World Energy Monthly Review

Forget the Arab “street.” America’s problem in the Arab world may lie with the taxi drivers. During an early May trip to Israel and Palestine, I asked every taxi driver I met the same question: Why did America invade Iraq?

The response from all but one of those 20 drivers was the same: “To get the petrol.” And what about Saddam? Didn’t he figure into America’s decision? Again, the answers were nearly identical. Saddam was a bad guy, but he also used to be an ally of the United States. “Saddam used to work with the CIA,” said one driver. Another driver, this one in Ramallah, scoffed when I asked about the price of motor fuel in the West Bank. (It’s about $5 for gasoline. Diesel is about $3.50 per gallon). He said, “What do you Americans care about the price of fuel? You get your fuel for free. You just invade the countries that have it.” Even some Israelis to whom I spoke about the energy business believe the war in Iraq had only one objective: oil.

In politics, perception is the only thing that matters. And right now, the perception in the Arab world is that America was willing to lose thousands of its own soldiers, while taking the lives of thousands of Iraqis, all for the sake of motor fuel. And that perception should be profoundly worrisome for American energy executives and American politicians. Why? Because that perception is occurring at the same time that world oil supplies are constrained, demand is growing, Arab oil producing countries are experiencing increasing poverty, and Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise.

A quick glance at the headlines shows that anti-Americanism in the Islamic world is skyrocketing. In mid-May, the news that American soldiers at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had desecrated pages of the Koran by flushing pages of the book down the toilet – a technique that was supposed to humiliate the Muslim detainees being held at the camp — provoked several days of riots in Pakistan. The story, put out by Newsweek magazine, and later retracted caused, sent some 10,000 students into the streets. Four died and several score were injured. Pakistan was supposed to be a key U.S. ally in the “war on terror.” One prominent Pakistani politician, opposition leader Imran Khan, has called for an apology from George W. Bush over what was done to the Koran. The protests are likely to weaken Pakistani boss, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally.

The alleged mistreatment of the Koran also caused riots in 12 provinces in Afghanistan, the war-ravaged country that Bush hopes to turn into a shining example of democracy. The riots, the worst in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, left 12 dead.

The riots came just a few days after a Kuwaiti criminal court sentenced to three years in jail a group of 22 Muslim militants who were convicted of plotting to fight U.S.-led forces in Iraq. Two others were convicted of helping finance and plan attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq. All of the convicted men were associated with al Qaeda – the fundamentalist organization that has repeatedly targeted the U.S. According to Reuters, anti-Americanism and sympathy for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Kuwait — a state which owes its very existence to the military might of the US – appears to be “on the rise.” Add these recent events to a survey done about a year ago by the Pew Center for People and the Press which found that in predominantly Muslim countries, “anger toward the United States remains pervasive” and you have a recipe for disaster.

It’s not difficult to imagine an event which would rupture America’s standing in the Arab world. The Iranian government is developing nuclear capability. The Israelis – who bombed the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981 – have the capability to take the same action against the Iranians.

Near the end of my trip, a taxi driver named Anwar drove me from the military checkpoint just north of Bethlehem back to my hotel in Jerusalem. The 15 minute ride in his dilapidated Subaru cost me 50 shekels, about $12. I asked him about Iraq and the war. He gave the same answer as the other drivers. That led to a broader discussion. The Arab people like America and Americans, he told me. But America has made a big mistake with the war in Iraq. “It is easy to make enemies,” he said. “It is hard to make friends. ‘Friend’ is a very big word, a hard word.’”

Right now, the U.S. has very few friends in the Arab world. And unfortunately, that could mean another oil embargo, and probably, another war. And it won’t be long.


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