The Asylum: How a bunch of rogue traders at Nymex took over the world oil market

asylumThe little-known but important story of how a bunch of potato traders at the New York Mercantile Exchange (Nymex) came from nowhere to set the world oil price is told delightfully in the book The Asylum by talented American journalist Leah McGrath Goodman. That no one exactly understood how oil prices are set is demonstrated in Goodman’s book with the transcript of an extraordinary interview between right-wing Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly and Nymex executive John D’Agostino in 2008.

At the time, the oil price was skyrocketing towards $150 a barrel and O’Reilly was anxious to blame Venezuelan left-wing president Hugo Chavez and OPEC’s “greedy sheiks” for the high prices. D’Agostino was having none of it. He told O’Reilly high demand and a low US dollar were more to blame. O’Reilly was flabbergasted as the conversation continued. “[OPEC] gave Cheney the middle digit… they can change whatever they want, right?” he says. D’Agostino replied, “No, OPEC only set the oil supply, the price of oil is actually set in New York”.

The rest of the conversation is worth reporting in detail:

O’R: Is there a guy who says $125 a barrel?

D’A: No. There’s a huge market that sets the price.  It’s filled with hedgers. It’s filled with speculators.

O’R: Somebody has to put the $125 on the barrel. Who does it?

D’A: They’re getting it from this market.

O’R: Who is “they”?

D’A: The oil producers…

O’R: The CEO of Shell or ExxonMobil says ‘We’re going to pay $125 a barrel”. Is that what they say? I thought it was the sheiks and Hugo Chavez.

D’A: No, No. They are all looking to the exchanges, the free markets, to set the price. The markets right now are saying the price of crude is about $120 a barrel. It’s going up and gasoline prices are directly related to crude oil prices.

O’R: But somebody has to make a decision.

D’A: It would be great if there was just one person doing that, because then we could go talk to him.

The exchange ended with an exasperated O’Reilly believing he was being hoodwinked. It was a sentiment shared by his Fox viewers who showered the station with angry emails unable to believe it was American capitalists setting the price of oil not greedy Arabs and leftist dictators. But what D’Agostino was saying was true. The price of oil really was being set by a bunch of anonymous traders off Wall St who thought nothing of bringing the global economy to its knees.

This is upsetting because they are not nice people. As Goodman said, traders are yellers. One trader told her they yell because they don’t have time to be polite. “It’s a world of super-assholes,” he said. “They’re all dicks, crude, manly men.” They work on the futures market which is a scarier version of the stock exchange. Energy traders bet on the price of oil in any of the months to follow, to a period of ten years. It is precise. Even if you correctly bet prices will go up in a certain year, if you get the month wrong you could lose millions. Traders not only bet on the future price but also on the difference from month to month in a practice called “spread trading”, which they hedged against the outright future bets.

The market was Darwinian where the strongest and loudest ruled. The trading floor was often violent and nice guys didn’t last. Traders were assisted by runners who wore goggles to protect themselves from the constant shower of trading cards raining down on them. Traders were fined $100 for every card that didn’t reach the pit in one minute of trade and expertly flicked cards which would arch perfectly before landing across the two-storey high room. Position in the trading ring was crucial because if you stood close to a major trader you would have access to all the information they got.

Nymex was always a down-at-heel exchange compared to the New York Stock Exchange. The guys that bet on the blue chip companies looked down on the shabby traders of minerals and commodities. If the NYSE traders took an academic and mathematical approach to the market, Nymex operated more from the gut. Overthinking was bad, trading was “freestyle” and the traders were street smart. Porn was common on the floor, as were drugs. There was reputed to be firearms too. The cops left them alone as they contributed large amounts to the Police Foundation. The traders’ word was their bond and behind their bland trading jackets, there were many multi-millionaires. There were 816 seats in the exchange and they sold for $1.6 million a pop or could be leased out at $10,000 a month.

It was only in the 1980s that Nymex hijacked the oil market. Before that it was trading home of the humble Maine potato. For half a century, around 70 traders operated out of a redbrick mansion in downtown New York betting on spuds, unaware their world was crumbling around them. A rival market was emerging in Idaho potatoes while Maine’s annual potato crop was falling. The market was also corrupt with stories of bags filled with potato-shaped stones and spoiled Maine potatoes arriving at markets in the Bronx. Worse still, a national consensus was developing that potatoes tasted better from Idaho than Maine.

Initially this led to volatile prices which the traders loved. The wilder the swings, the more opportunity for profit. When the supply ran out at the end of spring each year, prices would go crazy, with half the market betting prices would rise and the other half hoping they would fall. The trading pit would be full of farmers, politicians, bankers and spectators who would come to watch the show each May. Traders were obsessed with Maine gossip, Maine weather, Maine soil. Because future contracts were tied to actual quantities, traders had to get in, make money and get out quickly to avoid a pile of potatoes arriving on their doorstep. Traders skilfully exploited the expiration date right up to the last few seconds to end up “flat” in the market without any bets left on the table.

The whole idea of a futures market sounds absurd but has practical value. It made it possible for farmers to lock in future profits in advance at an agreed price. It gave them financial stability to plan their business years ahead with price risks transferred to the speculator who pockets the resulting profit or loss. This underlying utility still drives the futures markets in commodities like oil.

Incredibly, Maine potatoes were the third most traded commodity in America in 1976. But an enemy at the gates was about to spoil Nymex’s party. JR Simplot was an eccentric Idaho farmer, nicknamed the Potato King. When he died in 2008 aged 99, he was the oldest person on the Forbes 400 rich list worth $3.6 billion. Starting out as an onion farmer, he branched into potatoes winning the contract to supply US armed forces in the Second World War and then McDonald’s in the 1960s. Simplot was annoyed Nymex would not trade his Idaho potatoes. In the May 1976 rush he played against the Nymex traders selling millions of dollars of potatoes driving the price down. But unlike the traders he did not go “flat” at the close of trade.

Simplot was left with a contract to deliver massive amounts of Maine potatoes which to the consternation of the market, he did not have. However what he did have in plenty was Idaho potatoes which he offered in compensation.  Nymex refused to accept his Idaho potatoes and the market defaulted. Simplot was fined $50,000 but succeeded in busting the Maine market.

Nymex lost all legitimacy and most of its traders resigned. In 1977 they appointed a 27-year-old trader named Michel Marks to be its unpaid chairman. Marks was the son of a former Nymex trader and a child prodigy. Reeling from the loss of potato futures, the exchange scraped by, betting on odd trades like Australian beef cattle (when it was supposedly tainted by kangaroo meat, the price oscillated wildly, an outcome traders loves). Its rival exchange the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (Comex) overtook it and tried to buy out the cut-price seats at Nymex. The deal only went south when Comex pulled out thinking they had paid too much money for it.

In the short term it left Nymex in a huge hole but in the longer term it was Comex who suffered. Marks worked around the clock in 1978 to understand the business inside out. Some traders wanted to bring back a potato market but the Simplot scars were too deep. In any case the market regulator permanently banned potato trading. There was money to be made selling platinum and other metals but these markets were not volatile enough to be super profitable. Looking at what was dormant on the books, Marks hit on heating oil.

It was an far-seeing energy economist named Arnold Safer who convinced Marks that the free market would eventually set the price of oil. In the earliest days of oil the price was set by John D. Rockefeller and his “barrels”, before it was taken over by a consortium of the Texas railroad and the oil majors. Since the 1973 Oil Crisis, it was OPEC that was flexing its muscle. But Safer told Marks non-OPEC countries would eventually flood the market with excess oil destroying the Middle Eastern cartel. He also advised Marks to only trade things whose prices weren’t fixed by the government. The opportunity came with the deregulation of the heating oil market in the late 1970s. Mark dusted off an old contract to sell heating oil to the Dutch. In an ingenious move, he scratched out Rotterdam and changed it to New York harbour so they could concentrate on local trade.

The future market for heating oil opened on November 14, 1978. Volume was low on the opening day which was not a good sign. “Low volumes beget no volumes” was the conventional wisdom in the trading pits. Marks hassled the big traders, energy companies and banks to trade with him but no-one believed OPEC could be challenged. However because Nymex had no history with oil, the industry made the fatal miscalculation of ignoring them.

Heating oil merchants paid vastly inflated for their product while even OPEC struggled to turn a buck when its price for oil did not keep up with the changes to supply and demand. Private oil companies exploited the difference by hoarding oil contracts, locking in higher prices. They charged $10 more a barrel than the OPEC price but Marks decided to do exactly the opposite. His heating oil was 20c a gallon cheaper than Exxon. His customers were initially worried whether Nymex could guarantee continuous supply and they also worried Exxon might find out about the deal and punish them. But cheap oil is cheap oil and enough merchants did bid to give Marks the start he needed. Nymex traders didn’t care about the product or the price, what they needed were sufficient bids and offers to work the gaps.

Word slowly got out about the bargains at Nymex. Serious corporate customers arrived in the form of drillers, refiners and shippers of heating oil. Within months the number of bids went from hundreds a day to many thousands. For the first time ever, buyers and sellers of heating oil could tell exactly what the price was by looking at the Nymex trading board. It gradually attracted all of the heating oil contracts of the United States, turning the exchange into an invaluable source of information. People began to trust the exchange because it was a public market and because, unlike the oil companies, it did not rely on ever-increasing prices to make a profit.

Things really took off in 1980 when the Iraq-Iran war broke out. When the news broke, over 50 traders immediately flooded the ring clamouring for heating oil. Within days the Nymex price doubled and would have risen further but for government-imposed price limits. The low and high price were the same as everyone was buying and there were no sellers. There was a vast underground trade into the higher-priced unregulated market controlled by the oil companies, an illegal practice but one which flourished without supervision.

New US president Ronald Reagan gradually eased price controls and Marks debuted futures on leaded petrol (gasoline) in 1981. That market was so successful it continued for two years even after leaded petrol was banned in the US. In 1983 Reagan removed the last of the oil price controls and Nymex launched its crowning glory: a futures contract on sweet crude light oil, the bedrock of the industry. Marks opened a specific market to sell West Texas Intermediate light to the largest oil storage facility in the world at Cushing, Oklahoma.

The dots were starting to join. US Oil production was on the decline and Americans were cutting usage. OPEC jacked up its prices as did the oil companies. But the supply scare had caused non-OPEC companies to increase production flooding the market with oil, plummeting the price. Panicked Wall St traders rushed to Nymex to hedge their expensive contracts. Nymex became a huge liquidation warehouse selling off oil at bargain-basement prices. The traders made a killing on each transaction. Suddenly power was no longer in Houston, Amsterdam or the OPEC HQ at Vienna but at a grimy rat-infested building in lower New York, inhabited as Leah Goodman said by “misfits and pranksters and gun-toting gangsters who had absolutely no knowledge of the oil business”.

Over the years that followed, other players muscled in on the market but Nymex’s position was secure. Even the oil companies came cap in hand to the exchange and openly traded on the market. When Nymex moved to the World Trade Centre the market was so intense, it did not notice the smoke pouring into the room after the 1993 bombing and traders refused to evacuate. Nymex moved out of the WTC before 2001 which was prescient. But it was slower to see the oncoming of electronic trading and almost lost the market entirely to the more innovative Intercontinental Exchange (ICE). With Nymex’s power waning they agreed to a merger with its former enemy Comex in 2008 and finally the electronic boards replaced the whirring of paper in the pits.  A handful of traders still ply their wares in a small venue using the old open outcry system of the potato trading days. There are calls for it to be preserved. But Nymex is no museum. Although people like Bill O’Reilly never knew it, its traders still set the price of oil to this day.

Iran and the West: a tale of oil and Mohammad Mossadegh

Mohmmad,Mosaddegh2Iran’s nuclear deal has big ramifications for the county’s other major source of energy: oil. Iran has the fourth largest proven reserves of oil in the world but production has halved since 2011 when US and European sanctions took hold. Iran faces many challenges to double its output back to two million barrels a day, not least due to its ageing infrastructure, but the country has long history in the oil game and was the first country in the middle east to drill for oil in 1901. But Iran also has a long history of interference from the west and if suspicious Americans look back in anger to the hostage drama of 1979, Iranians look back further to the way the Americans and British sabotaged their young democracy in 1953.

Iran had been of massive interest to the Allied Powers in the Second World War and the site of one of that war’s most famous meetings. In December 1943 Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met on a sunny Tehran morning to discuss how to divvy up the post-Nazi world. They pledged to work together “in war and the peace that will follow”. After the photographers searched their faces for smiles on the veranda, the three great men retired to a hall for a more private conversation. Before they discussed weighty matters of empire, Roosevelt asked Churchill what became of Iran’s former Shah Reza, adding, “if I’m pronouncing it correctly”. Churchill told Roosevelt he became a Nazi and denied Britain and Russia the use of oil and a supplies railway. They invaded Iran in 1941 and Shah Reza was forced to abdicate in favour of his son Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. The father moved to a comfortable life in Johannesburg where he died not long after the Tehran conference. Roosevelt’s question showed up US ignorance of Iranian affairs.

Yet the choice of Tehran to hold the meeting was no accident. Iran had been zone of influence for Britain and Russia since a 1907 treaty shared the country’s spoils between them. The terms of the 1907 and 1941 conquests allowed Iranians to rule as long as they did not act against their powerful guests. An officially neutral Iran was of vital strategic importance to both. Roosevelt was happy to let the two fight it out over Iranian oil while the US maintained control of the bigger fields in Saudi Arabia.

The turmoil of the 1917 Russian revolution left Iran almost entirely a British colony. AIOC, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (then nationalised by Churchill, now corporatised as BP) was Britain’s main supplier of oil. Another Churchill decision, to convert the British Navy from coal to oil in 1913, saw AIOC become one of the world’s leading producers supplying Britain in two world wars. In 1947 it reported an after tax profit of £40 million and gave the young Shah’s country just seven million. It reneged on a 1933 deal with his hard-nosed father to provide the workers with better pay, more schools, roads, telephones and job advancement. The young Shah was a playboy and had little interests for his people’s problems but as long as he kept control of the military, Britain didn’t care how badly his country fared.

Mohammad Mossadegh was less sanguine. He knew Iranians chafed bitterly about their abject poverty. Born in 1882, he was a parliamentarian for over three decades, implacably opposed to foreign influence. In a wave of fervour, he was elected Prime Minister in 1951 with a mandate to throw AIOC out of Iran, reclaim the oil reserves and end the British influence. Mossadegh was in his seventies and in the manner of Proust, did much of his business in bed. But when he nationalised Anglo-Iranian, he became a national hero. Shortly after, Iran took control of the refinery.

The British were outraged. British Labour prime minister Clement Attlee was conducting mass nationalisation of British assets but would not grant Iran the same licence. His government declared Mossadegh a thief and demanded he be punished by the UN and the World Court. When neither would support Britain, they imposed an embargo that devastated the Iranian economy. Mossadegh was unmoved and said he “would rather be fried in Persian oil than make the slightest concession”. Mossadegh became a third world hero and delighted his admirers further when he ridiculed Britain at the World Court saying it was trying “to persuade world opinion that the lamb had devoured the wolf”.

Time Magazine made him their man of the year in 1951 saying he “put Scheherazade in the petroleum business and oiled the wheels of chaos”. They called him a “strange old wizard” in a region where, importantly, the US had no policy. Attlee warned President Truman not to interfere with the dealings of “an ally.” The US complied but would not support a British military invasion of Iran.

Events changed dramatically when Britain and the US turned to the right. In autumn 1951 the old warhorse Churchill denounced Attlee in several speeches on the election trail for failing to confront Mossadegh firmly. Churchill said the Prime Minister had betrayed “solemn undertakings” not to abandon Abadan. He saw the loss of Iranian oil as the loss of empire and considered Mossadegh “an elderly lunatic bent on wrecking his country and handing it over to the Communists.” Britain’s position toughened when Churchill won the election.

Truman was also up for re-election in 1952 but decided not to contest. As in Britain, a Second World War hero won and Dwight Eisenhower became the new Republican president. The Cold War was Eisenhower’s biggest focus and Iran was one of his first challenges. Britain cleverly played up to the new regime in Washington claiming Iran was in crisis under Mossadegh and could easily fall to the Communist Party backed by Moscow.

Eisenhower’s new team prepared to organise a coup in Iran. Eisenhower’s former wartime chief-of-staff and now undersecretary of state General Walter Bedell Smith linked the campaign with the State Department and the CIA. At the head of these organisations were a pair of remarkable brothers. John Foster Dulles was a world-class international lawyer now turned Secretary of State while Allen Dulles now ran the intelligence organisation. The brothers had a special interest in Iran and Allen went to Tehran in 1949 where he met the Shah and Mossadegh. The Dulles brothers were ideological warriors determined to prevent Communism in Iran.

Eisenhower gave implicit approval for Operation Ajax but presented a front of plausible deniability. Behind the scenes the two Dulles and Smith had full authority to proceed. They appointed secret agent Kermit Roosevelt to bring the coup together. Kermit, who preferred to be called Kim, was a grandson of the first Roosevelt president Theodore. Independently wealthy, he was a history professor at Harvard until he joined the newly established Office of Strategic Services in the war. His work in the OSS remains shrouded in mystery but he stayed on in peacetime when it was rebadged as the CIA.

Working from the US embassy in Tehran (a fact angry Iranians remembered in 1979) Roosevelt quickly liaised with his British counterparts in the Secret Intelligence Service – MI6. Iranian tribal leaders on the British payroll launched a short-lived uprising. Roosevelt met with anti-Mossadegh politicians and persuaded the Shah to sign a “firman” (a document of doubtful legality sacking the Prime Minister). By mid-August 1953 Roosevelt and his local agents were ready. He paid newspapers and religious leaders to scream for Mossadegh’s head and organised protests and riots turning the streets into battlegrounds.

But at the last minute Operation Ajax failed. On August 15 an officer arrived at Mossadegh’s house to present the firman only to find the Prime Minister was tipped off in advance. The Shah fled the country while units loyal to Mossadegh surged through Tehran. Roosevelt did not quit and three days later he organised a second attempt. Once again he launched a massive mob in the capital. Crucially Mossadegh did not call out the police to stop them. Armed units loyal to the Shah launched a gun-battle against Mossadegh’s supporters. The following morning Tehran Radio announced “the Government of Mossadegh has been defeated!”

Mossadegh was under arrest and the Shah flew home from Italy in stunned triumph. The New York Times wrote “the sudden reversal was nothing more than a mutiny by the lower ranks against pro-Mossadegh officers”. Roosevelt was understandably delighted. Barely a day earlier he had been ordered home, now he would be returning in triumph. Mossadegh was given a three year prison sentence. He served it until 1956 and was confined to home in Ahmad Abad until his death, aged 85 in 1967.

The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company tried to return to their old monopoly position after his overthrow. But the US had invested too much in the coup to let that happen. They organised an international consortium to assume control of the oil. AOIC held 40 percent, five American companies held 40 percent and the remainder was split between Royal Dutch Shell and Compagnie Francaise de Petroles. The consortium agreed to split the profits fifty-fifty with the Shah but never allowed Iranians to examine the books.

Though Mossadegh was a forbidden topic in Iran, new enemies emerged within. By the late 1970s the Shah had crushed all legitimate political parties and a new religious force filled the void. When he was forced to flee the country in 1979 as a reviled tyrant, the first government to replace him was determined to invoke Mossadegh’s legacy. New Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan had been dispatched by Mossadegh to Abadan after the British fled in 1951. Another Mossadegh admirer Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was elected president. But behind the scenes Ayatollah Khomeini was consolidating power. Before long he was arresting all his enemies. Mossadegh had been defeated again, this time in death.

The Mossadegh coup had profound impact on America. Overnight the CIA became a central part of foreign policy apparatus. While Roosevelt went home in quiet retirement, the Dulles brothers used the new template to overthrow other rulers such as Arbenz in Guatemala (1954) and Allende in Chile (1973). The incident also changed how Iranians viewed the US. Before 1953, Britain was the rapacious and greedy enemy. Now the US was the sinister party, manipulating quietly in the background. The 1979 embassy hostage was a direct result of Carter’s decision to allow the Shah into America. But the reason the crisis last 14 months was a distrust going back to 1953.

This week’s nuclear deal between the countries won’t immediately heal half a century of hurt. But it is crucial it is ratified despite hardliners in both countries. The bleatings of Israel should be ignored as a country with its own nuclear arsenal can look after itself no matter what happens in Iran. Mohammad Mossadegh offered a template of what Iran might have been, had the west not been blinkered by its own suspicions. Now is the time to make good on his legacy and bring Iran in from the cold.

Arthur Moore, oil man

On October 10, 1931 it was the Western Star’s solemn duty to report sad news. Word had reached Roma from Longreach that Mr Arthur Moore, superintendent of Longreach’s Oil Bore had been killed in an explosion. Known as a careful man who rarely took a drink and who was intimate with the science of boring for oil, his death was a mystery.

From reading Moore’s log books, the coroner deduced he was making a third attempt to shoot the bore and had a consignment of caps newly arrived from Brisbane and a metre-long torpedo with six plugs of gelignite. The mixture exploded prematurely as he tried to place a battery cap. It was likely a faulty explosives timer concocted with a pocket watch brought an end to the life of one of Roma’s great but unheralded oil men.

Arthur Moore was an Englishman, born in Lime Regis, Dorset in 1876. How he spent his early years is not known but he arrived in Australia in 1910 thirsting for adventure in a new land. He entered into the service of the International Boring Company and was posted across Queensland boring artesian water for the state’s growing demands. Aged 40, he signed up in 1916 for the AIF and went off to Europe with the newly formed Australian Flying Corps.

After the war finished he stayed on in England to train in oil development. On his return he came to Queensland’s growing oil capital: Roma. He was placed in charge of the government oil bore on Hospital Hill in 1920 as the first non American to hold this position. Moore released a big flow of oil at QG Number 4 well while removing casing and this was the first oil to be condensed in Roma.

He met local woman Esther “Essie” Nind, the only daughter of two well-known Roma residents. Moore married Essie in 1921 aged 45 (she was 27) and they had one daughter. After visiting America, Moore was convinced there was oil in commercial quantities in Roma. “Prospecting in Queensland,” he said in 1923, “should be carried out on the same type of plant used for drilling artesian water.”

In 1924, the Western Star reported Moore was made manager of the newly formed Queensland Petroleum Limited who secured prospecting permits over Forest Vale and Mitchell Downs. Moore was hired to be superintendent for three years Moore also went to Texas to learn more about drilling and later took charge of drilling operations in New Guinea. Roma’s booming oil business lured him back in 1928 to become manager of Roma Cornwall Dome oil operation until it went bust.

Moore went back to England where he was accepted into the Institute of Petroleum Technologists of London. He would also drill in New Zealand before heading to Longreach. He was remembered as one of the first non Americans to be feted in the field of drilling and someone who kept meticulous notes on all aspects of oil exploration.

Hadrian’s Wallet: Scotland’s independence referendum and oil

Depending on who’s talking, an independent Scotland would see either the arrival of a new, modern and confident state or it will be fed into the Euro-blender to be destroyed forever. The idea of Scottish independence is not new – it dates back to the Act of Union in 1707. What is new is the proposed referendum in 2014 to give Scots a chance to vote on the matter.

The governing Scottish National Party put the cat among the constitutional pigeons with their announcement on 10 January to hold a referendum in autumn 2014. The referendum will ask two questions. The first is whether there should be an extension of the powers and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament, short of independence; while the second asks whether the Scottish Parliament should “also have its powers extended to enable independence to be achieved”.
All the polls suggest voters will turn down the proposal. YouGov’s polling from 1990 to 2009 show support for full independence hovering around the high 20s to low 30s percentiles. A clearer majority – though never more than 60 percent – are happier with more tax raising powers for the existing Scottish parliament created in 1999. The referendum that created that parliament showed most Scots wanted power over their own taxes (currently they can vary the basic rate of personal income tax by a maximum of 3p in the pound). The issue was, as First Minister Alex Salmond said, in October 2010, “there is no point in being a pocket money parliament when the pocket money stops.”The 2011 study of Scottish attitudes showed 70 percent of the population saw themselves as Scottish first while 15 percent thought they were British. The study also showed support for increased devolution is increasing but there was ambiguous findings on specifics. Questions on who should pay for what and by what amount narrowed opinion in a way that was different than the ungranulated question of whether people are nationalist or unionist.

Opinion is also divided as to whether Scotland would do better alone with its annual £6.5b North Sea oil wealth. Michael Moore, the secretary of state for Scotland, said the year on year variations of oil prices in 2011 were better managed in a UK-wide economy where Scotland could share in the risks as well as rewards. But Scottish finance secretary John Swinney disagreed saying Scotland contributed far more to the UK Exchequer than its share of population which underlined the strength of Scotland’s finances and the opportunities of independence. Opinion polls consistently support the latter view with most Scots thinking those south of Hadrian’s Wall do better from the Union than they do.

Polls are less clear on economic benefits. Most people think they would pay more tax under an Edinburgh administration and there is no consensus on whether the nation would be better off financially. The debate reflects a strong and complex intertwining of English, Scottish and British traditions that make many Scots ambivalent about nationality.

Unlike the Irish Act of Union a century later, the English-Scottish Act of Union of 1702 was a genuine marriage of near-equals. Scottish kings had sat on the throne of England for over a hundred years (until ousted by the Glorious Revolution). Scotland was still the minor party in the marriage, and as in the case of Ireland, bribery was needed to pass the Act in Edinburgh. Scotland was still reeling from the economic catastrophe of the Darien Scheme for a Scottish colony in Panama. But the Act of Union was good for Scotland; it gave free trade with England and led to the Scottish Enlightenment of the mid 1700s. Thinkers like David Hume and Adam Smith had an immense effect not only on Scotland but on the newly United Kingdom and beyond.

Scots became a driving force in the new British Empire, despite continued rebellions of the highlanders. The lowlands were transformed by the Industrial Revolution with linen, coal and steel and a massive financial centre. Glasgow became a powerhouse city based on shipbuilding and railways. Scottish cities paid a terrible price in World War II with extensive bombing by the Luftwaffe. The deindustrialisation of the post-war years was balanced by the discovery of oil in the North Sea in 1970. Though production has fallen in recent years, a 2010 report said there was still 25 billion barrels of oil in Scottish waters, though they are in hard-to-reach areas near the Shetlands.

The importance of oil in border negotiations cannot be underestimated. 85% of British oil is in Scottish waters. The nationalist site Oil of Scotland claims Westminster moved Scotland’s marine boundaries in 1999 from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Carnoustie “illegally making 6000 miles of Scotland’s waters English.” The website called the Scottish Adjacent Waters Boundaries Order 1999 an “unjust act secretly passed, without the consent of the Scottish People” that took 15% of oil and gas revenues out of the Scottish sector of the North Sea and £2.2 billion out of the Scottish economy. “This lost revenue is more than the proposed £35 billion Scottish budget cuts for the next 15 years,” the group said.

Pearl Harbor: Japan’s oil blunder

The Pearl Harbor survivors association has used the 70th anniversary to announce they will disband at the end of the year. An estimated 8,000 people who survived the Japanese attack on Hawaii are still alive and 2,700 are members of the association. But it has become too difficult to organise the annual national reunion in Honolulu. Association President William Muehleib cited the age and poor health of remaining members. “It was time. Some of the requirements became a burden,” Muehleib said after this year’s ceremony at Pearl Harbor.
(photo:Matt York/Associated Press)
The moment of silence at the ceremony was marked just before 8am when the first Japanese planes launched their attack. Tuesday, 7 December 1941 would live in infamy” as Roosevelt predicted. In two hours, 2,400 people were killed, 1,200 wounded (a shocking discrepancy between the dead and wounded), 20 ships sunk and 164 planes destroyed. The infamy FDR spoke about was not the death toll but the fact the Japanese had lied to the US Government and attacked 30 minutes before they declared war. The cause of Pearl Harbor, as so much of the 20th century’s conflict was oil. Expansionist Japan was reliant on US petroleum to fire its economy but knew the time would come when America would turn off the tap. The US took a dim view of the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the subsequent war with China. From their puppet base in Manchukuo, Japan declared all out war on China in 1937. Relations with the US deteriorated with the USS Panay Incident in 1937 when the Japanese sunk an American ship in Nangking and then the Allison Incident where US consul to Nangking John Moore Allison was struck in the face by a Japanese soldier. Japan said sorry for both incidents claiming it did not see the American flags on the Panay. It did not offer an excuse for Allison but bowed to US demands for an apology.Economic self-interest ensured the US supplied oil to Japan until 1941. In July that year they finally placed an embargo as did Britain. So did the Dutch two months later, breaking a treaty with Japan and ending the supply line of Javanese oil which had supplied 15% of Japanese crude. The embargo put a critical constraint on the war in China. Japan was the sixth largest importer of oil in the world. If Japan wanted to resume bombing Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong’s armies, it would have to grab oil for itself and the East Indies was the easiest target.

While Pearl Harbor was a shock, the war between US and Japan was no great surprise. A majority of Americans expected war in Asia especially in the Philippines which held many strategic American interests. Japan knew it could not cope with planned American expansion of the Navy. The 1940 Two-Ocean Navy Act (sponsored by two Democrats Carl Vinson of Georgia and David Walsh of Massachusetts) planned to expand the size of the US Navy by 70%. Japan struck a blow before the Vinson-Walsh ships came off the assembly line.

An attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese believed, would also neutralise the Pacific Fleet to give Japan free reign to take Jakarta. Then the Americans would sue for a peace profitable to Japan. That this was flawed thinking is obvious in retrospect as was their failure to work out how the US would respond. Yet it was no woollier than the thinking that led to another oil war.

The 1941 attack was led underwater. Five midget submarines came within 20km of the coast and launched their charges at 1am. At least four were sunk. Then the planes struck. There were almost 200 in the first group. A second wave of 170 flew closely behind. They were picked up by newly established radar on the northern tip of Oahu but were misdiagnosed as a returning US crew and its size was not passed on to headquarters. At 7.48am they arrived at Pearl Harbor. The immediate target of the first wave was the battleships.

Japan believed the battleships were the biggest status symbols of the Navy but badly misread their importance. The sinking of one battleship the USS Arizona caused half the death toll on the day. Ten torpedo bombers attacked the ship. After one bomb detonated in the Arizona’s ammunition magazine, she went up in a deafening explosion. 1,117 of the 1,400 crew were killed instantly and the fire took two days to put out.

The second wave targetted hangars, aircraft, carriers and cruisers. After 90 devastating minutes, half the planes on Oahu were destroyed. A planned third wave to knock out Pearl Harbor’s remaining infrastructure was called off which Admiral Chester Nimitz admitted could have postponed US operations for another year. Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo refused because of likely casualties and a need for night-time operations.

Hong Kong was attacked a day later as were US territories Guam and Wake Island. The Philippines, a commonwealth of the US at the time, was also invaded on 8 December. The same day Japanese troops made an amphibious landing at Kota Bharu in north-eastern Malaya, and six points along south-east Thailand, an invasion ended by an armistice which allowed Japan to use Thailand as a base to attack Malaya. Malaya had rubber and was the obvious dropping off point to access East Indies oil.

Only the US, Iran and Romania exported more oil than the East Indies but the profits went to Royal Dutch Shell. Borneo was another victim of the 8 December attacks threatening the oilfields of Kalimantan. The rest of the island archipelago quickly fell and would remain in Japanese hands until 1945. The three aircraft carriers at Pearl Harbor base were out at sea during the attack and the elimination of its battleships gave the US no choice but to put the fate of the war in its carriers.

While the Europe First policy slowed down the Pacific conflict it was almost over as soon as it began. A wrathful America armed with its new Navy and massive fighting capacity never forgave Japan’s treachery. By July 1942, America sunk four of Japan’s carriers at Midway. Japan used Indonesian oil, fierce military pride, a deadly code of honour and incessant pro-war propaganda to keep the insanity going for another three years.

Whither Bahrain?

Libya is not the only Arabic revolution where outside forces have intervened; there are also foreign troops in Bahrain. Occupying forces from Saudi Arabia and the UAE are helping the monarchy put down a rebellion with only a few hypocritical murmurs from the West and no sign of UN-sponsored intervention in the rebels’ favour. With martial law in place after two months of protests, Bahrain has today brushed off a Kuwaiti offer to mediate with the rebels saying it wasn’t necessary. The al-Khalifa regime is set on a path of destroying the opposition while the rest of the world is too distracted by events in Libya to do anything about it.
The Sunni Al Khalifa tribe has ruled Bahrain for almost 200 years, a rule cemented by British overlords and trade-based wealth in the 1800s. The majority Shia remained second class citizens despite the implicit and sometimes explicit support of Iran. The discovery of oil ensured British meddling would continue for much of the 20th century. Britain and Iran’s struggle for supremacy continued until Bahrain gained full independence in 1971. A 1973 constitution promised free elections (for men only) but this was thrown out two years later by emir Salman al Khalifa. In the 1990s opposition forces demanded reforms from the ageing emir and a return to the 1973 constitution. For six years the streets were plagued with riots which were suppressed by the regime. The intifada did not end until the death of Salman in March 1999. Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa succeeded his father and promised to carry out political reforms.
On 14 February 2001 a referendum to carry out the National Action Charter to return the country to constitutional rule was overwhelming supported by 98.4 percent of the voters. The 2000s saw the enfranchisement of women and parliamentary elections in 2006 and 2010. However, key problems remain including discrimination against the Shia and the all pervasive power of the al Khalifa caste. Power sharing was thrown firmly into the spotlight after pro-democracy demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt hit the headlines in January. Bahrain’s opposition was mobilised to demonstrate on the 10th anniversary of the National Action Charter on 14 February. Manama’s Pearl Square became the epicentre of resistance with protesters calling for political reform and equalisation of the economic benefits of Bahrain’s oil-rich economy. The reaction from the alarmed administration was swift. On 17 February a pre-dawn tank raid on the square killed five and injured 230 others. Soldiers placed roadblocks and barbed wire around the centre of town and leaders banned public gatherings.Talk of reform was replaced by talk of overthrow of the hated al Khalifas. The funerals of the dead turned into shrines of martyrdom with 100,000 people on the streets – one eighth of the country’s population. Opposition unity was marred by sectarian clashes between Sunni and Shia. The panicky leadership made concessions by sacking extremist ministers while still authorising a shoot to kill policy on the streets.

On 14 March, the Emir called for help from Sunni allies. Led by Saudi Arabia they answered the call. A thousand Saudi troops and 500 UAE police officers crossed the bridge to Manama. They were part of a deployment by the Gulf Co-operation Council, a six-nation regional grouping of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and UAE. The force protected the oil and gas plants and financial institutions. According to al-Khalifa, the troops were there “to look at ways to help them to defuse the tension in Bahrain.” But this was an occupation force to crush the revolution.

Hillary Clinton said Bahrain and its GCC allies were “on the wrong track” but mentioned nothing about the 5th fleet in its Bahrain base protecting US oil wealth in the region. The Khalifas may not be loved by their subjects but the White House knows a Shia government in Manama would not want 4500 US military personnel in the city. The Fifth Fleet is not there to create disorder but to preserve it. When the regime does fall, as it inevitably will, the American can have no complaints when they are kicked out.

House of Saud on the verge of a nervous breakdown

Sooner or later the protests that have racked the Middle East and North Africa will affect the most undemocratic regime of them all, Saudi Arabia. Arguably that has already happened. Absolute monarch King Abdullah is now 86. Aware of his own vulnerability, he gave away over $36 billion in benefits to lower and middle income Saudis last week. He also granted thousands of civil servants job security and said he would reshuffle the cabinet. Abdullah rushed back to the country after months of hospitalisation and recuperation in the US and Morocco to make these announcements. No one is under any illusion he wasn’t panicked into action by the wave of protests across the region that threatened to roll across his equally undemocratic border.

Abdullah’s bribery will keep the protesters at home for now and the illegality of political parties and public protest are a deterrent. Yet resistance to the power of the Sauds is growing slowly. The Saudiwoman blog says the country is “still on the train heading to revolution town.” The young are unhappy with large-scale unemployment and the conservative grip of the religious police, she said. Older generations are fed up with the corruption, nepotism and the disappearance of the middle class.Activists are calling for protests on 11 and 20 March but may well be frustrated by police. They stymied two attempts to stage protests in Jeddah last month arresting 30 to 50 people. Saudi blogger Ahmed al-Omran said authorities were watching closely what people were saying on Facebook and Twitter. “They are anxious as they are surrounded with unrest and want to make sure we don’t catch the bug,” al-Omran said.

Western leaders are also keen the Saudis don’t catch the bug. In 2007 British foreign office minister Kim Howells infamously talked about Britain and Saudi Arabia’s “shared values”. Meanwhile in October 2010, the US Obama Administration kept the Carter Doctrine alive with the sale of $60.5 billion worth of arms to the KSA which was the biggest arms sale in American history. According to an Israeli study of the sale, the package was totally offensive in nature, with its attack planes, helicopters, and “bunker-buster” bombs, and designed to show the US would stand strongly by its allies. ‘US officials have also begun to refer to the “Persian Gulf” as the “Arabian Gulf,” a hot-button issue for the Iranians,’ the study said.

The financial world is also less interested in the democratic desires of ordinary Saudis than the fate of light sweet crude oil futures. Crude was trading at $97.25 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange yesterday having spiked since the start of the year. This has more to do with Libya and issues in Oman and Bahrain but Saudi Arabia remains pivotal to production with the world’s largest reserves. Saudi Aramco have stepped up production since the Libyan revolution started but as the Financial Times points out, oil-dominated economies create few jobs, “especially if they support a bloated royal family that affects not to understand where a privy purse ends and a public budget begins”.

Abdullah’s successor in the agnatic seniority preferred by 7000-strong royal family is his half-brother Crown Prince Sultan. Sultan, 82 or possibly 86, is just as old, just as unhealthy and just as corrupt as Abdullah. Behind them comes the conservative autocrat Prince Nayef who abhors the idea of reform. The monarchy survived the 20th century thanks to the black gold they controlled and their alliance with the Wahhabists who control religious affairs. The end of the carbon economy would have killed them anyway but with everyday Saudis unwilling to wait, the days of authority of both these ancient institutions are likely to be numbered.