First Release, 27 April 2011
These five documents are minutes of meetings about Iraq between the UK government and oil companies BP and Shell, ion the six months before the war. They were reported in the Independent on 19 April 2011.
The documents do not demonstrate that oil was the reason for the war. But they do show that during the preparations for war, oil was a central concern for the UK government, disproving its claims that it was not interested in Iraq’s oil.
The documents also provide a remarkable insight into the interaction between oil companies and government, at the highest levels. We see that the government needed no persuasion that it should help the companies – the civil servants clearly saw themselves as on the same side as the oilmen. The companies could barely contain their excitement about Iraq – “the big oil prospect”, as BP put it in one meeting (DOCUMENT 3) – and the tone is quite unlike that usually seen in minutes of government meetings. The companies and government officials alike had no doubt that a war would take place, months before the parliamentary vote and while the government struggling (unsuccessfully) to persuade the UN Security Council to pass resolution authorising the war.
From the company perspective, the main purpose of the meetings was to ensure that they got their share (as they saw it) of Iraqi oilfields after the war. They were especially worried that the US government would naturally favour US companies, and might offer other fields to French, Russian or Chinese companies in exchange for their governments’ support in the UN Security Council. Tony Blair had already pledged British participation in the war, and so the British companies feared that with no bargaining power they’d be left out.
Trade Minister Baroness Symons – a staunch Blairite and active member of the British American Project, which had aimed since the 1980s to align the Labour Party’s foreign policy with that of the USA – was present in two of the meetings. She said [DOCUMENT 2] that “It would be difficult to justify British companies losing out in Iraq in that way if the UK had itself been a conspicuous supporter of the US government throughout the crisis”. In other words, if British forces fight in a war then British companies should get a share of the spoils. This view is clearly unethical, but is also arguably illegal, under the Fourth Hague Convention.
BP and Shell both claimed that no such meetings took place. These minutes show such claims to be untrue. When invited to explain the discrepancy, both companies declined to comment. For her part, Symons said to Parliament in April 2003 that Iraq’s oil was “the patrimony of the people of Iraq, which should be used for their benefit, and for their benefit alone” – this was not what she said in private to the oil companies.
For more commentary on these documents, including the companies’ objectives and their history of deals with the Saddam regime, please see Chapter Four of Fuel on the Fire. For more on the UK and US governments’ strategic oil objectives, please see Chapter Three.
- DOCUMENT 1 – Meeting of Edward Chaplin (Middle East Director, Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO)) with Tony Wildig (Senior Vice President for New Business in Middle East, Shell), 2 October 2002.
Chaplin: “Shell and BP could not afford not to have a stake in it for the sake of their long-term future… We were determined to get a fair slice of the action for UK companies in a post-Saddam Iraq.”
DOCUMENT 2 – Meeting of Baroness Liz Symons (Trade Minister) with representatives of BP (Richard Paniguian, Tony Renton), Shell (John Withrington, Gavin Graham) and BG (Bethell), 31 October 2002.
BP: Iraq “would provide an immense strategic advantage to any company which emerged in a commanding position”
Symons: “Anything of this nature would be highly sensitive and kept very close”.
DOCUMENT 3 – Meeting of Michael Arthur (Head of Economic Policy, FCO) with Richard Paniguian (Group Vice President for Russia, the Caspian, Middle East and Africa), 6 November 2002.
“Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP are desperate to get in there.”
BP: “Vitally important – more important than anything we’ve seen for a long time.”
DOCUMENT 4 – Meeting of Baroness Symons with Richard Paniguian and Tony Renton (Commercial Director Middle East, BP), 4 December 2002
Discussion of US planning efforts for Iraqi oil. “It was clear that Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the INC [Iraq National Congress] had a key role in selecting who was involved in these groups”.
“BP believed that the US authorities need to start giving some serious consideration to a number of issues on the future of Iraq’s oil industry including Iraq’s role in OPEC, the role of both existing and future Oil Ministry and State Owned Oil Company.”
Note that BP wanted more involvement of Iraqi expertise – presumably for greater stability for any investment.
DOCUMENT 5 – Meeting of John Browne (Chief Executive, BP) with Michael Jay (Permanent Undersecretary, FCO), 18 March 2003
This meeting took place less than 48 hours before bombs started falling on Baghdad, at the highest level: the head of BP with the most senior civil servant in the FCO. Of Jay’s five predecessors in that role, four had become directors of oil and gas companies on retirement from government service (two at Shell and one each at BP and BG).
BP had a team ready. But in the longer-term development of Iraq’s oilfields “They would not wish to be involved unless they were clear that administrative and other structures were in place to ensure that their involvement would be acceptable to whatever government followed military action”. This political conservatism by the major oil companies would shape the evolution of Iraqi oil policy during the early years of the occupation. Note however that Browne did not apparently make the more common point that such deals would have to be legal.
Second Release – 27 April 2011
These three documents set out the British government’s objectives for Iraqi oil, and its strategies for how to achieve them. They were reported in the Independent on 20 April 2011.
The documents stand in stark contrast to public claims by the government that it had no interest in Iraq’s oil. For example, Tony Blair said in February 2003 that “The oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd when you analyse it.” Three months later, a Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) strategy paper (DOCUMENT 6) would declare, “The future shape of the Iraqi oil industry will affect oil markets, and the functioning of OPEC, in both of which we have a vital interest.” That paper was written less than two weeks after President Bush declared “mission accomplished” on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.
The nature of British and American interests in Iraqi and Middle Eastern oil is explored in Chapter 3 of Fuel on the Fire. It is not as simple as to ‘take the oil’ (as Donald Trump has been saying over the last few weeks as a launchpad for his presidential campaign). And nor is it just about getting contracts for their own companies, although that was a secondary aim, as discussed in the pre-war Whitehall meetings. The most important strategic interest lay in expanding global energy supplies, through foreign investment, in some of the world’s largest oil reserves – in particular Iraq. This meshed neatly with the secondary aim of securing contracts for their companies. Note that the strategy documents released here tend to refer to “British and global energy supplies”. British energy security is to be obtained by there being ample global supplies – it is not about the specific flow, as if physical Iraqi oil goes to China rather than Europe, another source (say, in Africa) can be re-rerouted from China to Europe in its place.
Chapters 9 and 11 of Fuel on the Fire look at how Britain and the USA sought to achieve their oil objectives during the early years of the occupation (before the formation of a permanent government in 2006). Those chapters contextualise and interpret these three British strategy documents; they also reflect on the favoured euphemism of “advice” (which implies that Iraqi leaders were independently able to take or leave the advice).
DOCUMENT 6 – Iraqi oil and British interests, FCO paper, 12 May 2003
As its title suggests, this document is quite blunt about British interests, not bothering to dress up its proposals as being in Iraqi interests. And it notes the interplay between British energy security and commercial interests.
DOCUMENT 7 – Management change in the Iraqi oil sector, 27 May 2003
Two weeks later, this document was prepared for an interdepartment meeting of the government’s Oil Sector Liaison Group, comprising officials from the FCO, the Treasury, the Department of Trade & Industry and the Department for International Development.
Unlike the previous document, this expresses its aims as being in the interests of Iraqis – yet of the seven items in the objectives list on page 4, five are quite plainly British rather than Iraqi concerns. Even the other two (the 4th and 5th) are only what outsiders imagine Iraqi concerns to be, rather inaccurately.
Note especially the aim for Iraq to be a role model for the other major oil countries in the region, and the call for it to remain within OPEC but as an advocate of lower oil prices.
DOCUMENT 8 – UK Energy Strategy for Iraq, September 2004
This too was an interdepartmental paper, and is quite clear about how Britain would influence the evolving Iraqi oil policy. Note especially the recognition that Iraqis won’t like the plans.