Whenever there is a crisis in the Middle East, fomented by the US or Israel Arabs, streets from Morocco to Iraq reverberate with calls urging oil-producing Gulf States to play the oil card. This emotional knee jerk reaction is understandable in the face of Israel's oppressive policies against the Palestinian people and its neighbours, as well as America's ongoing occupation of Iraq. But when viewed realistically through a 21st century prism, the use of oil as a weapon would not only be impracticable but also detrimental to Arab interests.
When asked whether oil should be used as a weapon during the recent Israel-Lebanon conflict, the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said this:
"The two issues should not be mixed because oil is among the economic capabilities that countries need to meet their obligations towards their citizens. If we ignore this reality and start asking that the foundations of our life be used to enter into reckless adventures, the first to be hurt will be our citizens. And no wise government can accept this."
In 2002 Adel Al-Jubeir, a Saudi foreign policy advisor, told the press " is not a weapon. is not a tank". These sentiments were reiterated that same year by the Kuwaiti Defence Minister, who described his country's oil as "a basic wealth for the people".
These comments may not sit well with Arabs who have legitimate grievances against the US and Israel and feel any tool that can be used to hit back is fair game. But when one weighs up all factors concerned it is clear they are right-minded and sensible.
Firstly, any use of the oil card would represent a gigantic public relations mistake. People around the world suffering from high prices at the pump, having to pay more for their air tickets and unable to afford heating bills would be less likely to view Arab causes sympathetically.
Second, if Arab oil producers were to use this precious commodity as a bargaining chip such an action would likely backfire hurting not only producing nations but also poor third-world countries including developing Arab nations.
It's important to highlight that it isn't only the citizens of producing nations that benefit from the resource. Over the decades, Arab Gulf countries have invested billions to help their less well-off neighbours, besides constructing hospitals, schools, mosques, housing complexes and essential infrastructure.
Since the 1973 oil embargo - imposed by OPEC to deter the US and its allies who supplied weapons to Israel during Israel's war with Syria and Egypt - the world has dramatically changed. Today, the United States imports less than 20 per cent of its oil from Arab producing countries.
The 1973 embargo caused a major global shock. Within a year the price of oil had quadrupled and the US experienced its first oil shortage since WWII. At the same time inflation was rampant, the US economy was severely shaken, and the dollar weakened, which triggered a worldwide recession.
If this were to be repeated today when wealthier Arab nations are heavily invested in the West and OPEC receives its revenue in dollars, Arab economies would be thrown into turmoil. This would not only affect the citizens of producing Gulf countries but also the untold thousands of Arabs who live and work in those countries.
And just as it did in 1973, such an action would have long term global economic repercussions.
As a result of the 70's embargo, the West was driven to invest in hitherto untapped oil resources. Because oil prices were driven higher, far-away or difficult to access oil fields, such as the North Sea, became feasible and attractive prospects.
At the same time investment poured into nuclear energy, the research of alternative energies and new technologies such as gas-to-liquids. Last year consuming countries invested US$30 billion in developing these new technologies. Recent years have also witnessed a resurgence of interest in coal.
One of the spin-offs from that embargo was the rise of small Japanese-made cars in favour of large gas-guzzling American-manufactured limousines. Another has been calls from US leaders for Americans to conserve oil by using less. Luckily for this region, despite those trends, the demand for oil is still growing.
Moreover, since 1973, the West learnt a lesson. It was no longer going to be as reliant on uninterrupted oil supplies and so began stockpiling oil in case of emergencies.
The Bush administration, which came into power with an aggressive agenda vis-à-vis the Middle East, began hoarding oil from its early days in power. Japan and Germany hold significant reserves while China and India have embarked on a similar path.
For instance, the 26 member countries of the International Energy Agency (IEA) are able to draw on a mammoth reserve of up to 12 million barrels daily over a four month period, thereafter reducing it to approximately nine million.
So in order for it to work, any embargo would have to be long-term and would hurt the producing countries as much as, if not more than, consuming nations.
It should also be highlighted that struggling third-world countries without oil reserves would be hit-hard by unavailability and rocketing prices that would thrust them into an economic wilderness for decades to come. This is especially true when an increasing demand for oil during an unstable political climate is already fuelling high prices based on market factors.
A selective embargo wouldn't work either as oil sold to countries, considered ’friendly’, would simply be shipped onward to the very countries the embargo was set-up to adversely affect.
In the 70’s, former Saudi Minister Sheikh Zaki Yamani understood this saying: “The world is really just one market". If that were true then it is so much more so today.
We should also take into account the change of 'trade flow' that has evolved since 1973. Then much of this region's oil was sold to developed Western nations. Nowadays a large portion flows to South East Asia and the Far East, countries largely uninvolved with Middle East politics.
In retrospect, the 1973 embargo did a lot more harm than good in that the US and its allies continually perceive a similar threat from this region and have configured their foreign policies to avert a recurrence.
An interesting correlation is the fact that after Iraq began selling its oil in Euros, instead of dollars, it was invaded on a false pretext. Today, threats are being made against Iran, which has long planned to open an oil bourse that would cast-off the petrodollar in favour of other currencies.
Michael Renner a senior analyst with the World Watch Institute said, "If the United States maintains a strong political hand in the Middle East it may be more able to convince the governments in the region not to switch over to Euro pricing and to actually stay with the dollar."
The Vice-President for Defence and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute Dr Ted Carpenter believes American policymakers do not understand the way oil markets work.
"They (oil producers) are going to put their oil on the market regardless of who controls the political power in the capital city," he says. And if they put their oil on the market you know that determines the ultimate price, not whether the regime is friendly to the United States or hostile."
Carpenter is no doubt correct but more and more analysts are coming to the conclusion that the real reason for America's interest in the region is more to do with power over the resource than grabbing oil for its own use.
It's ironic that while OPEC has rejected the oil card, the US wants to use the region's oil as a weapon to prevent the economic and military rise of hegemonic competitors such as oil-hungry China and India. Whether it will succeed in this aim is another matter.
The hawkish former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon famously said "the Arabs may have the oil but we have the matches". This is the real problem that Arab oil producing nations face and will face as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues and Palestinians are left without a state.
As long as this conflict and associated conflicts are unresolved, there will be demands from people, incensed at injustice for Arabs, to brandish oil in place of the sword.
But Arab leaders must resist playing into the hands of Sharon's ideological successors, for with great wealth comes great responsibility, the most important of which is the wellbeing of the people whom God has blessed with this bounty.