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Issue #1712      November 25, 2015

Culture & Life

ISIS, the Saudis and oil

Were the attacks in Paris the work of fanatical Islamist terrorists taking revenge on France for its well-known hostility and intolerance towards Muslims? Or are the religious fanatics merely tools, and what we are really dealing with is capitalism and its never-ending quest for higher profits?

At first sight this might seem a bit of a stretch, but The Ecologist ran a very interesting article by Oliver Tickell on November 16 that looked at the links between ISIS, OPEC and attempts to reduce our use of fossil fuels. And the Financial Times a few days earlier had run another interesting article entitled Isis Inc: how oil fuels the jihadi terrorists. “Oil is the black gold that funds ISIS’ black flag” said the paper. “It fuels its war machine, provides electricity and gives the fanatical jihadis critical leverage against their neighbours ...”

We all know that ISIS is supported by – and even receives arms from – the US and the latter’s clients Turkey and Saudi Arabia (the USA’s ostentatious but singularly ineffectual air strikes against “ISIS targets” in northern Syria notwithstanding). But did you know that the area controlled by ISIS in the Middle East produces about 34,000-40,000 barrels of crude oil per day? “The oil is sold at the wellhead for between $20 and $45 a barrel, earning the militants an average of US$1.5 million a day ... While Al-Qaeda, the global terrorist network, depended on donations from wealthy foreign sponsors, ISIS has derived its financial strength from its status as monopoly producer of an essential commodity consumed in vast quantities throughout the area it controls. Even without being able to export, it can thrive because it has a huge captive market in Syria and Iraq.”

In his article in The Ecologist, Oliver Tickell too observed that ISIS’s aim is “to consolidate its hold of the regions it already occupies, extend its empire to new regions and countries, and establish a Caliphate whose power and income will largely derive from oil”. But he also makes a vital connection between oil production and the COP21 climate conference that is about to take place – where? In Paris. Now there’s a coincidence!

We do not yet know to what extent the horrendous events in Paris will be allowed to divert the world leaders that are about to gather there from resolutely dealing with the urgent need to reduce global carbon emissions before climate change becomes irreversible. There will unquestionably be a great temptation to ditch the knotty problem of climate change and instead to make a big show of tackling another man-made problem, one that captures headlines much more easily, namely “Islamist terrorism”.

COP21 is vitally important to the very future of life on Earth. In Tickell’s words, it is set be “the biggest such event since COP15 in Copenhagen six years ago.” But, as Tickell also notes, the last thing oil producing countries (including ISIS) want is “a global climate agreement that will, over time, limit global consumption of fossil fuels”. Because that would cut into their profits something fearful.

As Karl Marx observed, when capitalists stand to make huge profit, there is no crime they will hesitate to perpetrate. And oil profits (and also losses) are certainly big money. The Financial Times: “The IEA estimates that OPEC states have lost half a trillion dollars [half a trillion!] a year in revenues since the oil price fell from over $100 a barrel in 2011-2014 to current levels (around $50 per barrel. … The main problem is that Saudi Arabia is over-producing oil in order to suppress investment in and production of high cost oil in the US, Canada, UK and other countries – and so capture the lion’s share of an oil market it thinks will keep on growing for decades to come.

“OPEC scenarios foresee oil demand increasing from 111 to 132 million barrels per day (mb/d) by 2040. However the International Energy Agency thinks that even modest carbon constraints will see demand for oil slump to around 100 mb/d by 2040 – and considerably lower with tough climate policies.”

The Saudi oil sheiks may be US clients – well, there’s no maybe, they are – but economically they are also imperialists in their own right. Their financial and military backing of ISIS clearly indicates that they already anticipate the “IS caliphate” becoming a client state of their own, as they strive to build an empire in the Middle East and Africa. Hence their bombing of Yemen (which no capitalist country has bothered to condemn, let alone try to stop) and their interference in Libya and Syria.

A successful climate conference that made binding decisions to limit the use of fossil fuels is what climate scientists and activists as well as progressive opinion everywhere wants, indeed demands as essential.

However, that is precisely what all the major oil exporters most assuredly do not want. Would they hesitate, do you think, to call on their tame fanatics – their religious shock troops – to perpetrate massive atrocities in the heart of Paris as a way to divert world leaders (some of whom are already on the side of the oil companies rather than the environment) away from climate change? Or as a way to frighten away many of the thousands of activists previously expected to gather in Paris in order to influence the conference?

Already, the threat of more potential terrorist attacks has given French police a potent excuse they can use to restrict public gatherings, prevent marches, etc.

The capitalist mass media too will now be able to concentrate on security issues and related “news”, instead of emphasising the kind of discussions that the urgency of climate change demands.

And, of course, if the conference fails to take decisive action on climate change, those nasty fossil fuel restrictions that would cut into the oil sheiks’ profits, can once again be shoved on to the back burner, so oil – and profits – can continue to flow.

A far-fetched scenario? I don’t think so. Do you?

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