Adrian Hamilton: Oil is the reason America wants to be rid of Saddam

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The Independent Online

One wouldn't normally accuse Tony Blair of naivety or the Labour left of missing a trick when it comes to anti-Americanism. But it is utterly astonishing that a week of discussion of Iraq and the Middle East could fail to connect them to the other big story of the week – oil.

Oil has always been at the heart of Middle East politics. Even more so now that prices are on the rise and Saddam Hussein is using the oil weapon. The US reach for secure oil supplies is as much behind Washington's determination to overthrow Saddam Hussein now as any question of Saddam's danger to the world.

This is not to accuse Washington of some deeply nefarious international conspiracy with the oil companies. It doesn't need that. It is simply to point out that a country as dependent on imports as America is bound to take a strategic view of its interests, all the more so when it is headed by a president from an oil state who has earned most of his personal fortune from the commodity. It would be astonishing if America didn't plan to tie up oil reserves for itself. It always has in the past, which is why it (and the British and French) supported Saddam Hussein for so long, when he was using chemical weapons against his own people.

What is extraordinary is that Tony Blair should not recognise this as an integral part of American motivation in its post-11 September policies. For the single most important foreign policy fact of the 11 September attacks is the extent to which they have undermined America's traditional relationship with Saudi Arabia. Three quarters of the hijackers involved in the attacks were Saudi and most of the financing of al-Qa'ida emanated from the desert kingdom.

For the first time that anyone can remember, officials of the State Department and White House began openly to brief against the regime there, suggesting both that the royal family had had its day and that its importance as a strategic ally was greatly exaggerated. It was this implied threat that is in part responsible for Saudi Arabia's dash to lead a moderate peace position in the Middle East and to declare so promptly that it would make up any oil that Iraq cut back.

But as an oil producer, Saudi Arabia has nevertheless reached its peak. Its finances, thanks to gross overspending and endemic corruption, are in a mess. The balance of power within the royal family has shifted to the isolationists away from the pro-westerners. The US must look to alternative sources at the very least to secure its future increase in imports and to keep a lid on prices which threaten its economic recovery.

There are only two unexploited sources with anything like the potential reserves of Saudi Arabia. One is Iraq, held back by political constraint for nearly 30 years, and the Caspian, restrained by Russian self-interest and incompetence. Washington is now going determinedly for both. Even if Iraq were not developing weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein were merely sitting in a corner with his thumb in his mouth, it is probable that the US would now be seeking his removal.

In Central Asia, 11 September has also accelerated policies which the US was pursuing in any case. Development of the Caspian could bring huge new supplies on to the market. The question is whether they would be pipelined via Russia and its semi-satellites or Iran and the Middle East. Washington wants it moved through pro-Moscow territories. But this in turn has led it to support, with the complicity of Moscow, the nastier former communist regime of Uzbekistan and to encourage the pro-Russian and anti-Islamic elements in the surrounding countries.

That is probably the last thing that Britain should be lending its weight to. Our interest, and Europe's, has to be in bringing Iran into the Middle Eastern regional fold and in diversifying European energy sources.

Excessive reliance on Russia as the route of provision cannot be good. So too with Iraq. In a general sense a change in the Iraqi regime and an easing in the current supply squeeze would be a good thing. But the question is what kind of regime would replace it. America's interest is in ensuring a central, probably authoritarian, regime to keep the oil supply flowing. That is, after all, why America together with the Saudis did not ensure the demise of Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War or support the rebellions in north and south. The last thing they wanted was an Iraq that split up. So long as Saddam Hussein was contained and the price of oil was falling (as it was), why worry?

It's the reverse in price trends that have changed things. Europe cannot be said to have the same interest. An independent Kurdistan or even southern Shia Iraq should not concern us so long as they are democratic and peaceable.

Which is the most important point of all. The demand for security of oil supplies almost invariably leads to support for the more unpleasant regimes of the world. There can be few more unsavoury than our new ally Uzbekistan, for example. Yet that is where America is heading. Where oil is concerned, Washington has its own interests. For Tony Blair to think that he is only supporting a moral crusade and the demands of friendship without realising that he is also being used to further America's own commercial self-interest is simply to act the chump.