How 1973’s Spike in Oil Prices Transformed the Middle East

February 16, 2018 | Simon Henderson
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The year 1979 saw the fall of the shah, Saddam Hussein’s ascent to power in Iraq, the treaty between Israel and Egypt, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; thus, there is good reason to see it as a great turning point in Middle Eastern history. Simon Henderson, however, argues that the real shift took place in 1973:

The current fixation with 1979 results from the fact that Saudi Arabia’s new de-facto ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman . . . sees it as the date when Saudi Islam became extremist. . . . [But] I think 1973 is more significant, not because of the October war when Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria but because of one of its consequences: a fourfold increase in oil prices.

The flood of revenues was used in part by Saudi Arabia, the largest oil exporter in the world, to burnish its Islamic credentials—as well as to finance multimillion-dollar arms deals and some grand palaces. The Saudi royal family used some of the dollars to placate the kingdom’s religious establishment, which historically has legitimized its rule. Abroad, mosques were built by the dozens, and copies of the Quran distributed by the tens of thousands. But these Islamic endeavors were often not good works, [but a largely successful attempt to export the most radical and intolerant forms of Islam and support the Muslim Brotherhood]. . . .

[Furthermore], the cold war was still raging. Moscow’s influence rivaled Washington’s across great swaths of the Middle East—Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Algeria. Saudi Arabia wanted to replace godless Communism with [radical] Islam. The United States found that useful.

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