From Ingenious to Helpless


How Oil Has Turned a Resourceful Desert People into Overdependent Recipients of Vast Resource Wealth.

Considering how innovative they were to survive the harshest, most unforgiving of natural environments for so long, these days it’s hard to see how the heirs of the great Arab conquest of 632AD could survive in this desert they once mastered, far less innovate in this ultra-modern society they now govern.

The discovery of vast, easily extractable reserves of oil in the 1960s transformed a preindustrial society into one whose all-round development was so rapid as to be unparalleled anywhere, including China. Yet, in all this frenzy of socioeconomic transformation a link crucial to historical identity has been lost and with it the skills and resourcefulness to eke out a living on the bare minimum that nature provides in this most arid of regions.

And so the spectre of the desert looms again. For tribes to claim it as home, an environment consisting of a combination of desert climate and geography tolerates nothing less than a winning formula of mental agility and physical hardiness from its few inhabitants. This innovation to survive on the margins of habitable ecology has been squandered in relatively short time, however, by the purchasing power of oil. If these dwellers of the great desert, here known in a loose grouping as the Bedouin, are to make themselves future-proof it is to the desert they must look, and not to global investment banking, Western innovative engineering and Indian graft that has become the mainstay of their social and economic development over the past two generations. They need to rediscover that fortitude, that stamina and that simple genius of innovation – in short the survival skills of desert life – if they are to emulate their illustrious forebears.

Back in the day, they blazed a zealous trail out of Mecca in an expansion dovetailing west as far as the the Atlantic coast of Al-Maghreb and east as far as the Pamirs. The distance covered on horseback, the lands subdued, within such a short spread of time, was nothing short of breathtaking. With sword in one hand and the book in the other, they bore down on every Berber and every Pathan and every hardy native in between.

These North African and Central Asian tribes, described by historians such as Polybius and Livy in their writings on Alexander, were hardly pushovers. But no ancient Roman or Greek could have seen the Bedouin Arabs coming. In rapid succession, a new rising overshadowed the cities of the Byzantine empire: of Damascus, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and other important staging posts of the Near East. They crushed the heirs of Constantine as if the citadel walls were not of Roman cement but of sand! The fearsome Armenian warriors they took to task. Persians, the Arabs subdued them as if their thousand-year empire had never existed. The Parthian heartlands folded more like paper than like the mountains that made them men of stone. Khwarizm, Khorasan, Transoxania all toppled like dominoes. Roderick’s Visigoths might as well have given up Spain as tribute before the fight. Hell, even the Nile itself seemed to narrow to let them cross on their way past the worthless Pyramids. Destination unknown, the desert warriors would take their jihad however far the sunset would take them. They would stop along the way only to make inroads in ancient Roman provinces like Cyrenaica and beyond to Mauretania where Islam would be consecrated for once and for all in Kairouan in modern day Tunisia.

Emboldened by faith and destiny, from there these simple desert folk swept over the Rif mountains of latter-day Algeria and Morocco, breezed across straits their man Tariq named along the way, coveted the fair lands they saw en route through Visigoth Spain, retraced Hannibal over the well-watered Pyrenees, then continued unaided all the way to the Frankish stronghold of Poitiers where they met the uncompromising figure of Charles Martel. If not for him and his Frankish army, all of Christendom would have become the greenest province of the Caliphate.

Those 7th century Hijazi Arabs – Meccans and Medinites – were a resourceful lot. Of that there is no doubt. Within a mere 50-odd years from the death of their prophet Muhammad in 632AD, the first caliphate of the Umayyad had broken free from the clutch of the desert to unleash like a fever. Like the Mongols and Conquistadors centuries later, the Arabs might have had divinity in the sky and horses on the ground to manifest their destiny, but they had not much else to go on. Rather, it was mastery of the world’s most inhospitable terrain – namely, the deserts of rock, sand and scrub – that made all the difference. No one, but no one, could solve a problem like aridity in the way they could. Few, if any, could make a living, far less mount complex military campaigns, in temperatures brazen enough to cook a man’s brain into delirium within hours.

From dwellers of the desert worshipping rocks and things, within a hundred years history elevates them to heights hitherto unrivalled in their world, arguably unseen since the beauty of Achaemenid Persia or classical Rome. From finding ways of keeping cool in summer temperatures topping 50°C to finding ways of being cool through fractal geometry in structures designed by man in the mind of God, a people from a harsh land came a long way in a short period by taking the resourcefulness of desert living all the way to its physical and metaphysical end.

The golden age was in the reign of the Abbasid. Libraries that today adorn the present seats of civilisation – of London, Paris and New York – are reminders that once there was Baghdad and its House of Wisdom. In that house much thinking was done. Much that had been lost was found. If in that epoch Europe’s was an age of darkness, Al-Kindi and his housemates of wisdom resurrected classical Greek teaching, fusing it with their own in an age of light.

Where the rough and ready nomadism of the Bedouin Arabs had laid foundations, the more urban and urbane descendants of the Muslim expansion could turn their hands and minds to a new and golden age. That age required an intellectual climate that was temperate. Ironic when you imagine that to arrive at this cultural zenith – epitomized by the first universities in Cairo, Fez and Cordoba – one has to start the historical and geographical odyssey in a climate which was anything but temperate with tribes that were anything but learned: in the empty, blistering desert with the camel-driving Bedouin.

What the desert giveth the desert taketh away. To survive it takes more than faith. It requires supreme resourcefulness, and complete independence from the outside world.

Today, the Arab world is a paradox of helplessness and enormous resilience; of dazzling wealth and yawning poverty; of incredible stability and disintegration; of building the world’s tallest buildings but not having a clue how to do it. They were, only two generations ago, a wholly different animal, lacking even infant schools and field hospitals, eking out a living in the most inhospitable places, cultivating vegetables and palms on soils that received less than a few millimeters of rain per annum, mastering the flow of artesian water, getting by. Look at them now: hiring resourcefulness from outside, paying top dollar for expertise, getting others to find water for them, hiring an army of impoverished labour to pick up after them. Ambitions outweighing abilities, commissioning others to build them a world of comfort that they managed largely themselves for so long in their own modest ways. In short, using oil money to buy helplessness.

So is the discovery of an ocean of oil beneath their timeworn feet a blessing or a curse? With each petrodollar these Bedouins are taking the harsh out of living and themselves out of the desert which had made them uniquely adapted to conquer and consolidate half the known world fourteen hundred years ago. Unforeseen events in the coming century or two might give cause for a hard landing, even among those who appear most financially disposed right now to avoid it. But when a people go soft and lose the resourcefulness and simple innovation that kept them one step ahead of the desert and its punishing cycle of heat and hardship for so long, what insurance policy will shore them up and what investment banker will bail them out then?


Where Oil and Water Mix


Oil tankers button up the horizon bright as warning beacons. Beneath the blackness of the ocean sky at night, their floodlit decks abut one another such that from the shore the view could be peninsular. That daisy chain of bow and stern stretch for untold kilometres from the port terminal to where anchor is weighed and each vessel drops off the edge of the visible horizon and into the Indian ocean proper. Some will ride the Agulhas current around the South African cape, but for most their laden hulls will cut the water south and east, curving under Sri Lanka until they reach the oil thirsty Orient. Few places in the world but here can give the straight profile of a coastline a proboscis it never had before.

Down at the port meanwhile, the 300km Habshan pipeline from Abu Dhabi has to gush in to something. Set out like mythical checkers pieces stacked three high, oil storage tanks are epic of proportion. Each cylindrical tank bunkers more cubic metres of refined oil than crystal blue seawater lost in the Great Blue Hole of Belize. Perhaps not depth-wise, but diametrically these oil bunkers could be scooped-out sinkholes. The barren, serrated mountains lying behind them seem to shrink in their grandiose presence. There are few bigger statements of a globalized economy paid for in petrodollars than this. Nor is playing dumb an option. Turn your back on them and still they find a means to remind you they are the reason you are ultimately there. For those downwind of it, the air that carries the gas condensate is acrid and unpleasant but otherwise hard to pin down. It smells, as you might expect, like any compost fermenting in the infernal bowels of the earth since the Carboniferous period.

The mountains themselves saw action long before the tankers. They came through like a row of tiger shark teeth ninety million years ago when the Arabian plate was ordered to hump the floor of the Tethys Ocean, but instead slipped under it. The stuff that made the sea floor buckle and the saltwater rush in was so heavy with plutonic rocks that after it rose up it refused to bow back down, so after all this time this petrified lower jaw bites into the sky hard as the day the upper jaw crawled out of that now rearranged ocean to bite the land.

Ninety million years of gentle wind, fitful rain, and desiccating sunlight could not do the work of erosion quite like a bundle of dynamite. At intervals along the steep pitch of the peaks engineers have blown their tops to make room for giant pylons that power towns and villages running on 56 degrees of longitude up to the Straits to Hormuz. The electricity cables form a cobweb over a landscape that had little interference to contend with for all but the last few seasons of its long geomorphic history. If it weren’t a suicide mission, zip-wiring those cables from mountaintop to flat bed would be a thrill and a half. Time changes the work of everything and everything changes the work of time. In which order, our world in flux does not reveal.

The settlement just north of the terminal consists of shabby roadside buildings wide enough to take an oversize 4WD in for cleaning. For all the dust and fine-grained sand that blows up and over from the western desert, settling evenly on everything moving or otherwise, the big cars remain improbably clean. If not for the army of poorly-paid labour drafted in from the Sub-Continent cleanliness would scarcely be the next best thing to godliness. All this spit and polish shines in an ethnocultural context, where religious piety comes in a shroud of either immaculately-laundered white for males or a beautifully-tailored black for females. Ironic when you consider it, the black syrupy source of national affluence – one of a dirty duo alongside coal – stains fabric like nothing else. Yet the white kanduras and black abayas, for all their over the ankle length, never show so much as a minor blemish. Same score with fleets of $80,000 Toyota, Nissan and Lexus 4WD desert tractors that continually roll off the big boat from Yokohama. White is the shade of choice and not only for reasons of Bedouin sartorial tradition. As any driver of a black car will testify, as no woman in a black abaya will, white reflects the phenomenal heat of summer and black does not. Until familiarity breeds contempt, which it often does in an indigenous population spoiled by oil wealth into treating anything of value as easily replaceable, the new eight cylinder heavyweights are as shipshape and immaculate as the kanduras sitting in the driver’s seat.  Are cars and kanduras (dishdashas) white in defiance of the colour of oil, or did oil come out black as a defiant warning to those who would wear white never to get too close?

These are strange days we live in. Fuel is the fuel that sends heads spinning and markets trembling. The blood that makes the world’s economy boil is transfused into everything from heaters that keep the hearth burning against winters that never seemed so cold to boats that deliver desperate refugees to a premature end, from American aircraft carriers plowing dying oceans to Russian jets zipping over a Syria they have neither seen nor cared for.

In a country that reserves the severest punishment for drug dealers, these storage tanks are meth labs on an industrial scale. High is the feeling from the fumes, empty is the feeling when the tank runs dry. Pure as crystal, dirty as the thoughts we ascribe it. How many more drug runs before the peninsula sinks under a rising ocean?