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by Ellen Isaacs

September 2017

One of the worst current disasters is occurring in Yemen, and we hear almost nothing about it. For two and a half years, US proxy Saudi Arabia has been bombing and blockading Yemen into collapse and misery. Over half a million people are infected with cholera, the largest outbreak in the world for the past 50 years, and 2,000 have died. Rampant malnutrition, with 60% of the population having inadequate food, has increased susceptibility to the disease, while massive bombings have crippled or destroyed bridges, factories, hospitals, and water and sanitation facilities. Over 30,000 health workers and many civil servants haven’t been paid for over a year (NYT 8/24/17). According to the United Nations, Yemen is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with more than 10 million people who require immediate assistance.

The disaster in Yemen, however, is by no means an isolated tragedy. Similar destruction and suffering is going on in other countries in the Middle East and Horn of Africa:

*Syria – 400,000 dead in the 6 year civil war, 11.3 million displaced

*Sudan/South Sudan – 490,000 displaced; murder, sexual violence and                                repression rampant

*Somalia – 500,000 killed, 1.1 million displaced

*Iraq – one half to one million civilians dead

*Afghanistan – 27,000 civilians dead, 1.3 million displaced

*Gaza – 3500 dead in the last two sieges out of a population of 1.5 million,                           conditions unlivable, population imprisoned by Israel’s Wall

The combined effect of these disasters has created the worst refugee crisis since World War II – 65.6 million people – many from these countries. Of course, other nations in Asia, Africa and South America are similarly affected, but here we will deal only with a limited region. All of these conflicts, and most others, are related to the competition for oil between the US, Russia, China and Iran, as well as Saudi Arabia, and Israel. All the suffering countries listed above either have oil, lie adjacent to transit points for oil, are potential pipeline routes, and/or or harbor military bases necessary to the imperialist actors.

crisis overview

Each of these conflicts and displacements are tolerated or applauded by many ordinary Americans and Europeans because of anti-Muslim and anti-black racism, which is increasingly openly promoted by governments bent on war and control of energy resources. After 9/11, Muslims were looked upon with universal suspicion in the US, targeted by government surveillance and victimized by hate crimes. Anti-Muslim racism was important in winning the population and soldiers to make war on Afghanistan and Iraq and to contemplate future wars in Libya and Syria. Trump has vilified all Muslims in his attempt to ban immigrants from six predominantly Muslim countries, and hate crimes are increasing in this country. Throughout Europe right wing anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant groups are winning office and adherents. There will be no end to these crises unless we build an international multiracial anti-imperialist movement.


Each of the current wars and humanitarian disasters can be traced to the discovery of oil over 100 years ago and the competition between imperialist nations to control its availability and distribution. It is also safe to say that the summaries below are oversimplified, but are meant to help provide a basic framework with which to view today’s conflicts.

Middle Eastern oil was first discovered in Persia, now Iran, by a British company in 1901, and the first pipeline was built in 1910 and the first refinery the next year. In that same year, three years before the start of World War 1, the British navy switched from coal to oil to power its ships. This new fuel then made possible the development of tanks and fighter planes, as well as the increased use of trucks, making it imperative that all modern armies have access to the new fuel. The British and French also understood the importance of the control of oil resources and when oil was discovered in Iraq, the opening of the eastern front of the WWI became even more important. In the west, the allies were fighting Germany, but in the east they hoped to destroy the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which controlled what is now Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon as well as Iran and Iraq. The US did not enter the war until 1917, but the Standard Oil Company had been actively searching for oil in the Middle East for years before.

After the long four years of WWI, the victorious British and French divided up these countries between them, leaving the Arab residents out in the cold. The Arabs had been enlisted to fight beside the British with the promise of a sovereign state as their reward, but the British had no intention of keeping this agreement. Instead, they were party to the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty with France, which divided the whole region between their two countries. In addition, the British had made a deal with the Zionists, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which promised them a Jewish state in Palestine. The Jews, of primarily European heritage and with western values, were seen to be reliable allies for the western imperialists.

With the defeat of Germany and the Turks, this division of the Middle East led to the conflicts that still embroil the region today. France was given control over Syria and Lebanon, while Britain controlled Palestine, what is now Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Britain continued to take Iran’s oil under the auspices of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. The US was completely excluded from this deal at the time, having joined the war late and only on the European front, but the US government and Standard Oil were furious at being left out of the French-British negotiations and threatened sanctions. The British were short of funds after the war, which the Americans could supply, so the US was given a 20% share of oil in Iraq.

Iraq was the prize awarded to Faisal, one son of the Arab leader King Hussein, and the main military commander of Arab forces friendly to Britain. Iraq was a country arbitrarily created without regard to the existence of varying and disparate groups within its borders such as the Kurds and Assyrians, Shias and Sunnis. Although Iraq became formally independent in 1930, until 1958 it remained under British domination. Huge oil fields were discovered in 1927, with the British Petroleum Company controlling 50% of the oil and the US and France splitting the rest. Jordan, also under British control, was to be governed by another son of Hussein, Abdullah.

Saudi Arabia, which had been a collection of tribes and a part of the Ottoman Empire was, by 1923, united under the control of Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud. He was not only a staunch British ally, but a follower of the extreme Wahhabi branch of Islam. Saudi Arabia became an independent state in 1923, and vast oil reserves were discovered there by Standard Oil in 1938. Production began a few years later under the US controlled Aramco, the Arabian-American Oil Company, and by the end of WWII the US made it clear that it would be pre-eminent in that country.

France was the power that controlled Syria after WWI, and they were harsh colonial masters. There were large nationalist revolts, and in 1936 independence was granted, although the French maintained military and economic control until WWII. Lebanon, carved out of Christian, Shia and Sunni Muslim areas was also put together under French domain, which lasted until 1943.


Although the Middle East was not a prime area of conflict in the next world war, WW2’s consequences were far reaching for the region. The slaughter of the Jews by the Nazis and the hesitancy of Britain and the US to accept the bulk of survivors led to a massive increase in the Jewish population of Palestine. The Western powers favored a powerful Jewish state in the region as an ally in area now known to be a vast reservoir of oil. Thus although the Jews still only constituted 30% of the population, in 1948 the UN created an Israeli state that encompassed 55% of the land and the best access to water. Moreover, the Zionist government embarked on a program to expel the Arab population, which had over 80% success. Many of these refugees ended up in Gaza, then controlled by Egypt, and the West Bank, then part of Jordan, as well as neighboring Lebanon and Syria. In 1967, Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza and has militarily occupied them ever since.

Meanwhile, growing nationalism in Iran in 1951 brought about the election of Mosaddegh, who attempted to nationalize British Petroleum. This resulted in a coup engineered by Britain and US and the installation of the Shah of Iran. When an Islamic nationalist coup overthrew the Shah in 1979, the US lost a major ally and source of oil. The successor to King Faisal in Iraq was toppled in 1958, but Britain and the US did not invade the country, having been warned not to by the USSR and China. Anxious to avoid the emergence of more powerful nationalist regimes in the area, the US supported Kurdish rebellion against Baghdad and then hoped the long Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 would weaken both governments.

It is now common knowledge that the prime reason for the US invasion of Iraq was to retain control of the world’s third largest and easily accessible pool of oil. Afghanistan, while not rich in oil, is a prime pipeline route between the oil and gas rich Central Asian republics and Turkey, Europe, and Asia. After the US invasion, Afghanistan was also found to have deposits of rare minerals necessary for cyber technology.


Another major development of the last 60-70 years was the emergence of the USSR and China as major imperialist players. The Soviets, having been invaded by ten capitalist nations after the revolution, became more concerned about their rivalry with western imperialists than committed to exporting communism. They also wanted oil for themselves and to stop its flow to their rivals. However, their policies were often contradictory and subject to frequent change. At first they supported the creation of Israel because they saw it as decreasing the power of Britain. Soon after, however, they became supporters of Arab nationalism and an enemy of Zionism.

Basically, Soviet policy wished to counter any US advantage in Eurasia by expanding its military and naval bases and supporting anti-Israeli Arab nationalist movements. Thus the USSR, beginning in the 1950s, became the major arms supplier to Nasser’s Egypt and Syria. However, the bond with Egypt was broken in 1973 when the Soviets failed to provide sufficient military support for the war with Israel, and Egypt chose to switch its alliance to the West. The ties with Syria continued, with some decrease from 1989-2012, and the naval base at Tartus remains the sole warm water port of the USSR.

China, the world’s fastest growing economy, has an increasing need for imported oil. China’s main current foreign policy initiative is its One Belt One Road policy, which involves building a network of trade, transportation and cyber connections between Asia and Europe, but it worries about disruption due to Mid East conflicts, which could cause oil prices to rise. Before 1993, China was an exporter of energy, but since then it has become increasingly dependent on oil imports. By 2006, 58% of these imports came from the Middle East, and it is also the number one gas and oil importer from Iran. China is also selling arms to Saudi Arabia in order to maintain oil imports and is building pipelines from Russia( In the Sudanese civil war, China has played a large role by supplying arms to the government in order to secure joint exploration and pipeline projects. Since the US decreased the number of its troops in Afghanistan, China is now pouring in troops and financing there.

All these forces are colliding in Syria. Primarily what is at stake is control of pipeline routes for oil and gas, with the US hoping to transport oil from Qatar to Europe. and Russia and Assad wishing to build a pipeline from Iran instead. Now this proxy war between the large powers has attracted other players, and there is no end in sight. First Al Qaeda stepped in on the side of the anti-Assad rebels, then Iran and their Hezbollah allies in Lebanon began to support Assad. The US half-heartedly began to support the rebels in 2013. The extremists split to form ISIS, which then began to attack non-Islamic rebels. The US allied with the Kurds to attack primarily ISIS, and in 2015 Russia stepped in to support Assad. China is also increasing its involvement on the side of Assad, providing training to the Syrian military, opposing UN sanctions, and increasing investments in the country.

Yemen has the misfortune to lie next to Saudi Arabia and abut the Bab-el-Mandeb – the two-mile strait between Yemen and Africa, through which millions of gallons of oil pass each day. Saudi Arabia and its US client are dependent on this strait for oil, which otherwise would have to go around South Africa, and would also like to build pipelines across Yemen to Aden. In addition, Yemen is thought to have the greatest undeveloped regional reserves of oil, perhaps even more than Saudi Arabia. A group supported by Iran, the Yemeni Houthis and supporters of the former President Saleh (deposed in 2011), is attempting to seize power. Saudi Arabia is attempting to reinstate President Hadi, whose corruption, like Saleh’s, caused him to be overthrown in 2014, and who is now in exile in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, ISIS, as part of its continual drive to expand, has taken up positions in the south of the country.

Somalia also lies in proximity to the sea lanes that transport oil and since the 1990s has been thought to contain huge oil and natural gas deposits. Nearly two-thirds of Somalia was allocated to the American oil giants Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Phillips in the final years before Somalia’s pro-U.S. President Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown and the nation plunged into a civil war between rival warlords in January, 1991. Subsequent US military operations were said to be humanitarian relief missions, which is scarcely to be believed, Subsequently Somalia was invaded by Ehiopia and then entered by Al Queda in 2002, which united with local insurgents, Al Shabab. Famine, a cholera epidemic and a tsunami have killed or displaced at least 3.5 million Somalis. A new government was elected this year, but remains under attack as oil companies consider the risks vs benefits of further exploration.

In Libya, in chaos since Qaddafi was toppled by a NATO led invasion in 2011, three rival governments and numerous militia groups are fighting for control of the country. Libya was once the 9th biggest oil producer in the world, exporting mainly to Europe, and was attacked probably because the dictator was moving to nationalize more of the oil industry and, like Saddam Hussein, was threatening to refuse to use the US dollar as currency. Russia is now building ties with one of the major strongmen, Haftar, with the possible aim of re-opening oilfields, building a base on the Mediterranean, or simply becoming an international mediator (Foreign Policy 9/14/17).

Meanwhile the main US ally in the region is Israel, armed with nuclear weapons and the world’s largest recipient of American military aid. As a reward for its loyalty, Israel is allowed to continue its 50-year-old illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and to periodically rain down massive terror on Gaza. Currently this ”outdoor prison” for 1.5 million people has become unlivable, with only 2-4 hours of electricity a day and 90% of its water undrinkable. Health services are broken down due to infrastructure damage and lack of supplies, and over 700 schools are inoperable, and water borne diseases are increasing due to lack of sewage treatment plants.


What this recitation of horrors is attempting to show is that the humanitarian disasters in all of these countries result from the rivalry between the US, Russia, China and their allies, Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, to control the sources of oil and its transit routes. No humanitarian appeals to any of these governments will change their loyalty to profits and control of the world’s resources. No humanitarian relief efforts can have a major effect while weapons of mass destruction are being hurled at civilians. Only a mass and united movement of the workers and students of the imperialist nations and the nations they are victimizing can curtail the violence. This must include organizing in the militaries to turn the guns around and in places of production, to hinder the flow of profits. It is important to avoid nationalist organizing in the resource rich states, for their ruling elites are only too willing to court favor with powerful imperialists. Internationally and within our own borders, we must fight for equality and unity between Muslim and non-Muslim, and white, black, Asian and Latin workers. If we do not do this, these proxy wars between the superpowers will inevitably escalate into a new world war, which will annihilate untold millions and possibly end life as we know it.


  1. Don’t forget some pix and maps.

    On Friday, September 15, 2017, The Multiracial Unity Blog wrote:

    > eisaacs6 posted: “One of the worst current disasters is occurring in > Yemen, and we hear almost nothing about it. For two and a half years, US > proxy Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen into collapse and misery. Over > half a million people are infected with cholera, the large” >


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