The Seattle Times - October 26, 2003

By Eli Sanders

Saudi Arabia is a problem.

It sits atop a quarter of the world's proven oil reserves and has the largest excess oil production capacity on the planet, which effectively gives the Persian Gulf state control over global oil prices. The United States consumes more oil than any other nation, and thus Saudi Arabia has become a necessary U.S. ally. But Saudi Arabia is also a repressive, corrupt monarchy that funds terrorism and was home to 15 of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers.

This would seem to make it a natural target in the war on terrorism. What to do? The Bush administration has dealt with this conundrum mainly by insisting that Saudi Arabia is an ally, period.

Two recent books suggest the United States is up to something else: Sucking as much oil as possible out of "our friends" the Saudis before their wells run dry or their monarchy is overthrown by internal Islamic militant enemies, whichever comes first. And in the meantime, using the war on terror to position America for control of the world's next big gas station. This mammoth source sits due northeast of the Saudi kingdom in the Persian Gulf: the vast untapped oil reserves beneath the Caspian Sea region of Central Asia, the largest untapped oil resource on the planet.

Former CIA agent Robert Baer, author of the best-selling "See No Evil," shows the importance of moving beyond our dependence on Saudi oil in "Sleeping With the Devil," his indictment of the Saudi regime and its American enablers. In this blunt work, Baer draws on his years of experience stationed in the Middle East as he explores the ties that bind the United States and Saudi Arabia (oil, money and arms) and the adverse consequence of this longstanding relationship (corruption, both in Washington and in Riyadh).

This is not a conspiracy-theory book, though it does touch on topics sure to thrill conspiracy theorists: the mysterious Carlyle Group, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, $1 million allegedly left in a briefcase for former President Nixon by a shady Saudi arms dealer. But in addition to touching on these murky things, "Sleeping With the Devil" gathers known data into an important argument — inelegantly written and meandering at times, but nevertheless powerful — for ending America's dependence on the Saudis.

In "The New Great Game," veteran war correspondent Lutz Kleveman finds America already planning to do just that. Beneath the Caspian Sea lies an estimated 110 billion barrels of oil, enough to make a lot of people very rich while decreasing the West's dependence on Persian Gulf oil and perhaps breaking the control that the Saudis and the OPEC cartel exercise over world oil prices. If you are a leader of the world's largest oil-consuming country, or an oilman, or both, this is a very attractive prospect.

Kleveman points out that the U.S. government has known about, and expressed interest in, the vast Caspian oil reserves for many years. He quotes a Clinton administration official saying as much in 1997, and Vice President Dick Cheney saying, in 1998, when he was head of the oil-supply company Halliburton: "I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian."

The problem with Caspian oil is this: Because the Caspian region is landlocked, vast pipelines must be built to get the black gold out. The question is: through which countries? The countries that end up controlling the pipelines stand to gain tremendous influence and lucrative transit fees, and thus the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea have become the chessboard for the "new Great Game."

The old Great Game was the 19th-century competition between Russia and the British Empire for control of Central Asia, and thus access to the riches of India. The new Great Game involves the U.S., Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan all jockeying for control of the same area, but this time with oil as the prize.

There are four major options for getting Caspian oil out via pipeline: south through Iran to the Persian Gulf; north through Russia to Moscow or Russian ports; west through Azerbaijan, Georgia and then Turkey to the Mediterranean; or east, through some combination of the "-stans" (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan), and then south across Afghanistan to Pakistani ports on the Arabian Sea.

The U.S. favors only two of these possibilities: one that involves American ally Turkey or one that involves American-controlled Afghanistan and brand-new American ally Pakistan. The last thing the U.S. wants is "axis of evil" member Iran or longtime adversary Russia gaining control over the pipeline to Caspian oil. The war on terror has resulted in U.S. troops being stationed in former Soviet Central Asian republics and in U.S.-controlled Afghanistan. Their stated aim is preventing another Sept. 11 and spreading democracy. Without calling into question the truth or urgency of these aims, Kleveman notes the neat convergence of America's actions in the war on terror and its desire to benefit from Caspian oil.

"While the Caspian Energy resources may not be the casus belli," he writes, "they certainly could be the big price in the War on Terror, which the Bush administration now uses to dramatically extend American influence in Central Asia." And he sees the U.S. occupation of Iraq (a country that sits on 112 billion barrels of oil, the world's second-largest oil reserves) as just another new Great Game power play.

"By spilling over the Central Asia borders into Iraq, the new Great Game over oil has entered its crucial stage," Kleveman writes. "However vehement the denials by the Bush administration, its true intention in Iraq clearly is to turn the country into a strategic oil supplier for the U.S. economy and America's new ally in the Middle East, as an alternative to Saudi Arabia."

Kleveman's book faces the same challenge as Baer's — making the complicated, under-covered topic of oil geopolitics readable. He is slightly more successful, though he also falls victim to meandering tangents. Both authors can take credit for books that are essential for those seeking as many views as possible on this complicated moment in history.



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