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View series: The Middle East since the beginning of the 20th century

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Oil in the Middle East

This map is part of a series of 18 animated maps showing the history of The Middle East since the beginning of the 20th century.

Ever since oil was first discovered near Mosul in the early 20th century, oil production has gradually become a major economic and strategic issue in relations with the Middle East.

The European Powers began investing in Middle Eastern oil in 1912, with the creation of the Turkish Petroleum Company. The discovery of oil reserves in Iraq in 1927 led to the construction of the first oil pipeline to the Mediterranean.  

In the 1930s, American oil companies also began operations in the region, mainly in Saudi Arabia where they were given a monopoly.

It was not until after the Second World War that Middle Eastern oil states began to develop in earnest. World demand for oil exploded and, at the same time, the Gulf States’ share of supplies to Western countries grew. They were able to strengthen their position and gradually regain control of their natural resources, creating a symbol of national pride and justifying their request for decolonization.    

In 1960, determined to confront the bigger foreign oil companies dominating the market and gain control of prices, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait decided to create the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. The United Arab Emirates, and later the Sultanate of Oman, also entered the market and thus reinforced the importance of this oil-rich region.

With the Middle East in a permanent state of conflict, black gold is often used to finance war. Having the largest reserves of hydrocarbons in the world and with OPEC controlling the market, Saudi Arabia is able to use oil as a weapon against Israel’s allies, going so far as to instigate an oil crisis in 1973.

Instability in the region weighs heavily on the need to ensure oil deliveries.

Immediately following the first Israeli-Arab conflict, the first pipeline’s southern arm, which carried Iraqi petroleum to the Mediterranean, had to be closed down, encouraging the United States to build a new pipeline, the Tapline.

At the time, almost all oil was transported via the Strait of Hormuz, and then the Suez Canal for delivery to Europe and the United States.

From the 1967 War to 1975, Egypt closed the Suez Canal, forcing petrol tankers to sail around Africa. During this period Egypt, together with the Gulf States, began planning for the future by building a new pipeline to offset the limitations of the Canal.

In Iraq, the war with Iran and tensions with Syria cut off the possibility of sending oil towards the Gulf and the Mediterranean. This state of affairs led to the construction of a new pipeline across Turkish territory to Saudi Arabia.

Egypt, Turkey and, above all, Saudi Arabia are now well placed to control the transport and sale of oil, but they rely on regular intervention by the Great Powers to guarantee the security of oil transportation and the territorial integrity of certain States, such as Kuwait in 1991.