Many westerners make the mistake of viewing today’s Middle East in monolithic terms, both in terms of Islamic religious identity and as region completely awash in oil resources. Either misconception hides one of the most significant geopolitical conflicts of the twentieth and twenty-first century. For while the region is certainly Islamic, the millennia old conflict between the majority Sunni and minority Shia continues unabated to this day. And although the region contains the largest percentage of the world’s known oil reserves, these giant fields are limited largely to the Gulf Rim, Mesopotamia’s fertile crescent and the Caspian Sea.
The attached map from Dr. M.R. Izady at Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project overlays the world’s largest oil reserves with the religious make-up of the region and provides the simplest snapshot explaining the why behind the seemingly unending turmoil in the Middle East today. Given that most of the Middle East’s oil reserves are found in the Gulf Rim which though currently controlled by Sunni dominated states is almost entirely populated by Shia Muslims, it is little surprise that Saudi forces were quick to cross the causeway to help quell Bahrain’s restive Shia majority or that the United States Fifth Fleet maintains a constant presence in the Persian Gulf. It is certainly easy to see how Iran’s recent threat to close the Straits of Hormuz would send oil prices rocketing skyward, further threaten the world’s already weak economic recovery.
Along with the departure of coalition forces from Iraq, comes the fear that Iran will succeed in gaining de facto control of Iraq by proxy through the majority Shia population, much the same as it has gained substantive control of Lebanon through the political and military arm of the Hezbollah, and thereby gain effective control of one-half of the worlds proven oil reserves. Many commentators see the bloodshed in Syria not only as a civil war between the ruling Alawite minority and majority Sunni population, but as an extension of the contest being waged between Saudi Arabia and Iran for political and theological dominance in the Middle East.
Although, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, Sheik Ahmed Yamani, famously said “All in all, I wish we had found water,” many Muslims look at the vast oil riches in the region as evidence of God’s divine blessing. For almost a century it is into this morass that western powers have been wading in an attempt to secure the needed supply of oil to fuel the appetite of 8 percent of the worlds population while consuming 35 percent of its energy.