Lords of the Desert (James Barr, 2018) – Arab Oil Wealth and the World’s Energy Superpowers

1. Once upon a time…

In the early part of the 20th century, the British and Americans were competing for supremacy in the Middle East, who comes out on top was initially not very clear. Since the British had a foothold in India, this gave them a strategic advantage when it came to managing their vast holdings of land throughout the Middle East. This stretch of land marked by inhospitable climate, that has been fought over by empires for centuries, was the centrepiece of a fight for global dominance of the two great seapowers of the day.

2. The first Cold War was all about energy politics

Making use of an extensive network of spies and intelligence service operators, Britain had initially a decisive advantage over the Americans who were newbes in a world Britain had modeled and shaped to suit its own geopolitical agenda. But over time this gave way to a more intricate play in which the American increasingly had the upper hand due to their growing economy, and the technological advantage they upheld over many years utilizing marine distillate fuel oil whereas the British gradually lost their earstwhile supremacy in marine power projection.


Long before the First World War has ended, the United States were on their way to outcompete Britain as the world’s leading sea power and their capabilities grew rapidly. United States became the world’s leading oil producer, while British coal deposits became pricier and generally less competitive, thus reducing demand in the shipping industry. With the discovery of oil deposits in Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East in general, the United States took a keen interest in Middle Eastern affairs, building strategic alliances with the Saudis in that part of the world while the British set their eyes on the abundant oil reserves in Iran. This was also the birth of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later renamed the British Petroleum Company or BP for short.

3. And Britain lost everything…

The British lost the race for geopolitical supremacy in the Middle East because they were tied up with domestic affairs, the Americans by comparison felt secure in their own geopolitical sphere of influence, able to spread outward and secure foreign oil and gas deposits abroad. It was also the unwillingness of the British to compromise with foreign leaders such as is the case with Iran, even though they benefited from centuries of experience dealing in these countries whereas the Americans were generally willing to let locals handle government affairs. Limiting their involvement to business only gave them a decisivive advantage.


I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the geopolitics of the Middle East and energy issues in particular. It becomes quite obvious that energy issues shape the strategies of countries participating in international politics.

4. References:

Barr, J. 2018, Lords of the Desert, Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, London.

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