External Brain

America’s Kingdom

I finally got around to this book which I had wanted to read ever since the spirited discussion of it on the short-lived Qahwa Sada. It’s a history of ARAMCO and US-Saudi relations between the 1930s and mid-60s that aims to debunk myths that the oil company was a benevolent, modernizing actor in the kingdom that provided its workers better conditions than other mining operations in contemporary Iran, Venezuela, etc.

Robert Vitalis re-trained himself in African American Studies to better advance the book’s main argument, that ARAMCO brought 1930s America’s Jim Crow social and labor practices with it when it opened its drilling operations on Saudi Arabia’s east coast.  In place of the standard narrative of ARAMCO bringing the kingdom into the modern world, he argues that progressive Saudis, whose writings he likens to Booker T Washington, had to drag the oil company into the 20th century through a series of strikes and labor actions that had previously been minimized or unreported.

He digs up a ton of great stuff on the gaggle of Arabist-spies that ARAMCO employed in its government affairs shop ready to turn any given Saudi royal from a ‘forward-looking reformer’ to a ‘profligate drunk’ and back again depending on how the political winds were blowing.

Very well-written book.  It makes other books on Saudi read like the Hardy Boys, and is also a very important historical reference point for current labor practices in the Gulf.


Middle East

Blackouts in Iran

It was hard to miss the dramatic picture and headline screaming “Blackouts becoming longer” in Etemaad-e Melli. It alleges the Energy Ministry is minimizing the real impact of the blackouts, citing unofficial reports that power cuts are now reaching eight hours in some places. It’s shaping up to be a hot summer and its not even August yet.

Ahmadinejad’s gas rationing program, which caused riots when it was introduced in June of last year, is still in effect, and is reported to have stoked the black market for petrol. Former energy minister Kazem Vaziri Hamaneh warned that Iran was facing an energy “catastrophe” as he was replaced in a cabinet reshuffle two months later.

This type of storyline tends to arouse those in the US Congress who see energy as a pressure point and the nutty idea that America could enforce some type of gasoline blockage against Iran, which would make them give up nuclear. Given that Iran argues it needs a self-sufficient nuclear power capacity to ease its energy problems and hedge against foreign energy meddling, I doubt this would work.

View from Iran has more on Iran’s economic situation, and Iran Nuclear Watch is closely following the extremely misguided HR 362 sanctions act that would require the U.S. to lead an “international effort” to blockade petroleum products going into Iran.

Iran, The Gulf

UAE: The geopolitics of excess

courtesy of the Friday in Cairo cartography team
courtesy of the Friday in Cairo cartography team

Let’s read these two articles together.  First from AP second from The Times:

U.S. plans $7 billion missile-defense sale to UAE

The Bush administration is planning to sell the United Arab Emirates an advanced U.S. missile defense system valued at up to $7 billion that could be used to defend against Iran, people who have attended briefings on the matter said on Monday….

Kenneth Katzman, an expert on the Gulf at the Congressional Research Service, said the UAE has been eager for a “sophisticated antidote” to Iran’s missile capabilities.

“The UAE has been concerned for many years about possible retaliation against it for U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities,” he said.

For Iran, Katzman added, UAE could be an attractive target because of its billions of dollars of infrastructure investments….

The potential $7 billion sale would include anti-missile interceptors, firing units, associated radar sites and training, among other things, a congressional staff member said.

Dubai plans $200bn canal to bypass Strait of Hormuz

Dubai is studying plans to build a $200 billion (£114 billion) mega-canal that would allow oil tankers to bypass the Strait of Hormuz. The Gulf emirate is understood to be considering the idea as a means of reducing Iran’s influence on the flow of oil from the region.

About 17 million barrels of oil a day are transported through the strait, equivalent to 40 per cent of the world’s traded oil.

However, the proposed canal project would be fraught with difficulty. Oil tankers weighing more than 300,000 tonnes would need a route through the mountainous region between Dubai and its Indian Ocean coast….

Iran has hinted repeatedly that, if threatened, it would target commercial vessels in the strait. The navigable tanker lanes are only six miles wide and any disruption could severely limit oil exports from the Gulf.

Engineers are understood to have presented the plans for a 112-mile canal to the Dubai Government. It would link the Gulf coast with the port of Fujairah on the Indian Ocean coast, crossing the Hajar Mountains with a network of enormous locks. The massive cost and complexity of the project is thought to have stalled a decision on the canal, but it could be a popular initiative with other Gulf states….

Abu Dhabi is building a pipeline to Fujairah so its oil can avoid Hormuz. It will carry about 1.5 million barrels a day, but will not have the capacity to transport oil from Saudi Arabia or other producers.

There’s a good new report on the state of sea-based missile defense here.

UPDATE: Pete over at Middle East Media has some important background info on the missile deal and reactions in the Arab press.