Great game, with a taste of oil
Andy Beckett enjoys Lutz Kleveman's timely and vivid account of the petro-dollars in central Asia, The New Great Game

Andy Beckett
Saturday October 11, 2003
The Guardian

In the early Middle Ages, a dry rocky peninsula in central Asia began to attract unexpected numbers of foreign visitors. Along its strangely blackened cliffs above the Caspian Sea, large flames were emerging, continuously and without human intervention. Fire-worshipping religious pilgrims arrived and built temples at the sites of this apparent miracle. But the source of the flames turned out to be both more banal and more significant: a substance was leaking from the ground and igniting. That substance was natural gas.

Lutz Kleveman's timely, panoramic book examines the consequences of the presence of enormous quantities of fossil fuels in one of the world's most inaccessible and unstable regions. His main focus is the scramble to control these long-acknowledged yet little-exploited deposits. For fuel-hungry western countries such as France and America, for ambitious Asian powers such as China and Russia, and for the generally poor and fragile states around the Caspian, the area has the potential to become another Middle East. World oil consumption is rising ever more steeply; production in the Middle East itself is increasingly menaced by unresolved political tensions; the strategic attractiveness of central Asia, therefore, is growing daily. "In the Caspian we are looking at the largest non-Opec production growth worldwide," a senior energy policy adviser to George Bush tells Kleveman in one of this book's many startlingly frank interviews. With a domineering smile, the adviser mentions as an aside: "I like to say in the region that I represent the most powerful forces in the world."

The sheer scale and complexity of this subject has put off most of the British media, at least, from covering the Caspian oil rush in any depth. In Afghanistan, one of the more troubled countries through which future pipelines from the central Asian oilfields may have to pass, Kleveman tellingly comes across a group of bored foreign journalists. Apparently oblivious to the fact that the streets of the American military base where they are stationed are suggestively named "Petro Boulevard" and "Exxon Street", the reporters pass the time complaining that the Americans "don't give us anything to report on" and staging fights between specially caught scorpions.

Although Kleveman has worked as a war correspondent himself, his inclinations here are less macho and more inquisitive than the norm. He starts in Azerbaijan, the dusty former Soviet republic on the western shore of the Caspian that is one of the centres of the regional race for oil. In his vivid description, the capital Baku is part museum and part boomtown. The balconies of 19th-century mansions built by European oil magnates during Baku's first, relatively brief, oil boom look out over miles of disintegrating Soviet pumps and derricks. Meanwhile, the latest beneficiaries - both native and foreign - of the country's mineral wealth glide past in their four-wheel drives and Versace clothes.

The possibilities for extracting fuel from a place where even the local game "tastes unnervingly of oil" quickly become obvious. But so do the difficulties: treacherous drilling conditions, a government coloured by cronyism and author- itarianism, and bloodthirsty-sounding Azeri nationalists who see oil as a way of freeing their country from a resentful and interfering Russia.

This pattern repeats itself as Kleveman travels through the Caspian states. And he soon discovers that geography complicates the region's prospects further. The kidney-shaped sea itself, below which lies much of the oil, is fickle and prone to sudden changes in depth. There is no agreement about how to divide up its waters or seabed between the five countries that share its coastline. Meanwhile mountains and deserts separate the region as a whole from the outside world; getting the local oil to its likely markets will involve thousands of miles of expensive and vulnerable pipeline.

The precise routes of these pipelines, as well as being contested by the central Asian countries that hope to receive money for agreeing to let them cross their territory, are of interest to larger powers. Russia would like the oil to flow north to its borders. Iran would like it to go south towards Tehran. And America would like the pipes to go either west, to its longtime collaborator Turkey, or east to a newer ally in the region, Afghanistan.

Kleveman produces strong evidence that American policies towards Afghanistan have an oil-influenced dimension. He cites a report by the United States department of energy, published shortly before September 11 and the invasion of Afghanistan that followed, describing the country's desirability as an oil "transit route" and Washington's willingness "to cooperate with American companies who have such plans". He notes that the Washington-backed Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, represented an American company with precisely such ambitions, Unocal, as recently as 1997 in negotiations over building an Afghan oil pipeline. And an American diplomat in Kabul, "who wished to be identified only as 'Bill'", admits to Kleveman: "We will keep some advisers and trainers here for the Afghan army, like we did in Iran in the 1950s and 1960s when we needed the oil there."

This is not, however, an overly conspiratorial or polemical book. Kleveman briefly suggests near the end that he would prefer central Asia's oil to be extracted by more collaborative and peaceful means. He includes regular references to the long-running, costly and in some ways futile 19th-century "Great Game" for control of the region, which featured many of the same participants.

But mostly he watches proceedings with a quick and cool eye. Between the occasional thickets of geopolitical analysis, there are long, bracing stretches of travelogue and description, which reveal a compellingly unfamiliar world: gold-rush towns where the most primitive hotels cost £100 a night, tipsy helicopter pilots and presidential speeches broadcast at dead of night from speakers hidden in treetops. Kleveman's deadpan sentences sometimes approach the surreal. In Georgia, stopped at a roadblock, as he is perpetually throughout the region by ominously restless soldiers and policemen, he notes: "Their fat bellies cause their unbuttoned uniforms to stick out and look like wings." Elsewhere, he comes across eerily perfect symbols of the large shifts in power affecting Asia and the world. The roads to China from the Caspian, he discovers, are full of trucks loaded with scrap metal from closed and dismantled factories in former Soviet territories. Chinese businessmen are buying the scrap to melt down to build new factories.

Kleveman is also good at characters. The senior diplomats and oil executives he meets tend to be of a certain age, veterans of decades of manoeuvres in the Caspian's draughty capitals, and their seductive combination of world-weariness and deep determination is well conveyed. One quietly spoken Iranian strategist here served the shah and Ayatollah Khomeini alike; another took part in the hostage-taking at the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 and plots against Washington still; either might have stepped straight from the pages of James Buchan's grand novel about the Iranian revolution, A Good Place to Die .

This book's one substantial failing, apart from its lack of maps, is the relatively small consideration it gives to Iraq. A brief, presumably last-minute epilogue describes that country's invasion this spring as "the latest war of the new Great Game over oil", and points out the haste with which American troops took control of Iraq's oilfields. Given the rest of the book, Kleveman's assertion that the United States wants Iraq as an alternative source of fuel to Saudi Arabia has a great deal of credibility, but it is not backed up by reportage.

Maybe this will be his next project. In the meantime, the final paragraphs here do contain an insight relevant to America's venture in Iraq and to empire-building in general. Whichever spider's web of Asian oil pipelines is eventually constructed, no amount of soldiers will be enough to protect it and ensure its viability without sufficient consent from the people who live nearby. Countries made up of mountains and deserts are very difficult to occupy.

Andy Beckett's Pinochet in Piccadilly is published by Faber.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003




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