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Nida Alahmad: "Oil has played and continues to play a formative role in the way politics is conducted"

Nida Alahmad, professor of politics and international relations, explains the relationship between oil and conflicts in the region
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Jordan's Nida Alahmad is a leading figure in the field of international relations. Her work, which focuses on state-building as a form of political experience and engineering, and its connection with forms of academic knowledge production, has been able to wield the keys to the shaping of Iraq as a state, as well as the role played by oil in its configuration.

She has also worked at the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Center for Transitional Justice and was subsequently awarded the Frieda Wunderlich Memorial Prize at the New School for her dissertation.

Do you think oil is one of the main reasons why states go to war? 

I don't think it is the main cause, but oil is an enabler of war. It makes it much more destructive. It can allow conflicts to go on for longer because of the wealth that oil gives.

Many people have written about petrodollars and how they are used to buy weapons and that is big business in the Middle East. Oil is one of Europe's and America's biggest purchases and the militarisation of the region itself is being financed by the money that comes from oil.  Still, I don't think the countries that buy these weapons go to war for this reason, but it does finance the conflicts. For example, in the Yemen war, all the weapons were made possible because of "black gold". 

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If it were not for oil the war would have ended much earlier, and maybe I am wrong, but some people hypothesise that two very powerful states in the oil market, in this case Iraq and Iran, were encouraged to follow, which is in the interest of the Saudis.

In the 2003 invasion of Iraq there were many demonstrations rejecting the US presence and I doubt that the US invasion was motivated by access to Iraqi oil.  Oil may be a factor, but it is not the main reason. Still, I do believe that the destructive effect of oil in the region has allowed this militarisation and more wars to take place.

What could the transition to renewables mean for an international conflict? 

We are not yet in a post-oil environment and I don't think it is clear that we have the technologies in place to move fully to renewables. 

In the transition period, in a way, the region is positioned in a very strong place. The oil coming out of the region is relatively clean and therefore environmentally less damaging to extract than other non-conventional forms of oil, so in a sense the region is positioned for oil to be relevant for a long time.

Is there a relationship between non-renewable fuels and renewable fuels with the development of Middle East conflicts?

I think what is changing now is the consumers of fossil fuels. For a long time historically, we often associate the West, the United States and Europe as the biggest consumers of fossil fuels and that has defined their relationship with the Middle East in many people's eyes.

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China and India are becoming major powers in this field. They are consuming more oil, so I think this shift in the balance in the kind of global power and relationship to energy is more connected to who is consuming. The transition is not there yet, but there is a shift in the consumers and the purposes for which it is used.

China is now financing and investing in several African countries to promote oil plants. How do you think the US will react to this? 

Actually, I wouldn't know because the oil industries have become an international problem. I think a lot of people are still stuck and it could essentially be that way if the big oil companies are the ones that dominate the world, but that is no longer the case. There are big oil companies that are also big oil states and they have started their own race. 

Competition for oil is not as fierce as it used to be. The US and China are now in competition for world hegemony with trade finance, but I don't think access to energy is a problem for anyone now. 

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There is a new book called Oil Craft where basically the author argues that oil was never a good reason to go for military intervention. So it's not a problem between two countries. It's like a global problem and any country today can access gasoline. I think the competition is really for access to trade and political influence. But physical access to oil is no longer an issue.

How would you assess current oil exploitation in the Middle East?

Even though we live in the 21st century, exploitation is rife and getting worse, and you see that people everywhere are less and less able to claim their rights as human beings. There is a crisis all over the world. And I think this example you have given is an extreme example, but unfortunately it is the state of affairs.

Why did you decide to do research on the relationship between oil and conflict?

In 2003 I went to Iraq after the invasion and I was interviewing people about transitional justice, about what they wanted to happen with the previous regime and before the insurgency. There were people who were hopeful so I was fascinated by this idea of the state as something we recognise as people. Not as academics, not as politicians, but as people who live. 

I asked myself a number of questions: What is the state, how does it function? And I looked at the context of Iraq, because it's actually a very fascinating country to see how the state has been consolidated and to understand how oil and Iraq go together. So I started to learn more about oil and oil economies and the politics around it through my study of state-building. 

I think there is an overestimation of the role that oil plays. Sometimes people start talking about these countries, especially the post-colonial ones in the sense that they were established in the post-colonial period as if the countries' histories only start with oil. 

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However, oil did and does play a formative role in the way politics is done. In Iraq in the 1950s and 1970s, the government received a lot of revenue from oil for various reasons. This is where you see a correlation with the expansion of development, education and infrastructure.

The destructive aspect of oil in the state of Iraq is the wars. They are very destructive and were only possible because of the funding that oil has allowed.

The United States has announced that it is going to withdraw its army from Iraq. We don't have a specific date yet, but in Afghanistan we've just seen it. How do you think the army's exit might affect the future of the country?

There is a qualitative difference between Iraq and Afghanistan because the US presence in Iraq has been insignificant for a long time. In this sense, Iranian influence has been stronger in Iraq than US influence. So I don't think the US exit is going to make a big difference.

Actually Iraqi politics is very much influenced by the Iranian presence. Its influence in itself is already very strong and visible.

Could Iran's presence in Iraq be a danger to international security?

Worst of all, Iran is one of many countries in the region seeking regional hegemony and influence, and the Saudis are another one of them.

So this is a game for hegemony and regional influence and the Middle East is one of these places that historically no country has been able to dominate for a long time. The worst disaster of Iranian influence is not for the region, but for the Iraqi people, who want independence and want to be able to run their own politics.