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Christopher R. W. Dietrich. Oil Revolution: Anticolonial Elites, Sovereign Rights, and the Economic Culture of Decolonization

Cambridge University Press, 2017, 366 pages
Philippe Pétriat
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Oil Revolution: Anticolonial Elites, Sovereign Rights, and the Economic Culture of Decolonization / Christopher R. W. Dietrich.‑ Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2017, 366 pages.‑ 23 cm. ISBN 978‑1‑316‑61789‑2.

Texte intégral

1Christopher Dietrich’s Oil Revolution is neither a history of the Seven Sisters nor an additional geopolitical account of oil‑based international relations more or less focused on the Middle East. Oil Revolution is rather an in‑depth and extensive history of the constitution, collective action and gradual division of the “anticolonial oil elites” who led oil discussions during the decolonization era from the 1950s to the 1970s. In this global history that connects the Middle East to South America and Southeast Asia, Gulf countries and their elites were key players. Oil Revolution thus offers insightful perspectives on a global frame in which Gulf countries’ economic development and policies were discussed, coordinated and planned.

2In spite of a somewhat grandiloquent introduction that obfuscates its precision and original methodology, the argument is rooted in these elites’ prosopography. That prosopography gives the book its structure. Together with less famous but nonetheless influential economists, lawyers and ministers, well‑known anticolonial activists such as Venezuelan economist and later OPEC Secretary Francisco Parra and the director of oil affairs in Revolutionary Libya of 1970 Mahmud al‑Maghribi spun a “web across space and time” (p. 233). Their common experience of economic colonization and the conviction they held of being the actors of a global history of decolonization helped these elites to bridge the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Through intellectual exchange and collective actions in international conferences and institutions, they made of oil a major and pioneering issue of decolonization.

3This global – and connected – history of oil elites is one of the main strengths of the book. It is rooted in Dietrich’s PhD research and specialization in the history of USA foreign relations. His teaching experience in South America probably strengthened Dietrich’s analysis too. African and Asian activists figure less prominently in his book than their South American and Middle Eastern counterparts. Trained as lawyers and economists in Europe and the USA, a great number of these elites wrote PhD dissertations and spoke a lot in European lectures, enabling Dietrich to give an extensive account of their ideas, although this account is limited to European languages.

4Here is another salient feature of Oil Revolution. The book’s chapters unfold the intellectual history of international law envisioned by the anticolonial elites as “a driving force of producer empowerment” (p. 157). Developments concerning “permanent sovereignty” and “sovereign rights” across the entire book may seem repetitive, but at least they enable the reader to understand how these elites formed their convictions and how they built what became “standard arguments” against oil companies. Christopher Dietrich provides his reader with a detailed and comparative study of the anticolonial elites’ dissertations and educational background. This study emphasizes intellectual exchanges among them, and illuminates their intellectual and political divergences as well, although Dietrich rightly questions the widely held view of a constitutive and irreducible gap between insurrectionists and gradualists in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

5Although it may not come as a surprise in a book that deals with elites, Christopher Dietrich only briefly elaborates on the ways that these elites’ slogans and programs were endorsed by – sometimes originated from – individuals and more specifically oil workers in oil‑producing countries. A growing amount of research has illuminated the role of oil trade unions and the deep effects of oil revolutions in the Arab Gulf societies from Iraq to Oman. Developments on the echoes of high‑level debates about permanent sovereignty into oil fields and oil cities would have strengthened the book’s argument. Another feature that is only briefly elaborated on by the author is the way the development of the oil industries empowered these new technical and political elites in usually non‑democratic countries.

6Inspired by such theorists of the unequal exchange as Raúl Prebisch and deeply affected by the legacy of the Iranian oil crisis of 1951–1953 (chapter 1), anticolonial oil elites constituted and shared an “economic culture of decolonization” (p. 252) that framed their ideas about a just economic order that had to be implemented, first, in oil‑based international relations. By adopting and adapting the legal notion of “permanent sovereignty” over resources, emerging oil elites in the Arab countries did not only challenge oil concessions and the patterns of oil production and price fixing by foreign companies. They also joined global debates and decision‑making circles, benefitting from a conspicuous “Latin American connection” (p. 77) (chapter 2). The history of the OPEC beginnings in the royalties’ negotiations and a division between gradualists and “insurrectionists” in 1960–1965 reveals the extent to which unequal exchange and permanent sovereignty were becoming “standard arguments” reaffirmed again and again by anticolonial oil elites (chapter 3). In their interpretation of the history of decolonization, the Iranian nationalization of oil in 1951 was not envisioned as a failure anymore, but rather as a step forward in a long process of emancipation. Dietrich aptly relates this new interpretation of Iran’s oil history by anticolonial elites to the pioneering role played by this country in making deals that fitted with reaffirmed sovereign rights during the late 1950s.

7The eventual failure of the oil embargo during the 1967 war seriously challenged the unity of oil‑producing Arab countries and of their elites (chapter 4). However, the British withdrawal from the Gulf and the Cold War stimulated the efforts of OPEC members to regain control over their oil. Libya and Iraq experienced the first laws of oil field expropriation in the early 1960s, and the American administration under Nixon and Carter no longer supported the companies in their negotiations with Middle East governments (chapter 5).

8This atmosphere helped the promotion of a second generation of anticolonial oil elites. Less prone to compromise than the older generation, Mahmud al‑Maghribi, Hasan Zakariyya, ‘Abdallah al‑Tariqi, Nicolas Sarkis, Sa‘dun al‑Hammadi and even the gradualist Ahmad Zaki Yamani were key players in the Tripoli and Tehran negotiations of 1970–1971 and the acceptance by Western companies of OPEC as their common interlocutor (chapter 6).

9From the Algerian and Libyan oil nationalizations in 1971 to the October war of 1973, oil producing countries of the Middle East reaped a series of successes in immediately or gradually (through participation) nationalizing their oil industries. Their group’s cohesion and their mutual support against Western companies were strengthened by their ability to play alternative European or Soviet companies against traditional firms. Successes were eased by a growing demand in Western and Asian markets and the adoption of sovereign rights arguments by officials in the IMF, World Bank and American State Department as well (chapter 7).

10The elites’ successful activism was not, however, devoid of tensions between radical States such as Venezuela, Libya and Algeria on the one hand, and the more gradualist oil elites of Gulf countries. Political rivalries developed into economic competition for production between Iran and Arab Gulf States as well. Tensions would only intensify in the wake of the 1973 unilateral decision by OPAEP and then OPEC members to increase the price of oil. In the age of high oil prices and increasing sovereign debts, oil elites were no longer the pioneers of the global struggle that they had endorsed for economic emancipation. Their positions were eventually undermining the unity and solidarity of the decolonizing countries (chapter 8).

11One might add that in the 1970s, oil affairs were being gradually handled by technocrats who were no longer as politicized as their predecessors. For the States’ and international elites such as those studied by Christopher Dietrich – but not for their leftist and Islamist opponents – oil lost its revolutionary nature and turned conservative. As such, Dietrich’s inspiring Oil Revolution makes the reader want to continue his global and alternative history of oil up to the late decades of the 20th century.

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Philippe Pétriat, « Christopher R. W. Dietrich. Oil Revolution: Anticolonial Elites, Sovereign Rights, and the Economic Culture of Decolonization », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 10 | 2018, mis en ligne le 19 janvier 2019, consulté le 16 février 2019. URL :

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Ce document est mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International.

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