Magazine article The Spectator

Tale of Two Cultures

Magazine article The Spectator

Tale of Two Cultures

Article excerpt

New York

Thirty years ago this week, on 17 October 1973 to be exact, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries raised the price of oil to $5 from $3 a barrel, then to $11.65, eventually up to $30, if memory serves. As a shipowner and industrialist, my old man was beside himself. Opec also imposed an embargo on petroleum exports to the United States, with the Shah of Iran cheerleading from up front. The world as we know it is finished,' predicted my old dad.

Well, not quite. Thirty years later the world seems awfully familiar to the one I knew before the oil shock - the haves have it, the have-nots do not - the difference being the Shah of Iran. Just as in The Thousand and One Nights, the shahking turned into a beggar, and the beggar Khomeini into a king. It took five short years. The shah was a megalomaniac but meant well. He was one of the chief architects of Opec's policies - he thought he could drag his people into the modern age - yet was surprised when the West refused to give him shelter when he needed it. (He who controls the oil, controls who our friends are.) He was also naive. The man was impressed by our Western ways, having gone to the Rosey, having partied with Gianni Agnelli in St Moritz, having used Madame Claude's hookers and all that. But he forgot one thing. As it turned out, the most important: the power of religion and tradition.

This power has had the heads of Arab nations sleeping rather badly ever since. The Saudis pay blood money to the mullahs, as do their neighbours. Just to make sure they can keep their yachts and palaces and hookers, they also pay for terrorism. Algeria, in the meantime, has turned into a slaughterhouse, while Damascus, Cairo, Amman and Beirut have been reduced to begging the kleptocracies of the Arabian Peninsula for walking-around money. The oil weapon, alas, turned out to be a Damoclean sword after all.

Thirty years on, the hopes and excitement of an Arab resurrection have remained a desert mirage, pun intended. Back then nothing was out of reach. Defeats would be avenged, poor societies would turn into industrial ones overnight, the new wealth would even secure the withdrawal of Israel from the lands it occupied in 1967. None of this has happened, of course, the oil money having disappeared into the pockets of the rulers and into armaments. One thing is for sure: the mullahs want the moolah, and in the name of the Prophet they ain't gonna sit still until they get it. …

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