Book Review

The Petroleum Triangle: Oil, Globalization and Terror

Steve A.Yetiv

Summer 2012, Volume XIX, Number 2

"Imagine ... a massive attack at a less globalized moment. A bomb goes off in the heart of seventeenth-century Madrid. The bomb kills only twenty people because the lack of mass transportation deprives terrorists of deadlier targets. The media are limited in technology and cannot even imagine what real-time coverage would mean. The global impact is likely modest, because a limited number of actors are connected to Madrid economically and are therefore insulated from its travails." This is one of the examples that Steve Yetiv draws on to suggest how globalization has empowered terrorists and provided them with quicker and cheaper means to spread fear.

However, globalization is not the only protagonist in this story. In The Petroleum Triangle, Yetiv delves into the connections among oil, globalization and terrorism to understand how these three elements have become interwoven in a fabric of resentment, violence and fear, to the detriment of world security. Yetiv, a professor at Old Dominion University who has extensively researched the importance of oil for U.S. foreign policy, deals once again with transnational terrorism and its vital connections with petrodollars. The author's main thesis is that Middle Eastern oil bears responsibility for financing terrorists, whereas globalization has offered them an international audience and technological instruments to amplify their messages.

The book begins with a historical analysis of the relevance of oil in shaping U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. When the producing states started to control oil by sidelining global companies, political considerations meant that energy security had to include the interests of more powerful and capricious players. The Iranian Revolution, radical Islam and the oil crisis in the '70s shattered the American security architecture in the Middle East and further complicated this scenario. The two Iraq wars put oil at the center of the scene once again, even if petroleum was not the only factor that prompted Washington's intervention.

When it comes to September 11, oil plays a crucial role in explaining al-Qaeda's motivations. Oil money was pivotal to funding the Afghan resistance, which counted among its ranks many Pakistanis educated in Saudi-funded madrassas. Oil money was also decisive for the rise of the Taliban, who also studied in the Saudi-sponsored schools and offered al-Qaeda a safe heaven for its operations in Afghanistan. Moreover, Yetiv argues, the United States would have tacitly tolerated the Taliban regime, in exchange for their consent to a U.S.-supported oil and gas pipeline to be built across Afghanistan from Turkmenistan. Petroleum also offered a powerful propaganda tool to Bin Laden, since he justified the attacks against America on 9/11 by accusing Washington of stealing Arab oil. In his mind, oil was instrumental in magnifying U.S. global power, and the Saudi royal family was responsible for giving in to America's greed. In fact, the Saudi rulers, by allowing U.S. forces to stay after the first Iraq war in 1991, proved themselves to be completely subservient to Washington's interests, according to the sheikh of terror. The growing anti-Americanism, which played such an important role in 9/11, is also related to oil, since the perception that the United States is driven by some sort of colonialist appetite for Arab black gold feeds into the hostility against America.

More broadly, oil has turned out to be crucial in financing terrorist networks and activities. Petro-dollars directly and indirectly financed terrorism and weapons of mass destruction through opaque connections among illegal organizations, states and international institutions. Complex financial transactions (hawala) and charities have provided the channels through which petrodollars have reached their final destination. As many scholars have shown, there are powerful connections between oil and the lack of democracy, and oil money helps to support those regimes that al-Qaeda rejects and fight against, such as Saudi Arabia. And the United States, in turn, supports the Saudi government because of its vast oil wealth.

Oil is not the only element in this story. There is also globalization, which has increased world demand for energy, multiplying its geostrategic importance and the relevance of the Middle East. Globalization, as Yetiv maintains, "has lowered the cost of and barriers to al-Qaeda's entrance onto the global stage and has provided the organization with the instruments to threaten international security." Middle Eastern oil and globalization have together helped al-Qaeda develop into a perceived and real threat, "but more needs to be done to assess how much of this threat is perceived and how much is real," Yetiv asserts. However, to address this threat, the United States has spent billions of dollars, thus forgoing the opportunity to use the money for internal needs.

It is time for Washington to distinguish between the real and perceived threat from al-Qaeda. Even more important, the United States needs to reduce its dependence on oil and foster energy policies that improve its efficient use and develop alternatives. "The greater the costs of the oil era compared to its benefits, the more quickly the US should try to move beyond oil," the author states.

In The Petroleum Triangle, Yetiv moves one step forward, connecting terrorism with the urgency for new energy policies. By sketching the mechanisms that petroleum has been able to trigger, the author indicates the exorbitant costs of U.S. dependence on oil. The funds that have been employed in defence and security might have been channeled into other national priorities such as economic growth, reduction of the national debt and other domestic activities. Tremendous strategic and diplomatic effort also had to be exerted in order to maintain energy security and fight al-Qaeda. This time and zeal might have been utilized for other purposes.

Yetiv deserves credit for a very well-researched analysis. However, it is easy to lose the thread of his argument. He spends a great deal of time on matters that are marginally related to his main thesis, particularly the non-oil motivations for 9/11: global poverty, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Muslim-world decline. These issues are necessarily just sketched and do not seem to be linked strictly to oil and globalization. He also delves into al-Qaeda's Weltanschauung and religious frame of reference, as well as into the contemporary debates on globalization. These sections do not provide the main argument with value-added information but seem to be digressions that weaken the author's thesis. Despite the validity of his argument, a better structure and a better selection of supporting facts and analyses would have reinforced his main points. When the author tries to tie the decreasing influence of al-Qaeda within the Muslim world to oil, it seems rather forced, since U.S. foreign policy in the Gulf has not undergone substantial modifications. Moreover, a whole chapter is dedicated to rising anti-Americanism. Although the exploitation of oil resources by the United States could be a contributing factor in explaining resentment against America, it does not seem to be the only explanation for so complex and multifaceted a phenomenon. On the other hand, a more detailed reconstruction of how oil money gets into terrorists' pockets and how al-Qaeda raises and delivers it for its activities would have been more helpful.