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Big Oil’s Iraq Deals Are the Greatest Stick-Up In History


Once oil passed $140 a barrel, even the most rabidly rightwing media hosts had to prove their populist credibility by devoting a portion of every show to bashing Big Oil. Some have gone so far as to invite me on for a friendly chat about an insidious new phenomenon: "disaster capitalism." It usually goes well — until it doesn’t.

For instance, "independent conservative" radio host Jerry Doyle and I were having a perfectly amiable conversation about sleazy insurance companies and inept politicians when this happened: "I think I have a quick way to bring the prices down," Doyle announced. "We’ve invested $650bn to liberate a nation of 25 million people, shouldn’t we just demand that they give us oil? There should be tankers after tankers backed up like a traffic jam getting into the Lincoln Tunnel, the stinkin’ Lincoln, at rush-hour with thank-you notes from the Iraqi government … Why don’t we just take the oil? We’ve invested it liberating a country. I can have the problem solved of gas prices coming down in 10 days, not 10 years."

There were a couple of problems with Doyle’s plan, of course. The first was that he was describing the biggest stick-up in world history. The second that he was too late. "We" are already heisting Iraq’s oil, or at least are on the brink of doing so.

It started with no-bid service contracts announced for Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell, BP and Total (they have yet to be signed but are still on course). Paying multinationals for their technical expertise is not unusual in itself. What is odd is that such contracts almost invariably go to oil service companies — not to the oil majors, whose work is exploring, producing and owning carbon wealth. The contracts only make sense in the context of reports that the oil majors have insisted on the right of first refusal on subsequent contracts handed out to manage and produce Iraq’s oilfields. In other words, other companies will be free to bid on those future contracts, but these companies will win.

One week after the no-bid service deals were announced, the world caught its first glimpse of the real prize. After years of backroom arm-twisting, Iraq is officially flinging open six of its major oilfields, accounting for half of its known reserves, to foreign investors. According to Iraq’s oil minister, the long-term contracts will be signed within a year. While ostensibly under the control of the Iraq National Oil Company, foreign corporations will keep 75% of the value of the contracts, leaving just 25% for their Iraqi partners.

That kind of ratio is unheard of in oil-rich Arab and Persian states, where achieving majority national control over oil was the defining victory of anti-colonial struggles. According to Greg Muttitt, a London-based oil expert, the assumption up until now was that foreign multinationals would be brought in to develop new fields in Iraq — not to take over those which are already in production and therefore require minimal technical support. "The policy was always to allocate these fields to the Iraq National Oil Company," he told me. "This is a total reversal of that policy, giving the Iraq National Oil Company a mere 25% instead of the planned 100%."

So what makes such lousy deals possible in Iraq, which has already suffered so much? Paradoxically, it is Iraq’s suffering — its never-ending crisis — that is the rationale for an arrangement that threatens to drain Iraq’s treasury of its main revenue source. The logic goes like this: Iraq’s oil industry needs foreign expertise because years of punishing sanctions starved it of new technology, while the invasion and continuing violence degraded it further. And Iraq needs to start producing more oil urgently. Why? Also because of the war. The country is shattered and the billions handed out in no-bid contracts to western firms have failed to rebuild it.

And that’s where the new contracts come in: they will raise more money, but Iraq has become such a treacherous place that the oil majors must be induced to take the risk of investing. Thus the invasion of Iraq neatly creates the argument for its subsequent pillage.

Several of the architects of the Iraq war no longer even bother to deny that oil was a major motivator for the invasion. On US National Public Radio’s To the Point, Fadhil Chalabi, one of the primary Iraqi advisers to the Bush administration in the lead-up to the invasion, recently described the war as "a strategic move on the part of the United States of America and the UK to have a military presence in the Gulf in order to secure [oil] supplies in the future". Chalabi, who served as Iraq’s oil undersecretary of state and met with the oil majors before the invasion, described this as "a primary objective".

Invading countries to seize their natural resources is illegal under the Geneva conventions. That means the huge task of rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure — including its oil infrastructure — is the financial responsibility of Iraq’s invaders. They should be forced to pay reparations, just as Saddam Hussein’s regime paid $9bn to Kuwait in reparations for its 1990 invasion. Instead, Iraq is being forced to sell 75% of its national patrimony to pay the bills for its own illegal invasion and occupation.

Naomi Klein is the author of No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, and of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. She wrote and co-produced "The Take," a documentary about Argentina’s occupied factory movement.

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