Tony Cliff

Background to Middle East Crisis

(August 1958)

From Socialist Review, 8th Year No. 15, August 1958.
Reprinted in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp. 75–82.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Thanks to Ted Crawford.

The motive for imperialist aggression in the Arab countries is the search for and defence of oil profits. To get a clear picture of the situation in the Middle East, therefore, it is important first to see the extent of the oil interests.

The world’s oil industry is controlled by eight big companies, five American, one British, one Anglo-Dutch, and one French. The percentage controlled by the eight companies of each section of the industry outside the United States and the Communist bloc is as follows:

Ownership of reserves


92 per cent


88 per cent


79 per cent


85 per cent

Tanker fleets

66 per cent


98 per cent

(I. Campbell, The Future of Oil, London, 1958, p. 4.)

The interests of the eight companies have been closely woven together by joint ownership of subsidiaries, which are the actual operating companies in the productions transportation, refining and marketing of oil. Typical of such joint bodies is Aramco, owned by four of the eight companies, and the Iraq Petroleum company, owned by five of them. On the marketing side there are joint companies such as Caltex (Standard of California and the Texas Company) which has 35 subsidiaries including Regent Oil in the UK.

It is clear that such a joint ownership implies considerable co-operation between the companies on such vital matters as level of production, policies towards governments, etc. (ibid., pp. 4–5)

The pickings and the pickers

At present the US has a decisive position in oil production in the middle East, as may be seen froni the following figures: US interests in 1955 oil output in the Middle East – 91.6 million tons, or 58 per cent of the total; Britain (including Anglo-Dutch) – 55.7 million tons, or 35.3 per cent: France – 10.4 million tons, or 6.6 per cent. in 1944 the US share was only 16 per cent, while that of Britain was 79 per cent, and of France, 5 per cent.

The profits derived from a ton of oil extracted in the Middle East are considerably higher than those derived from oil extracted elsewhere. By arrangement between the eight big companies, the price is determined by the price of Texas oil, even though the Middle East has superseded the US as the major oil exporter.

The price of Middle East oil, therefore, bears no relation whatsoever to its cost of production. Middle East costs are considerably smaller than those in the United States for a variety of reasons, notably the far greater productivity of the wells and the much lower labour costs. In 1950, for example, the average output per well in the US was 31 barrels a day. In Venezuela it was 200, and in the Middle East 5,000 – some Kuwait wells even reaching 9,000 a day. (ibid., p. 9)

The result is extremely high profits. “Standard of New Jersey and its 51 affiliates and subsidiaries throughout the world made a net profit in 1956 of $808 million (£288 million). It not only paid a dividend of just over $2 on every $7 share, but also issued a new share for every one already held. Shell, the Anglo-Dutch giant, made a net profit of £179 million and declared a dividend of 18¾ per cent. Standard Oil of California with $207 million (£96 million) and Socony-Mobil with $207 million (£74 million) were not far behind. They declared dividends of 26 per cent and 17 per cent respectively.

As the Chairmen’s reports of Jersey and California both point out, the oil business is the most profitable in the whole free world. (ibid., p. 9.)

The impact of Imperialism

Even in the Arab countries which do not produce oil, all key positions of the economy are in the hands of foreign capitalists. For instance, in Egypt foreign capital just prior to the second world war amounted to 47 per cent of the total capital of the country. including land, and, excluding land, to somewhere between 73 and 81 per cent. (A. Bonné, The Economic Development of the Middle East,* Jerusalem 1943, p. 73)

Seeing that imperialist capital desires to monopolize the markets of the Arab East for its manufactured goods, and the raw materials produced there for its industries, it strives to hinder industrial development there and especially the rise of a machine industry which would make for economic independence. Seeing that the profits of imperialist capital are dependent on the low wages paid to the Arab workers and the low prices paid for the products bought from the peasant, Imperialism is interested in keeping the countryside in the most backward conditions, so that it will be an inexhaustible reserve of labour power and cheap raw materials. Imperialism is further interested in this for socio-political reasons: firstly because only backward, illiterate and sick masses dispersed in tiny villages far away from one another can be ruled easily, and secondly because the imperialist fifth column in the colonial countries, its most faithful agents, are the feudal landlords. Thus imperialism is intricately involved in the agrarian question.

Three-quarters of the Arab population lives in the country, subjugated to a tiny handful of big landowners. In Egypt prior to land reform 0.5 per cent of the landowners had 37.1 per cent of all the land, while 70.7 per cent had only 12.4 per cent of the land. Three hundred and thirty one men had three times more land than l½ million poor peasants and there were more than a million land cultivators who had no land of their own whatsoever. One plantation company alone owned such a large area of land as to employ 35,000 workers. A calculation of Emile Minost, Director-General of Credit Foncier Egyptian, a banking concern not likely to exaggerate the extent of exploitation of the masses, gave the division of the net income from agriculture as follows:


per cent

To taxes



To large landowners


To merchants


To peasants




Thus a few thousand landowners received twice the sum that three million peasants received. On an average, a poor peasant before the war did not earn more than £748 a year. During the war his nominal income rose, but the cost of living rose more, and his real income therefore decreased. The income of the agricultural worker was even lower. The daily wage of a male agricultural worker before the war was 3 piasters (about 7d.): of a female 2: and of a child 1–1½. If, and they were condemned to extended periods of unemployment every year as the work season lasts 6–8 months. Even a foreman did not receive more than £2 a month, a clerk £3. and a cart driver £1 to £1 4s. Since the war, although wages have risen, they have barely caught up with prices.

With such low incomes, the food position is obviously terrible. As a matter of fact it is comparable only with that of the Indians. lit has been calculated that the consumption of the average Egyptian, which is, of course, much higher than that of the poor peasant worker, is only 46 per cent of the optimum in wheat, 25 per cent in sugar, 23 per cent in meat and fish, and 8 per cent in milk products. Furthermore, the nutritional position is not improving, but steadily deteriorating.

Health, Poverty, Ignorance

The hard economic conditions of the masses impair their health very much and cause a very high death rate – 26.4 per 1.000 in 1938 as against 24.3 per 1,000 in India and 11.6 in England. Of a thousand infants born alive, 163 died in the first year in Egypt. as against 167 in India and 52 in England.

The expectation of life is very low: males 31 years and females 36. In the United Kingdom the expectation of life is 68 years for a male and 71 for a female. Those who live to be adults are very weak. Among those conscripted from the villages in 1941, only 11 per cent were medically fit for army service. Ninety per cent of Egypt’s population suffers from trachorna, 50 per cent from worm disease, 75 per cent from bilharzia, 50 per cent from ankylostoma.

Poverty is inevitably accompanied by ignorance, which in Egypt reaches fearful dimensions. Some idea of its extent may be gained from the very succinct remark of the paper el-Mussawar when discussing the results of the 1937 census (August 28th, 1942): “We have 30,000 holders of diplomas as against 14 millions who know neither how to read or to write.”

Ignorance is the product of the existing social system, and also one of its pillars. Indeed, the ruling class knows very well that the illiteracy of the masses is one of the greatest assets of the regime. Thus a certain Egyptian senator thanked God that his country took “first place in ignorance.” (Al-Ahram, July 7th, 1944)

Riches, pleasure and hilarity of some tens of thousands of Egyptians and foreigners on the one hand, and hunger, disease and ignorance of the millions on the other – this is the picture of Egypt!

Is it any wonder that after 70 years of British rule in Egypt hatred of Imperialism is so deep and strong!

The last few years have seen a rising national liberatory movement starting to engulf the citadels of Western Imperialism in the Middle East. In 1951, Moussadeq, Premier of Iran, decided to nationalize the oil industry, until then British controlled. The British Labour Government replied with the dispatch of warships to the Persian Gulf.

Shocks to Imperialist system

However, notwithstanding this sabre-rattling and in face of the refusal of the United States to back British military action in Iran, Abadan had to be evacuated in October, 1951. But British oil interests did not give up, and, by using the weapon of economic boycott, supported by all the big oil companies in the world, they managed to bring the Iranian oil industry to a standstill. Eventually in August 1953 the Moussadeq government was overthrown and a government more amenable to Western Imperialism – the military dictatorship of General Zahedi – was established. In the resulting settlement, however, British interests were able to obtain only a 40 per cent share in the new concessionary company (they had previously held 100 per cent).

A bigger shock to Western Imperialism was the overthrow, in 1952, of the corrupt puppet King Farouk of Egypt.

The strategic importance of Egypt to imperialism was emphasized by the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Slim, in his conversations with the Egyptian Premier, Nahas Pasha, in the summer of 1950: “Anyone who wants to hold the Middle East must hold Egypt ... Egypt is the key to the Middle East.” (Quoted in R. Palme Dutt, The Crisis of Britain and the British Empire, London 1957, pp. 237–8)

Two years later Britain was compelled to withdraw her troops from the Canal Zone.

Retreating from one position of the front, British Imperialism tried to strengthen its foothold in another. In 1955, in opposition to nationalist Egypt, the imperialist-sponsored military pact linking Britain, Turkey. Iraq, Iran and Pakistan – the Baghdad Pact – was established.

At the end of 1955 a military mission headed by General Templer to draw Jordan into the Baghdad Pact aroused a storm of popular indignation. As a result, not only did Jordan not join the Pact, but in addition the British Commander of the Jordanian Army, General Glubb, was thrown out, and in November 1956, the Anglo-Jordan Treaty was denounced by a new Government.

Where East meets West

The British-French-Israeli war of aggression against Egypt – the Suez adventure-which ended in a fiasco, weakened the Western Imperialist foothold in the Middle East even more. To retrieve the position, in January 1957, the “Eisenhower Doctrine” was announced. And now, in pursuance of this policy, US troops are in Lebanon and British troops have invaded Jordan.

However, all these are only holding operations: imperialism is doomed to defeat.

When Khruschev’s hands were covered with the Hungarian workers’ blood he hastened to wash them in the Suez Canal. The reactionary nature of his role in the Middle East and that of his predecessor. Stalin, can be made no clearer than by following the unprincipled, dishonest twists and turns of the Kremlin agents in the area – the Stalinist Parties.

We shall have to limit ourselves to a few examples.

The Stalinist corkscrew

After the Hitler-Stalin Pact, a leaflet of October 1939 of the Central Committee of the Palestine Communist Party said: “The Hitler against whom Chamberlain fights is not the same Hitler who was led by him against the Soviet Union. This Hitler who cannot make a campaign against the Soviet Union, but must obey (no more nor less! – TC) the instructions of Moscow is today no more the gendarme of Chamberlain and Daladier.” Apparently he was the gendarme of world peace.

When Russia was at war with Germany, the line of the Communist Parties in the Middle East changed completely. Whereas till now the whole East was the foe of imperialism and “ the masses of Indians and Arabs were on the eve of open revolts against imperialist rule (Kol Ha’am, Hebrew organ of the Palestine Communist Party, June 1940), now a decisive change occurred in the situation: “The government must understand that ii. has an important region of friends in the Middle East” (Kol Ha’am, December 1942). Till now, the “British Government in Palestine represented the regime of subjugation, exploitation, repression and black reaction. This regime is the same regime of Hitler and Mussolini with whom British-French imperialism struggle for the monopoly over the exploitation of the proletariat of the capitalist countries and the oppressed nations of the colonies” (Kol Ha’am, July 1940). From now on the British High Commissioner is the representative of democracy and “we keep in our hearts his good personal features ... the manifestation of his true social characteristics.” (Al-Ittihad, organ of the Arab Stalinists in Palestine, 3rd September 1944).

Now was the time to appeal for “national unity,” for “modernisation,” and to suppress the class struggle, Khaled Bakdash, the General Secretary of the Syrian Communist Party, could now say:

We assure the landowners that we do not demand and will not demand in Parliament the confiscation of their estates and lands, but on the contrary, we want to help them by demanding the construction of large-scale irrigation enterprises, the facilitation of the import of fertilizer and modern machinery! All we demand in exchange for this is pity on the fellah, and that he be taken out of his poverty and illiteracy and that knowledge and health be spread in the village! These are our economic, or if you can say so, social demands. They are democratic and very modest. (The Communist Party in Syria and Lebanon: Its National Policy and its National Programme, Beirut 1944, pp. 24–5).

In one point Bakdash is right: the plea for pity is really a very modest “demand!”

Again, after the war. the Communist Party of Palestine called for a bi-national (i.e., Arab-Jewish) solution to the country’s problem, and as late as 1947, the party organ sharply attacked the US for supporting the “adventurist” project of partitioning Palestine (Kol Ha’am, October 13, 1947). However, on the evening of the same day the Soviet delegate in the United Nations spoke in favour of partition. So the Communist Party had to change course 180 degrees, and its policy on the national question became practically identical with that of the Zionist movement.

It supported the Israeli state against the Arabs in 1948/9, it approved the occupation of the Negev, and complained that Premier Ben Gurion had given orders to discontinue the offensive in the direction of Suez.

Stalinist attitude to Nasser

Stalinist attitude to Nasser was no more honest or consistent. For instance, in November, 1953, the Egyptian Stalinists referred to Gamal Abd-el Nasser as Gamal Abd-Dulles. Again in 1954 the Soviet expert on Egyptian affairs, L.N. Vatolina, characterized the Neguib-Nasser régime as “madly reactionary, terrorist, antidemocratic, demagogic, etc. (Quoted in Laqeur, ibid., p. 62). A volume printed in May 1955 attacked Nasser’s régime for its “anti-popular measures,” such as restricting the right of the workers, defending the big feudal landlords against revolutionary measures. etc. (K. Ode-Vassileva. Rasskazy Arabskikh Pisatelei, Moscow 1955, p. 182). However, in July 1955, Shepilov visited Cairo, and a month later an arms deal was transacted between Moscow and Cairo, amounting to between 300 and 350 million dollars! From now on not one word of criticism was directed at Nasser!

As a matter of fact Nasser’s régime is neither as black as the Stalinists painted it before July 1955, nor as white as it has been painted since. Nasser is actually balancing between the two poles of Egyptian Society: on the one hand he confiscated all the land over 200 acres per landlord, in return for compensation. The 1½ per cent of landowners who owned half the land of Egypt now own a third. However, the land taken from the landlords is not enough to give plots of 2 acres to even a quarter of the landless villagers. Nasser has also cut land rent by 30–50 per cent. On the other hand lie severely suppressed any attempt on the part of the peasants to carry out the land reform independently (by seizure of land, rent strikes, etc.). He adopted the same policy toward the workers; on the other hand new labour laws were enacted which gave the workers certain rights they had not previously enjoyed (such as the right to organize agricultural workers’ trade unions, national federations of trade unions, etc.); on the other hand he suppressed strikes with an iron fist, arresting a number of strikeleaders. (See Whither Egyptian Bonapartism by Babak, Socialist Review, May 1954). On the one hand Nasser gives a lead to the anti-imperialist struggle, on the other he does his best to divert it largely into anti-Israeli channels. The miserable showing put up by the Egyptian army in the anti-Israeli campaign in 1956 shows clearly how little real enthusiasm a Bonapartist military régime inspires among the masses of peasants and workers.

Compared with Farouk or Nuri Said, the puppets of British imperialism, Nasser represents national independence and progress. As such his fight against imperialism should be supported by every socialist. However, such support has nothing in common with the twisting Power-politics of Stalinism.

The Arab people have no more hope of disinterested and honest help from the rulers of Moscow than the Hungarian workers had from those of Washington. [1]

Socialist program

The British Labour movement should mobilize all its forces to help the Arab people to get rid of imperialist rule and aggression. The Labour movement should fight for:



1. In view of the facts of Stalinist policy in the Middle East and elsewhere, it is astonishing to read the following in Peter Fryer’s Newsletter leaflet (Summit Conference for What?, July 1958): “The Soviet Union has a right and a duty to defend the colonial peoples against any imperialist aggression.” What Socialist would have dared to say: “The United States or Great Britain has a right and a duty to defend the Hungarian people against Russian aggression? Do the butchers of Hungary have “a right and a duty” to defend the victims of Lebanon and Jordan?

Last updated on 16 February 2017