Oil and Politics: How the Silk Roads Became the Oil Roads

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Silk Roads" by Peter Frankopan. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why does everyone fight over oil? How does this struggle affect the balance of power in the world?

In ancient times, Persia was prized by the great powers of the world for its wealth and location. In modern times, the area is prized for its oil. The discovery of this commodity altered the world’s political landscape forever.

Continue reading for a historical overview of oil and politics.

Oil and Politics

World War I would forever alter the international order, according to Frankopan. The old colonial empires of Britain and France, although victorious in the war, emerged greatly weakened, while the old multinational empires of Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans collapsed altogether. Out of the ashes of the devastating conflict would arise new international economic, political, and military rivalries that still dominate our world today. But the root of these power struggles would remain where it had been for centuries—in the East—because of the novel combination of oil and politics.

(Shortform note: Scholars agree with Frankopan that the war’s legacy can be seen most clearly in the complex power politics that define the modern Middle East. They trace these conflicts to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled over much of the region from the late 13th century to the end of World War I in 1918. In particular, the end of Ottoman imperial rule created a new political space for the rise of nationalism and movements for self-determination in the multiethnic region. The creation of new nationalist governments in Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire—often quasi-puppet states with European backing—created a new set of nationalist and sectarian rivalries that lives with us today.)

We’ve already seen Frankopan make the case that, from ancient times, Persia had been coveted by the great powers of East and West due to its material wealth and strategic location. But the discovery of oil there in the 19th century would once again make Persia the center stage of global politics. Where once spices, silks, and slaves had been the most valued resources of the East, oil would now become the commodity upon which the rapidly industrializing world turned. The Silk Roads had become the Oil Roads. 

(Shortform note: Persia’s centrality to geopolitical strategy continues to the present day—and not just because of its oil reserves. Today, Iran is the centerpiece of China’s “One Belt, One Road” project to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure development—bridges, rails, ports, and energy—across dozens of countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Because of its location at the nexus of Europe and Asia, Iran offers ready access to nearby markets that the Chinese government wishes to tap into. China is using these infrastructure investments to bring Tehran closer to Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Europe—and, ultimately, Beijing.)

Frankopan writes that, in the early 20th century, the British secured exclusive access to Persian oil resources, largely through lavish bribes conferred upon the corrupt ruling dynasty. This would prove decisive to British victory in World War I, as the Royal Navy’s access to oil reserves enabled its fleet to navigate more quickly and stay at sea longer than its enemies. To protect their access to oil, which they saw as the lifeblood of the empire, the British after World War I set up puppet governments and figurehead leaders all across the Middle East, redrawing national boundaries to get the pliant political arrangements they desired. These moves fueled nationalist and religious resentments that would boil over in the decades to come.

Unintended Tragedies of British Rule in the Post-WWI Middle East

These moves in the Middle East by the British government would have unintended—and tragic—consequences. To protect their access to oil and preserve the geopolitical balance of power in the volatile region, the British needed to make competing promises and concessions to opposing groups. During World War I, the British had promised to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine, largely to secure the support of the Jewish community in Palestine for the war effort against the Ottomans. However, in the late 1930s, the Palestinian Arabs in British Mandatory Palestine staged a revolt against British rule, largely fueled by opposition to the British policy of allowing open-ended Jewish immigration to Palestine.

In response to the revolt and to appease Arab resentments, the British in 1939 issued a White Paper that, among other provisions, restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine to 75,000 for the next five years and made that immigration contingent on Arab consent. With the simultaneous rise of Adolf Hitler’s murderously antisemitic regime in Germany, the new British policy had the effect of closing one of the few escape routes for Jews seeking to flee Europe on the eve of the Holocaust. 
Oil and Politics: How the Silk Roads Became the Oil Roads

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Silk Roads summary:

  • Why the Silk Roads have always been history’s crucial connection point
  • Why understanding the East is crucial to our understanding of the world
  • A history of the Silk Roads, from ancient times to the 21st century

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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