done about  Syria, or Somalia or the Central African Republic, and it is not a question of finances, or ethics, or morality, it is quite simply a question of resources. In particular, black gold.


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This article was originally published on Cultured Vultures.

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