Oil Below Zero

On Monday, 20 April, for the first time on record, oil prices went negative. Futures contracts for May deliveries of West Texas intermediate grade crude oil changed hands for -$40 a barrel. In physical markets in the United States today, Oklahoma Sour and Wyoming Sweet are trading for -$5.75 and -$8.50 a barrel. Oil companies are extracting crude from the ground and paying people to take it away.


April 22

The Buried

  • The Buried: Life, death and revolution in Egypt by Peter Hessler

A fascination with ancient Egypt is common among the journalists and drifters who spend time in Cairo. In 2011, having lived for more than a decade in China, writing articles about teaching on the Yangtze and the Chinese countryside, Peter Hessler moved to the city with his family. His book The Buried: Life, death and revolution in Egypt is for the most part a collection of his writings for the New Yorker and National Geographic. The title was culled from an article of the same name and highlights his willingness to describe the aftermath of the 2011 uprising with reference to Pharaonic history.


August 13

How to Run a Caliphate

On 29 June 2014, the group that until then had been called Isil or Isis renamed itself Islamic State and declared that it had established a caliphate under its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Using modern tactics and archaic violence it had expanded the territory under its control at spectacular speed, seemingly unstoppably. Its ranks swelled and swelled with new recruits impressed by the scale of its victories. Supporters travelled in large numbers from North Africa and Europe to become part of the society it had pledged to create. Strict justice, revolutionary energy, old prophecies fulfilled: its millenarian ideology included plenty that appealed to young men of a certain type. Sweeping across Upper Mesopotamia, its fighters summoned up memories in the European mind of Timur and the Golden Horde. But these weren’t primitive rebels. They came – echoing American claims in Iraq – as builders of a state.


June 20

The Gulf Bargain

  • AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain by David Wearing
    Polity, 275 pp, £15.99, September 2018, ISBN 978 1 5095 3203 2

It is a cliché that the United States and Britain are obsessed with Middle East oil, but the reason for the obsession is often misdiagnosed. Anglo-American interest in the enormous hydrocarbon reserves of the Persian Gulf does not derive from a need to fuel Western consumption. Britain used to import considerable quantities of Saudi oil, but currently gets most of what it needs from the North Sea and hasn’t imported much from the Gulf since the 1980s; Saudi oil currently represents around 3 per cent of UK imports. The US has never imported more than a token amount from the Gulf and for much of the postwar period has been a net oil exporter. Anglo-American involvement in the Middle East has always been principally about the strategic advantage gained from controlling Persian Gulf hydrocarbons, not Western oil needs. In 1945, Gordon Merriam, the head of the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs division, made this clear: the Saudi oilfields, he said, were first and foremost ‘a stupendous source of strategic power’. The assistant secretary of state, Adolf Berle, sketched out what remains US strategy: the US and Britain would provide Saudi Arabia and other key Gulf monarchies with ‘sufficient military supplies to preserve internal security’ and ensure that they were permanently guarded by Western navies.

May 9 


The Finer Points of Murder

Kwame Nkrumah survived at least five assassination attempts. The first three were bombings targeting his car or house. A grenade was thrown at him, causing minor injuries. In January 1964 an assailant entered the Ghanaian presidential residence, Flagstaff House, and fired five shots from close range. A security guard was killed but Nkrumah was unscathed. “Business went on as usual in Accra”, the New York Times reported. The trouble with many attempted assassinations is that the subject refuses to die. A more recent example was the attack on the then presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais, in September 2018. Adélio Bispo de Oliveira stabbed Bolsonaro at a rally, piercing his liver and lungs, but Bolsonaro was up and campaigning again within a couple of weeks and went on to win Brazil’s presidency in October. Would-be assassins consistently overestimate the lethality of their chosen tools, believing it easier to kill a man than it really is.


January 8

The Khashoggi Affair

Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul on the afternoon of 2 October and did not come out. The local police think that Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist writing regularly for the Washington Post, was killed inside the consulate building and his body smuggled out by car.

The Turkish authorities are not to be trusted in such matters, but it is overwhelmingly likely that Khashoggi has been either killed or abducted by the Saudi state. He left Saudi Arabia because he feared arrest. A detachment of Saudi state security officers arrived in Turkey immediately before his disappearance and left shortly afterwards. The consulate’s cameras were either switched off or the tapes removed. He may have been killed in the consulate, or drugged and flown to Riyadh, to be either executed or held incommunicado.


October 8

Place of Perfect Darkness

The road out of Diyarbakır follows the Tigris before heading south across the plateau. For the scattered villages that still exist impossibly out there on the flat, little breaks the horizon. Atop the few hills that dot the grassland are strange rock formations that look like citadels, or at least as if they were built by human hands. The road goes on to Çinar and the medieval Artuqid city of Mardin and then down to the Syrian border. From there it passes east across the plain, following the recently constructed concrete border wall. At Nusaybin the wall bisects a city. The Syrian side, which is called Qamishlo, looks indistinguishable from its severed twin; wedding parties are still held in concert on both sides of the wall, with music signalling when lovers and revellers occluded from one another should begin to dance.


September 18