Thirty years before America invaded Iraq, it almost invaded Saudi Arabia.
The last months of 1973 were a desperate time. The Arab oil-producing states had embargoed the United States in October, ostensibly in retaliation for U.S. military aid to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. By the time the embargo ended in March 1974, the damage had been done. World oil prices had quadrupled, triggering years of recession and inflation. No American who lived through the seventies will ever forget the long lines at gas stations that flew red or green flags to signal whether they had fuel in their pumps. With today’s oil market glutted and gas prices plummeting, it’s hard to remember that there was a time when Americans could only buy gas on certain days, depending on whether their license plates had odd or even numbers.
The world had been turned upside down. From being mere resource producers at the mercy of Western states and big oil companies, the oil-rich nations became global kingpins overnight, flush with so much cash that they could barely spend it all, and armed with the most expensive weapons, which they barely knew how to use. The world trembled before the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), whose mostly Middle Eastern members controlled the lifeblood of the global economy.
Like the rest of the world, the United States tamely paid the inflated oil prices. But rather than forking over the money, what if America had chosen to take the oil by force? In 2004, declassified British government documents revealed that the United States had considered a military seizure of Middle Eastern oil.
Though no explicit military plan was mentioned, the documents do show that British leaders were worried by a conversation between U.S. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and Lord Cromer, the British ambassador to the United States.
Schlesinger told Cromer that “it was no longer obvious to him that the US could not use force. An interesting outcome of the Middle East crisis was that the notion of the industrialized nations being continuously submitted to whims of the underpopulated under-developed countries, particularly of the Middle East, might well change public perceptions about the use of the power that was available to the U.S. and the Alliance.”
British Prime Minister Edward Heath was worried enough by Schlesinger’s tough talk, as well as hints of military action from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, to order a British intelligence estimate of U.S. intentions. The report concluded that the United States “might consider it could not tolerate a situation in which the US and its allies were at the mercy of a small group of unreasonable countries. We believe the American preference would be for a rapid operation conducted by themselves to seize oilfields. . . The force required for the initial operation would be of the order of two brigades, one for Saudi operation, one for Kuwait and possibly a third for Abu Dhabi.
“The build-up would require the presence of a substantial US naval force in the Indian Ocean, considerably more than the present force. After the initial assaults. . . two [extra] divisions could be flown in from the USA.”
Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee calculated that seizing oil fields totaling twenty-eight billion tons in reserves would have been sufficient to supply the United States and its allies. However, the report warned that “the American occupation would need to last 10 years as the West developed alternative energy sources, and would result in the ‘total alienation’ of the Arabs and much of the rest of the Third World.” British analysts also worried about the Soviet reaction, though they concluded that Moscow would be more likely to respond with propaganda than force.
America could have seized the oil fields with little problem. With the U.S. military now out of Vietnam, a couple of divisions could have been spared for the Middle East while still maintaining a force to guard against Soviet attack in Europe. In 1973, the Saudis lacked all those high-tech American and European weapons, such as F-15s and AWACS, that the oil windfall would buy them a few years later. Even now, there are grave doubts about the ability of the Saudi military to use sophisticated arms. As for Kuwait’s military, it couldn’t stop Saddam Hussein in 1990, and wouldn’t have stopped the U.S. Marines in 1973.
Had this been the British Empire in the nineteenth century, or Teddy Roosevelt’s "gunboat diplomacy," force would almost certainly have been used. But in the end, the United States and the world did nothing but pay more at the pump (those who want to see how a military operation might have fared are advised to find a copy of the 1975 paper war game Oil War).
The fact was that the oil embargo came at the worse possible time. U.S. oil production had been declining since 1970, inflation was soaring, President Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate scandal, America had just withdrawn from Vietnam, the U.S. military was in a shambles and the last thing the American public wanted was another war. A long-term occupation of the Middle East might have required the reintroduction of the draft, which would have brought back the draft riots of the sixties.
If the United States had occupied the Arabian oil fields, it would probably have done so alone. The British clearly had no appetite for it. NATO’s reaction can be gauged by the fact that America’s allies, except for Portugal, denied overflight and refueling rights to U.S. transport aircraft engaged in airlifting supplies to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The Third World, still emerging from its anticolonial liberation struggles, could hardly have endorsed it. Ironically, the one nation that might not have been unfavorable was Iran, America’s major ally in the Persian Gulf at the time.
Ultimately, the test case for a 1973 invasion of Saudi Arabia came thirty years later, with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The conditions were far different: Saudi Arabia had a much smaller population than Iraq, and the U.S. goal would have been occupation of natural resources rather than regime change. Yet what might have ensued was an early version of the War on Terror. There was no Al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden was just a spoiled Saudi rich kid. But in the early 1970s, there was Arab nationalism, Pan-Arabism, Arab leftists who still believed in Communism, and a plethora of terrorist groups in the Middle East, Europe and Japan just looking for a cause to fight for. Instead of suicide bombers, there would have been guerilla warfare, terrorism and perhaps even a pre–bin Laden surge in Islamic fundamentalism.
In the end, just like Iraq, the question would have remained: What do you do with the territory after you’ve taken it? A permanent occupation that would have turned the Saudi oil fields into another Guantánamo Bay enclave? Or do you return the oil fields only if OPEC lowered prices, which would have left embittered relations between the world and its biggest oil producers?
The best solution then is still the best solution today: find another energy source that doesn’t rely on foreign oil.