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Many historians misunderstand Sykes–Picot, the treaty that carved up the Middle East, as a random act of colonial mapmaking. In fact, the secret World War I agreement between France and the United Kingdom had everything to do with oil. France and the United Kingdom, as well as Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States, knew of the Middle East’s vast petroleum fields and had set up a consortium to share the oil before the outbreak of the war. Through Sykes–Picot, France and the United Kingdom planned to absorb the German share and build pipelines to ports along the Mediterranean. Yet the two countries did not want to share a pipeline, fearing that their alliance might someday fray. The plans for two separate pipelines—the French one from Kirkuk, in modern-day Iraq, to Tripoli, in modern-day Lebanon, and the British one from Kirkuk to Haifa, in modern-day Israel—determined how Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot split up the region.
Historians usually quote Sykes’ 1915 statement to the British war cabinet—“I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk,”—as proof that the borders he drew were arbitrary. In fact, he was describing the path the British government had in mind for its pipeline. Herbert Kitchener, the British secretary of state for war, corrected Sykes after he spoke: “I think that what Sir Mark Sykes means is that the line will commence at the sea-coast in Haifa.” And so it did. After the war, the demarcation came to define the oil-producing state of Iraq, the oil-transit states of Jordan and Syria, and the oil-export states of Lebanon and Palestine.
Shortly after World War I, the Allied powers began seeking oil concessions in the Middle East. The concessions conferred the region’s oil rights to the Iraq Petroleum Company. Despite its name, the Iraq Petroleum Company had nothing to do with Iraq; it was a consortium of the Anglo–Persian Oil Company (later BP), Calouste Gulbenkian, Compagnie Francais de Petrols (later Total), Standard Oil’s Near East Development Corporation (later ExxonMobil), and Shell. The agreements ensured that local inhabitants could not make any claims to the resources above which they lived. The countries with the most oil gained the least from its discovery.
The Kurdish case offers a model for a post-Sykes–Picot Middle East.
What’s more, the building of the pipelines stoked regional unrest. After various attempts to sabotage the pipelines, including by Yemen’s ahl al-Jebal tribe, Palestinian rebels, and right-wing Zionist paramilitary groups, oil company officials and Western governments increased regional surveillance, militarized the area, and encouraged ethnic and sectarian strife to thwart nationalist and communist movements.
The current turmoil in the Middle East has led many observers to ask whether Sykes–Picot has finally reached its end. The Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn, for example, famously portended the end of the treaty while reporting from Iraq. But a better question is whether or not the agreement can be transformed to yield greater regional stability and prosperity. The dissolution of oil concessions could hold the key to this transformation. Consider the Kurdish case. Following the Second Gulf War, private oil companies flocked to Iraq. Iraq’s national oil company reserved the right to pump existing wells with partners of its choosing, but local bodies such as the Kurdistan Regional Government were allowed to explore new wells and forge their own partnerships—a boon to the Kurdish economy.
Kurdish oil shares made all the difference when ISIS emerged in 2014. The largely effective Kurdish Peshmerga fight against ISIS owes to Kurds’ desire to protect not just their homeland but also the resources within it. Kurds harbor longstanding desires for autonomy, but their jurisdiction over local oil is a form of sovereignty—over resources rather than territory—that models a truly post‑Sykes–Picot Middle East. Because Sykes–Picot divided territory in the name of extracting and transporting oil to Europe, reforming the ownership of oil is the first step in dissolving the legacy of colonial administration and authoritarian rule.
Ideally, people across the Middle East should hold shares in local resources and have a say in their sale, use, and conservation. In an age of increased migration, this principle could help people inhabit new places with a sense of belonging and stewardship. Of course, local officials will still need to partner with global firms to drill, refine, and export oil, but such contracts will work best when driven by local needs rather than corporate profits. The Kurdish case proves that local stakeholders will raise an army where oil companies will not.
A Middle East defined by local sovereignty over natural resources will be richer and more secure. When the Iraqi government cut Kurdistan’s share of the national budget in 2014, the Kurdistan Regional Government began selling oil directly to global markets, building a pipeline to a Turkish port and selling crude to Israel in the process. Local interests thus overcame both a historical Turkish–Kurdish enmity and a boycott that had kept Iraqi oil from Israel since 1949.
This is not to say that the Kurdish case is without problems. The Kurds are at war with ISIS and under scrutiny by Iraq and Turkey. Local dissidents have sabotaged the Kurdish–Turkish pipeline multiple times, and Iraq’s national North Oil Company has the power to turn off the tap of the Kurdish pipeline at will. Meanwhile, the plunge in global oil prices has pushed Kurdistan into deeper debt. And the Kurds are currently embroiled in a conflict with the Iraqi government over whether Kirkuk oil falls under Kurdish or Iraqi jurisdiction.
Survival in the age of ISIS requires populations free from the divisions of Sykes–Picot.
But the case still offers a model for a post-Sykes–Picot Middle East. As much as the Kurds need Kirkuk oil, the current dispute offers the opportunity to extend the practice of resource sovereignty to everyone in the region, regardless of ethnicity or religion. The bulk of the profits from Kirkuk oil should support the lives of all residents in northern Iraq. Baghdad should therefore allow the Kurdistan Regional Government to claim the Kirkuk wells, but only if the government agrees to set aside a portion of the oil revenue to support public institutions in northern Iraq. Oil contracts and employment should be open to all residents of northern Iraq, no matter their sect or ethnicity, and partnerships with private companies should be subject to referenda.
Profits should no longer be drained from the Middle East, as during the colonial period, or allowed to accrue in the hands of corrupt leaders, as during the reigns of Saddam Hussein and two generations of Assads in Syria. Survival in the age of ISIS requires populations free from the divisions of Sykes–Picot, with the will and the means to protect their homes and interests.