The Persian Gulf War and Energy Security Connection

one of the most hardly-fought battles after the Cold War, the Persian Gulf War triggered immense anxiety among oil-exporting states and pushed the price of oil to exorbitant prices as high as $100 per barrel. This event is considered by some international relations scholars as an indication of the commencement of the so called “new world order” lead by the United States. However, for others, the actions of the US (Operation Desert Storm and other related responses to the skirmishes) seemed not only an agenda of rescue to Kuwait (a democratic state) but rather an important undertaking of the superpower to hamper the prospect of Iraq acquiring more oil wealth and influence in the OPEC should it be able to totally annex the small former Iraqi territory.[1]

This responsibility and burden was placed upon the US and, to some extent, also served as a test of its enduring strength after its emergence as the sole superpower after the four-decade ideological war. This undertaking would definitely cater to the national interest not only of the US but also to the economic conditions of both oil-producing and oil-consuming states from America to Asia. In this light, I present three points of analysis on the nexus between the Gulf War and energy security.


First, much of the world depends on oil to fuel their dynamic economies. Much of the world’s petroleum exports come from the Gulf Region. With the resurgence of conflict in the Middle East, political stability would be severely affected, which would then cause economic turbulence in the region and eventually, the global market. Virtually all conflict in history that involved oil actually caused energy insecurity to world economies. In regards to the persistence of insecurity, states would therefore find ways to develop alternative sources of energy which would most likely decrease the price of oil, and lessen the leverage of oil-exporting countries in the global political economy.

Second, in times of crisis due to conflicts such as the Gulf War, strategic realism becomes more relevant in the study of international relations and security studies (whether traditional or non-traditional) and is practically applied by involved states. The US for instance called for the participation of other Arab states to fight against Iraq’s aggressive tactics, and three were also members of the OPEC in which Iraq is also a member-state.[i] With US gaining support from Iraq’s fellow OPEC members, realist strategy become even more apparent. This may shed light to why most members of the coalition supported the US, although they were not really very strong allies of the latter prior to the war. This may be because of the urgency to control Iraq’s menacing and greed. Iraq’s aggressive invasion of Kuwait may actually be interpreted as concrete step in order to further its influence in the OPEC.[2] To counter this greedy scheme, fellow OPEC members fought against Iraq to contain it. Preventing Iraq’s ambition to increase influence in the OPEC at the expense of Kuwait, a fellow member-state does not show greed, but also implies thirst for influence which would eventually grow into a greater thirst for power in the region. Should this happens, a worse scenario in energy security may transpire. In addition, this series of realist actions bring the realist reader to an analysis and confirmation of the responsibility of a global superpower to lead fellow states as well as the rational tendencies of states in times of crisis.

Third, if Iraq gained influence in the OPEC by annexing Kuwait, it could have caused conflict with Saudi Arabia, which would then escalate the political instability in the Middle East and cause higher oil prices. This third factor may be best viewed through a realist-constructivist lens: a realist line of thought which may be interpreted further when considering other factors such as economic repercussions. It should be noted that Saudi Arabia seemed to be the prime member of the OPEC, and accounted for closely one-third of OPECs production and marketing of oil. Apparently, it seemed and seems to be singlehandedly controlling oil prices via its strong influence in the OPEC. Using a realist argument or perspective, Saudi would not allow Iraq to annex Kuwait in order to hamper the possibility of Iraq gaining more power and influence in the Saudi-dominated OPEC.[ii] Actually, although the Saudis want a price of oil that is high in terms of Saudi’s cost of production, they would not want a price too high to jeopardize the future of an oil-based energy system and the viability of the world economy. The Saudi perspective is shared by other Gulf States who, with the Saudi government, form the moderate camp of the OPEC, and fought against Iraqi greed. Having this in mind, these OPEC members joined the US in the coalition force. Therefore, the victory of the US and the coalition force may be interpreted not only as a successful defeat of Iraq and for Kuwait’s liberation but also a brief respite to the up-spiraling of oil prices in the world market, in order to prevent further instabilities and energy insecurities.[iii]

[1]The US was mandated by the UN to wage war against Iraq to put a halt to the terrible destruction of Kuwait.

[2]While numerous factors motivated the US and its allies in reacting strongly to the invasion of Kuwait, concern about oil was one of the most important. Control over Kuwait’s petroleum reserves would have given Iraq control over a total of 200B barrels, about one-fifth of the world total of known commercial oil reserves.

[i] Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are OPEC members who were also part of the anti-Iraq coalition

[ii] Combined Iraqi and Kuwaiti daily production capacity would have been around 5.5 million barrels per day, still below that of Saudi Arabia (8.5 million barrels per day) but large enough to give Iraq significant world market power.

[iii] It must be considered that incidental to the Iraqi invasion, a last ditch effort by OPEC to resolve the dispute collapsed in July 1990, and on August 2, it invaded Kuwait. In October 1990, the coalition supported a UN resolution authorizing an embargo that would close all world oil markets to Iraqi exports (US Department of Energy, EIA, The US Petroleum Industry: Past as Prologue, 1970-1992 (Washington: 1993), 57). The coalition then sent military forces to the region and, on January 16, 1991, launched a military action that liberated Kuwait and led to a record one-day drop in oil prices. Following the war, due to Iraq’s continuing ability to manufacture wmds and its refusal to agree to effective monitoring of its activities, the UN maintained sanctions on all exports to Iraq except for food and medical supplies and other humanitarian needs. The UN also maintained its embargo on exports of Iraqi oil (Joan Spero and Jeffrey Hart. “Oil, Commodity, Cartels, and Power,” The Politics of International Economic Relations. 5th Edition. Rutledge, London and New York, 1997, pp.299-300).




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