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The Middle East Oil, Wars, and the Great Game

Across the world, oil drives machines. In the Middle East, it drives history as well, and it has been doing so since the early twentieth century. That's true not just of the three dominant producers— Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—but of every country in the region, including those with no oil at all.

The Middle East is a rough and noisy neighborhood. For an outsider, the turmoil is less bewildering if you notice a critical fact: In the Middle East, nation-states are the exception. Egypt—where most people (90 percent or so) share an ethnicity (Arab), a religion (Sunni Islam), and historical circumstance (dependence on a great river)—is the region's only country that's nearly monolithic. Iran, which is united by its own language (Farsi) and religion (93 percent Shi'a Muslim), is also a nation-state; although only 65 percent of the population share the primary ethnicity (Persian), none of the other ethnic groups are able to compete for control of the country. (See Figure 10.1.)

Predominant Religious Sects of Inhabitants Near Oil Fields

Figure 10.1 Predominant Religious Sects of Inhabitants Near Oil Fields

Source: Pew Research Center, U.S. Department of State.

Iraq, in contrast, is divided along a Shi'a majority and a Sunni minority that at times dominates. It is also divided on a separate axis between Arabs and a Kurdish minority with its own language, its own local oil treasure, and the pull of large Kurdish minorities in Turkey, Syria, and Iran.

Syria is primarily Arab but, as you now know, has a sizable Kurdish population. Religious affiliation in Syria is predominately Sunni, but the government has long been controlled by Alawites, whose religion is an offshoot of Shi'a Islam. Syria also has a sizable Christian minority and houses a living museum of ancient religions, all of whose adherents, together with the Christians, tend toward political alliance with the Alawites.

Lebanon has all of the above and more, including an autonomous military organization that is deeply indebted to Iran for money and weapons and that shares Iran's hostility toward Israel.

Libya, although simply Arab and simply Sunni, is a collection of tribes, not a nation and only intermittently a state.

Turkey is all Sunni, but it is the rump of a long-gone empire, is conflicted between an Islamic heritage and an infatuation with Europe, and is home to a Kurdish minority whose fertility is pushing the Kurds toward majority status, perhaps within a generation or two.

Vladimir Putin's plan to undo the petrodollar and elbow the United States out of the way in world affairs rests on the energy resources of the Middle East. Turmoil there is his best friend, which is reason enough for a careful look at the recent histories of the region's three big oil producers (which pump 20 percent of the world's oil) and their neighbors.

Religion is a divider that can unite Middle Easterners living under different governments in the important business of attacking their own countrymen. Conflict between Shi'a and Sunni in one country induces conflict between the same two groups in other countries. It happens easily, almost unavoidably, because the differences between the two traditions are not details, like the differences between one-button Baptists and two-button Baptists. The differences are absolutes. No one has found any room, even in principle, for reconciling them. The career of any would-be ecumenical, should one appear, would likely be brief.

What separates Sunni from Shi'a is a succession dispute that erupted after the death of Mohammed in 632 AD. Those who accepted Abu Bakr, Mohammed's father-in-law, as the rightful successor became known as Sunnis. Those who believed that Ali, Mohammed's son-in-law, was properly the successor became known as Shi'ites. They've been fighting ever since.

Worldwide, about 85 percent of all Muslims are Sunni. However, in two of the Middle East's three biggest oil-producing countries, Iran and Iraq, they are outnumbered by a Shi'a majority. The third, Saudi Arabia, is overwhelmingly Sunni—although its restless Shi'a minority is concentrated inconveniently in the country's oil-producing east.

 
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