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Syriana is arguably the most daring attempt by Hollywood to look behind a curtain of Washington involvement in the Middle East. The movie directed by Stephen Gaghan explores petroleum politics and its significant ripple effect on the oil industry, Arab government, U.S. government, social, economic, and legal lives of people around the world. The aim of this paper is to explore the overlapping of oil and politics in the context of the movie. It will also examine business interests vs. national interests dichotomy.
Syriana’s tangle of countless plots, sub-plots, and flashbacks makes even the savviest movie-goers replay some scenes multiple times in order not to miss important details of inquiry into relationships between governments and the oil industry titans. Nonetheless, it manages to reward the most diligent viewers with an important message: greed and corruption destroy people. Notwithstanding the obvious weakness of a labyrinthine plot that constantly throws informational curves at the movie’s audience, the movie masterfully tells a razor-sharp story of big money and big business. It could be argued that even those viewers who do not have attention to detail similar to that of Pixar’s animation department employees, and, therefore, cannot capture all Syriana’s intricacies will, nonetheless, be able to enjoy the hypnotic acting of George Clooney who also was an executive producer of the movie. It should be mentioned that his acting in the geopolitical thriller has been recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: Clooney has won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.1
It should not surprise anyone following the news that energy resources play a significant role in both global and domestic politics.2 The oil economy profoundly shapes the political agendas of petrostates often undermining international security. According to a recent article, states exporting oil are 50% more likely to engage in international conflicts than their counterparts that do not produce energy resources.3 Moreover, petrostates are known to have high rates of domestic strife and slow economic growth despite the enormous potential for stability and prosperity provided by their natural resources.
In scene 20 when discussing the negotiations of the prince’s brother with American lawyers, Woodman says that Americans believe that world oil reserves are running out and the majority of the remaining oil is in the Middle East. Therefore, the U.S. wants to “suck dry” Middle Eastern resources while preventing the country from developing functional democracy and economy (scene 20). It is clear that the American government opposes the financial interests of the emirate when it demonizes Nasir for making a deal with the Chinese company. It has to do with the fact that, the prince in his capacity of the foreign minister of the country sold natural gas drilling rights to a company from China (scene 20). Therefore, American oil giants and their lobbyists in Washington opposed the deal that undermined their monetary interests as well as standing in the region.
Moreover, scene 20 reveals that the Chinese company offered the emirate the highest bid. Unlike prince Meshal Al-Subaai, prince Nasir is not interested in having U.S. military bases on Arab soil and providing American consumers with a constant flow of cheap oil. Neither does he want to become an emir for selfish reasons? The prince wishes to create a parliament and to provide women of his country with suffrage rights. Moreover, he plans to achieve maximum efficiency of oil transportation by building a pipeline through Iran to Europe (scene 20). The prince is not content with the status quo and numerous American business and government interests that it protects. Therefore, he is willing to introduce some changes to the way energy business is being run in the emirate. Unfortunately, the prince soon realizes that when oil and politics overlap, the U.S. dignitaries are no longer interested in democratic reforms and would rather have docile partners that can be milked for resources. In scene 20 he says “I accepted a Chinese bid, the highest bid, and suddenly I’m a terrorist. I’m a godless communist.”
It means that the U.S. government would rather castigate someone for being a real patriot of one’s country than lose control over the resources. Unfortunately, buying resources at low prices is not the only interest of the U.S. government: it also wants to have control over other countries by regulating oil production in the Middle East with the help of political interventions. It is especially evident in scene 27, when an owner of Killen, Jimmy Pope, discusses a rate of economic growth of China with Holiday stating that “China’s economy ain’t growing as fast as it could because they can’t get all the oil they need. Now, I’m damn proud of that fact.” Scene 139 provides the viewers with another brilliant quote that emerges in Dalton’s conversation with Bennett “Sovereign nations! What is a sovereign nation, but a collective of greed run by one individual? Legitimized gangsterism on a global basis that has no more validity than an agreement between the Crips and the Bloods!” It shows the blatant disregard of the U.S. companies for other countries’ laws.
According to an article written by David Weiss, numerous U.S. oil giants pursue contracts influenced by corruption.4 It means that in order to increase their profits, companies specializing in producing energy resources bribe foreign officials and secure profitable deals. Taking into consideration the fact that both solicitation and acceptance of a bribe is illegal under legal systems of petrostates, it could be argued that international mechanism of corruption serves as a lever for propping up the American economy. Nobody would deny the fact that oil is the lifeblood of many economies. In his article on international politics, Colgan argues that “oil income makes oil-producing ‘petrostates’ vulnerable to the resource curse, the symptoms of which include pervasive corruption, wasted public spending, volatile economic growth, and more frequent civil wars and domestic conflicts.”5
Therefore, it could be argued that by influencing oil and gas production of petrostates through either corruption or direct meddling in their domestic affairs the U.S. could gain control over the manufacturing capacities of countries like China that heavily rely on external energy resources. The movie suggests that gigantic companies are not afraid of breaking international laws and disregarding the domestic interests of foreign states in order to enrich their owners and stakeholders (scene 3). It could be argued that low oil prices resulting from illegal contracts between countries like Kazakhstan and the U.S. energy companies benefit Americans at large. However, even though “petroleum security of the U.S.” is necessary for the continuation of the comfortable lifestyle of Americans, it is more beneficial for organizations like Connex or Killen than for an average citizen (scene 12). It could be argued that an average American does not benefit from the state of oil security that is being achieved at the expense of people in other countries.
Moreover, the money gained by oil giants through underhanded dealings with foreign states is often being directed at undermining the U.S. democracy (scene 35). Taking into consideration that oil companies are known to pass huge sums of money to government officials and presidential candidates for influencing foreign governments, it could be argued that business interests do not coincide with national interests (scene 35). An oil businessman in scene 35 provides an egregious example of corruption “the money I gave the President is the best investment I have ever made in my business.” He also suggests that money could be turned into votes and free speech facilitates this process (scene 35). The businessman continues by saying that he has “a sovereign, inalienable right” to petition his government (scene 35). However, the most horrible part about the corruption at the highest levels of the U.S. government is that not only interests of some states are being blatantly disregarded but that federal agencies attempt to kill foreign leaders for keeping a steady supply of cheap oil (scene 25). Therefore, it could be argued that the business interests of the U.S. oil companies do not always coincide with national interests.
The Committee for the Liberation of Iran (CLI) is a lobbying organization that exists primarily to defend U.S. interests in the region (scene 5). CLI is an allusion to a similar organization called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq (CLI) that advocated for the war and, therefore, symbolizes American interventions in foreign policies. The CLI from the movie is interested in Bob’s opinion about the U.S. policy in Iran because it wants to hear that imposition of the embargo will lead to the election of a pro-Western government in the country. Therefore, it becomes clear that the U.S. government does not limit its covert operations to meddling in the domestic affairs of Iran but also wants to influence Iranian policies and the country’s president (scene 5). The members of the committee hide behind noble speeches suggesting liberation of Iran; however, it is clear that they pursue imperialist interests of the U.S. When viewers find out that Dalton and Hewitt participate in the decision-making process of CLI, the involvement of the U.S. government agencies in the politics of the Middle East cannot be denied.
In scene 20 Nasir reveals to Bryan that he wants to create a parliament and to provide women of his country with suffrage rights. Moreover, he plans to achieve maximum efficiency of oil transportation by cutting speculators out of business and building a pipeline through Iran to Europe (scene 20). However, the prince realizes that he will not be able to achieve any reforms because the U.S. president will call the emir and say “I’ve got unemployment in Texas, Kansas, Washington State” thereby forcing the emirate to buy “overpriced airplanes” (scene 20). Since the U.S. is interested in having control over the emirate it would not want to see the prince radically transforming the Saudi economy.
Therefore, Nasir is afraid that if the U.S. observes constructive steps towards developing a more efficient production of energy resources benefiting the emirate, it will force the emir to invest in the American economy. It becomes clear during Nasir’s council that his coup might be unsuccessful because of the military support of the current regime provided by 10, 000 U.S. troops stationed in the emirate (scene 24). The prince’s misgivings are confirmed in scene 24 when Stan Goff says to Barnes that “if Prince Nasir won’t allow our military bases in his country…and his little brother will… well, we’ll probably have to do something about that.” The film suggests that the U.S. foreign policies, especially in the Middle East region, are far from the isolationism that was lauded during previous political eras. Taking into consideration that it is interested in having control over other countries, it could be argued that the U.S. cannot have an isolationist foreign policy.
Syriana masterfully illustrates a labyrinthine web of greed and corruption that not only destroy lives but also devastate entire regions. The analysis demonstrated that Hollywood’s attempt to look behind the curtain of Washington involvement in the Middle East revealed a tangled mess of CIA’s interventions in other countries’ affairs and underhanded dealings of gigantic companies that are not afraid of breaking international laws and disregarding domestic interests of foreign states. Moreover, it showed that interventionism fueled by the desire of oil giants to secure profitable contracts does not benefit average Americans. The analysis reveals that the regulation of oil production in the Middle East helps American politicians to control other countries. Taking into consideration the fact that the oil economy profoundly shapes political agendas of petrostates often undermining international security, it could be argued that Washington should forsake interventionist policies in order to decrease military tensions on the world stage.
- Germain David, “Clooney Wins Supporting-Actor Oscar for ‘Syriana’.” Oscars, Web.
- Colgan Jeff, “Oil, Domestic Politics, and International Conflict,” Energy Research & Social Science, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2014): 198-205.
- Colgan, 198.
- Weiss David, “The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, Sec Disgorgement of Profits, and the Evolving International Bribery Regime: Weighing Proportionality, Retribution, and Deterrence,” Michigan Journal of International Law, Vol. 30, No. 2 (2011): 472-514.
- Colgan, 198.