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The University of Southampton

HIST2216 Oil Burns The Hands: Power, Politics and Petroleum in Iraq, 1900-1958

Module Overview

The area we know today as Iraq has long been known for its oil reserves. Natural springs of crude oil had astonished travellers to the Upper Tigris region since Antiquity: a curiosity, unrefined crude was used medicinally, and as a lubricant for cart axles. In the fifty years after 1890, however, improvements in refining and other technologies saw oil supplant coal as the fuel driving economic development. The race was on to claim the oil reserves of a region variously known as Mesopotamia, Al Jazeera and Iraq. Oil was first struck there in 1927. By then it was clear that oil had become the determining factor in the development of the Middle East as a whole. Like an obsidian mirror, oil reflected the dreams of progress and profit which sultans and sheikhs, shareholders and citizens alike invested in "black gold." In this module we will be considering the impact of oil on the Middle East, as well as on the western powers (Britain, France, Germany and the United States) and the oil companies drawn to it by their insatiable thirst for power. The resulting alliances and rivalries continue to shape the region’s fortunes. Oil has proved to be as troublesome to hold as it is to acquire. To borrow a Persian proverb, "oil burns the hands."

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • the emergence of the modern Middle East from the Ottoman Empire
  • the role of oil in relations between imperial powers and oil-producing nations.
Cognitive Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Assess how the trade in oil has impacted on societies, cultures and economies
  • Critically analyse different types of evidence for this theme
  • Demonstrate awareness of scholarly trends and debates in the study of the middle east
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • negotiate a long-term concession or joint-venture agreement between a sovereign state and a large multinational corporation, for a capital-intensive resource extraction or infrastructure project.
Subject Specific Practical Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • sift public as well as corporate archival material for evidence in support of an argument.
  • apply a range of concepts such as energy security and “informal empire” in other historical contexts.


Oil shaped the borders of the new Middle East which emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in the years after 1918. This was certainly true of the British mandate of Iraq (1920), which became an independent Kingdom (1932) and eventually, at the close of our period, a Republic (1958). In this course we will focus on Iraq and on the Iraq Petroleum Company (established 1912), a consortium which brought together the companies we know as ExxonMobil, BP, Total and Shell. IPC's activities ranged beyond Iraq, however, and so we will also consider the development of oil in the neighbouring Persian Empire/Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states. At the centre of our discussions will be negotiations over the right to explore and exploit oil. How were royalties and other concession terms set? To what extent were the Great Powers, the oil companies and the oil-producing states able to cajole, coerce or co-opt each other? What was the relationship between these oily discussions and broader concerns, such as inter-ethnic relations within Iraq, the stability of the Iraqi regime and the balance of power between the UK and Russia (later, between the US and the Soviet Union)? Did the presence of oil prove a blessing or a curse to the wider development of Iraq and its neighbours?

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include • Lectures • Seminars based on close reading of a series of different archival sources, providing various perspectives on a single negotiation or event • Role plays in which students will take the part of specific oil companies, Iraqi ministers and western diplomats. • Essays and timed examination. Learning activities include • Analysis of selected key readings in the historiography and, where appropriate, from other disciplines such as International Relations. • Preparatory reading and individual study • Individual participation in seminars • Engagement in role play and debate

Preparation for scheduled sessions80
Follow-up work20
Wider reading or practice42
Completion of assessment task52
Total study time300

Resources & Reading list

Fiona Venn (1986). Oil Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century. 

Ervind Abrahamian (2008). A History of Modern Iran. 

Feroz Ahmad (1993). The Making of Modern Turkey. 

F. Anscombe (1997). The Ottoman Gulf: the Creation of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, 1871-1914. 

Daniel Yergin (1991). The Prize: the epic quest or oil, money and power. 

James Bamberg (1994). The Anglo-Iranian Years, 1928-54 v. 2 of The History of the British Petroleum Company. 

Gregory P. Nowell (1995). Mercantile States and the World Oil Cartel, 1900–1939. 

J. Crystal (1990). Oil and Politics in the Gulf: Rules and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar. 

Joost Jonker and Jan Luiten van Zanden (2007). A History of Royal Dutch Shell v. 1 From Challenger to Joint Industry Leader, 1890-1939 and v. 2 Powering the Hydrocarbon Revolution 1939-73. 

Irvine H. Anderson (1981). ARAMCO, the United States and Saudi Arabia: a study of the dynamics of foreign oil policy, 1933-1950. 

John A. DeNovo (1963). American Interests and Policies in the Middle East, 1900-1939. 

Marian Kent (1976). Oil and Empire: British Policy and Mesopotamian Oil 1900-1920. 

George Philip (1994). The Political Economy of International Oil. 

Madawi Al-Rasheed (2002). A History of Saudi Arabia. 

M. Şükrü Hanioğlu (2008). A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire. 

Geoffrey Jones (1981). The State and the Emergance of the British Oil Industry. 

George Sweet Gibb, Evelyn H. Knowlton et al (1956-1971). History of Standard Oil Company (New Jersey) v. 2 The Resurgent Years 1911-1927 and v. 3 New Horizons 1927-50. 

Ronald W. Ferrier (1982). The History of the British Petroleum Company Vol. 1 The developing years, 1901-1932. 

Peter Sluglett (2007). Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country. 





MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (4000 words) 50%
Exam  (2 hours) 50%


MethodPercentage contribution
Resubmit assessments 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal

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