Mirage: Power, Politics, and the Hidden History of Arabian Oil, by Aileen Keating. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005.510 pages. Gloss, to p. 513. Who's Who to p. 531. Bibl. to p. 540. Index to p. 560. $28.
Despite the ambitious subtitle, this lengthy volume is essentially a revisionist history of the scheming for the classic oil concessions in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. In particular, the author is indefatigable in her efforts to rehabilitate the reputation of the book's hero, Frank Holmes, whose name frequently is coupled with "Abu al Naft - Father of oil, as the Arabs called him."
Holmes was a mining engineer who had worked in the gold, silver, and coal mines of South Africa, Australia, China, Mexico, and Russia before turning his attention to the possibility of Arabian oil following his service with British forces during World War I. He secured the first oil concessions in Bahrain, Kuwait, and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia in the 1920s against the weighty resistance of the Anglo-Persian oil Company and the Government of India. Holmes was convinced that oil existed in these areas despite the prevailing views of geologists. He was right but, in the end, the concessions were transferred to and subsequently developed by major American companies ARAMCO and the Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO), as well as a consortium of British and American firms in the Kuwait oil Company. Holmes was relegated to a footnote in oil history.
In her introduction and opening chapters, Keating portrays the reactionary hold of an expiring Government of India on the Gulf, and behind it, a British imperialism determined to deny others access to oil-bearing territory. In counterpoint to Holmes, the rest of the voluminous cast of characters governments, companies, officials, and executives alike - are seen as duplicitous and double-dealing when not just pompous and naive. Among the "bad guys" are Percy Cox, Arnold Wilson, Harold Dickson, St. John Philby, Karl Twitchell, and Hajji 'Abdullah Williamson. The author writes sympathetically of Shaykh Ahmad of Kuwait and Shaykhs 'Isa and Hamad of Bahrain, although not without a touch of the "noble Arab," while King 'Abd al-'Aziz of Saudi Arabia remains something of an enigma to her.
This is not really an academic book, though it contains many of the trappings. Instead, the book is written as a flowing narrative with the chapters unfolding in strict chronological order and broken up by frequent subheadings intended to carry the plot forward. …