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International Socialism, Mid-November 1973


Notes of the Month

The Middle East


From International Socialism (1st series), No.64, Mid-November 1973, p.7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A FORMAL ceasefire agreement has just been signed by Egypt and Israel as we go to press. No-one knows whether it will stick or not. But certain points are already clear.

In the actual fighting itself, the US gave wholehearted support to the Israelis, following on from its whole strategy in recent years of using Israel’s military strength as a weapon for keeping the Arab states in line. But the oil embargo showed that the weapon was double edged-as well as providing a permanent threat to the Arab states, Israel also caused anger, even among those like Saudi Arabia which have been mostly closely allied to the US in the past. King Feisal and his friends feared that an Israeli victory would cause discontent among sections of their local population. They were also probably afraid that it would tilt the overall military balance in the Middle East too far in the direction not only of Israel, but also of their rival for influence in the oil rich Persian Gulf, Iran. And so they took the easiest counter-action open to them, cutting off oil supplies.

Paradoxically, that counter-action of this sort was so easy was a result of past US policies. Until a couple of years ago, the US assumed that its own economy could operate independently of Middle Eastern oil. Its chief concern was to protect the interests of US oil companies producing oil for economies other than its own. It did so by propping up, in co-operation with the British government, a ramshackle bunch of extremely reactionary regimes which had hardly emerged from the middle ages.

But the boom of the last 18 months has dramatically increased the US’s demand for oil, until about 5 per cent of its supplies come from the Arab regimes. Yet these regimes are now earning such huge sums of money from oil that they do not know what to do with them. Most of the oil sheikdoms are frightened to really develop their own economies, for fear of creating new social forces which would not for long tolerate their own rule. The idea of keeping their income down by leaving the oil in the ground is not nearly as abhorrent to them as it would be to modern regimes concerned with overall economic advance. And the pressure they can exert on the west in this way is preferable to them as a way of buying a degree of popular support than is getting deeply involved in an all-out war with Israel.

In the long term, there is no doubt that imperialism can deal with the oil problem. The Arab embargo is likely to give a big impetus to prospecting on the sea bed and in Alaska. The present oil shortage could give way to a glut in less than 10 years. Insofar as the embargo helps push the international economy towards recession it is damaging the interests of the sheiks who are, after all, major operators in the stock markets of the world. And were the sheiks to get too nasty over oil, there are counter measures open to the western states: freezing of the assets held by the Gulf states or Saudi Arabia in the west would be one such measure; taking advantage of the extremely narrow social base of the oil regimes to threaten internal coups would be another.

But all such activities take time to organise. The oil weapon can be fairlyeffective in the short term. It has sent Kissinger scurrying round the world in an effort to piece together a settlement for the Middle East. His hope is to leave Israel as a well armed watchdog for US interests, while placating the Arab states sufficiently for regimes like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait-and even Egypt – to resume their amicable relations with the US.

The Russians too have an interest in such a settlement. Over the years they have poured considerable sums of money into Egypt, chiefly in the form of arms supplies (some estimates put these as high as 4,500 million dollars) and they want some guarantees that they will eventually recover these. In any continued war between Israel and the Arab states, their previous investment would be put at risk. During the war they were prepared to pour more arms in so as to protect the (unpaid for) military installations they had already erected, but they prefer the idea of an armed peace, in which the Egyptians still need their arms and their influence but in which the risks are considerably reduced.

The people who will not benefit from the sort of peace which the great powers are trying to patch up are actually the mass of people in the Arab world. All the most reactionary regimes will remain intact, with the oil wealth concentrated in the hands of reactionary sheikdoms instead of being used to develop the whole area. States like Egypt and Syria will continue to have to spend vast sums on arms to protect their borders , against Israel, sums which again could be used for economic development. And the Palestinians will remain festering in refugee camps, physically excluded from their homeland.

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