The Arab revolution is circling around the region’s oil, and there’s talk of nationalizing or strengthening state control of industries in Egypt. So far, the Arab revolt has been mostly non-ideological. But at stake is the incalculable wealth of a long-suppressed region.
With Bahrain, the anchor of the US military presence in the gulf, wobbling, and with the seeds of revolt planted in Kuwait, the revolt in Libya could provoke a burst of Arab nationalism aimed at taking control of the Middle East oil resources. With Tripoli, Libya’s capital, in flames and Benghazi and most of Libya’s eastern region already in rebel hands, there are reports that the holdings of ENI and other oil firms operating in Libya might be nationalized by a new government.
Reports Bloomberg: “Certainly all the oil majors will be shaking if the new leaders decide to nationalize everything.”
Oil prices have jumped sharply since the Libyan revolt began, and ENI is scared silly.
“Libya sits atop large reserves of oil and gas that have yet to be developed. Libya holds around 44 billion barrels of oil reserves—the largest in Africa—according to Oil and Gas Journal, an industry publication.”
ENI, which gets one-seventh of its oil from Libya, and another big chunk from nearly Egypt, is evacuating its personnel, and its stock plummeted:
"Eni said yesterday it has already begun to evacuate non-essential staff and dependants. The company, which gets another 13 percent of its production from Egypt and has smaller operations in Tunisia and Yemen, has said it continues to operate in all the countries affected by political unrest."
BP, too, is evacuating its oil workers from Libya.
Libya produced about 1.6 million barrels of oil in January, roughly two-thirds of Iraq’s total output and one-fifth of Saudi Arabia’s. The country supplies about 10 percent of Europe’s oil supplies, and Italy’s ENI oil company is vastly dependent on Libya.
Bahrain, which doesn’t produce much oil now, is a lynchpin of the Persian Gulf’s Arab states, and the gateway to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, who’ve pledged to produce more oil to make up any shortfall from the Arab-wide turmoil, have threatened to use any and all means to shore up Bahrain’s regime. But increasingly Saudi Arabia is surrounded, by unrest in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Djibouti, and possibly—starting on March 8—in Kuwait. In addition, there’s trouble in Jordan, and Saudi Arabia isn’t on good terms with Iraq.
For both Iranian and Arab nationalists, control of oil has been the touchstone for revolutionary politics. Historically, the marriage of Arab countries with people but no oil, such as Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and countries with oil but few people, such as Libya, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, has been a long-standing goal of Arab nationalists going back to President Nasser of Egypt. Leaders who’ve challenged the domination of Middle East oil by the West have been overthrown or isolated, from Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 to Saddam Hussein’s vital takeover of Iraqi oil in 1972. After the US invasion of Iraq, when the United States briefly toyed with the idea of privatizing Iraq’s vast oil wealth, Iraqi nationalism prevailed, resoundingly defeating any attempt by Western and foreign companies to seize Iraq’s oil production, and since then Iraq’s successive governments have limited the intrusion of foreign companies into Iraq’s oil industry.
So far, the Arab revolt is one without ideology. By all accounts, it’s been a revolution for freedom, for dignity, for democracy. How, exactly, that plays out now is unclear. In Egypt, for instance, there’s a growing split among the opposition movement, pitting pro-labor youth activists against moderate, reform-minded leaders who are willing, it seems, to make overly broad compromises with the establishment. And a troubling aspect of the events in Egypt is that there is pressure on the Egyptian government, including the military, to privatize state-owned enterprises. Last week, in a major piece on economic policy in Egypt, the New York Times reported that the military is divided over what to do about state-owned businesses. And it said:
“Already there are signs that the military is purging from the cabinet and ruling party advocates of market-oriented economic changes, like selling off state-owned companies and reducing barriers to trade.”
Now, it’s true that the military in Egypt has created a vast, corrupt network of patronage, military-owned businesses, and a military-industrial complex that sustains the generals’ lavish lifestyle. Eliminating the military’s privileges, and seizing the assets of its elite, ought to be a key goal of the revolution. But that’s not the same thing as dismantling Egypt’s nationalized industries and adopting a free-market, neoconservative economic doctrine. (In fact, the neocons who’ve been clamoring for revolution in the Middle East often see it in terms of privatizing state-owned companies, especially oil, telecommunications and banking.)
The Times expressed concern over moves by the post-Mubarak military authorities to purge or arrest super-wealthy Egyptian businessmen:
“The military-led government also struck at advocates of economic openness, including the former finance minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali, who was forced from his job, and the former trade minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid, whose assets were frozen under allegations of corruption. Both are highly regarded internationally and had not been previously accused of corruption.”
And it quoted Rachid bemoaning the talk of nationalization: “Now there are a lot of voices from the past talking about nationalization—‘Why do we need a private sector?’ ”
Swirling around the Arab revolt, thus, are huge questions about whether the new Arab world will finally get control of its economic power, or once again cede that control to the United States and to its former colonial masters in Europe.