[This article is part of "An Interdisciplinary Roundtable on Climate." Read the other contributions to the roundtable here.]
Scholars of the history of oil have a responsibility to put the climate crisis at the center of their research and teaching. Discussions of climate change should flow naturally from the ongoing trend of political, social, and cultural histories and historical ethnographies of the Middle East that seek to understand oil as a discursive and intimately material phenomenon. It is therefore striking that, too often, they do not.
Oil has been of interest to historians of the Middle East since the very beginnings of the oil industry. Until this century, however, most histories of oil in the Middle East were descriptive and normative, describing a linear progression toward wealth and prosperity and lacking any analytical perspective. Some of these works were written by oil industry insiders or even commissioned by oil companies themselves. Since then, histories of oil in the Middle East have flourished and transformed into a multidisciplinary and critical field of scholarship.
More recently, historians and historically-oriented scholars of the Middle East have considered the ways that oil runs through and shapes the mundane interactions of people living in oil-bearing areas by transforming infrastructure and urban fabric. Some have studied visual and written cultures of oil and the imaginaries of modernity that have emerged from such discourses. Others have written about the anticolonial ideology of resource sovereignty by examining the nationalization of oil companies in places like Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Libya. Still others have focused on how oil is a source of environmental and technocratic power in state-building. Some, including me, have also argued that the role of oil in politics and strategic decisions should be understood as primarily ideological and cultural rather than driven by actual necessity or scarcity. But very few of these histories of oil explicitly link the centrality of fossil fuels in contemporary human life to the comprehensive crisis that those fuels have created, even when written by historians who have expressed concern about climate change in other contexts.
Why is the omission of climate change from histories of oil in the Middle East so common? I can only speak for myself. The reasons for its absence from my recent book on the history of oil and ethnicity in Kirkuk might point toward some of the sources of the problem. My book was rooted in my PhD research, which meant that it was influenced by my graduate training. At that stage, none of my advisers or peers thought to bring up the environmental consequences of oil consumption as a lens through which to analyze the history of oil. Indeed, nobody around me ever did—not at any conference presentation, not during job talks, not in the manuscript review process. It was only very late in the revision process, when the book was about to go into production, that I became concerned about the fact that I had not mentioned climate change at all in its pages.
I based the project on archival sources that were written by people who never would have thought to mention excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; indeed, in the period my book covers, they almost certainly were not aware of its dangers. But historians routinely read sources against the grain. I had written extensively about ethnic segregation and class stratification in Kirkuk, for instance, based on sources that seldom directly mentioned those phenomena. Why, I asked myself, had I not done the same for climate change?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is those who study contemporary oil and energy policy in the Middle East, rather than historians, who have done the most to account for the effects of climate change. These researchers have highlighted how Middle Eastern countries, especially in the Persian Gulf region, have responded to the crisis by trying to achieve “natural sustainability,” to end energy subsidies, and to pursue innovations in urban design. Yet even in the present-oriented social sciences, not all works that examine the politics of oil have centered climate change.
Perhaps the most powerful recent critique of prevailing oil ideologies is Robert Vitalis’s Oilcraft, which describes what Vitalis calls “oil scarcity ideology.” He argues convincingly that the perception of the need to fight wars for oil in the Middle East, and the notion that the United States fights these kinds of wars for oil, is illusory. Vitalis discusses climate change only to critique environmental activists who use oil scarcity ideology when they argue that greening energy will help prevent future Iraq War–like invasions. I agree fully with Vitalis’s conclusion that green energy will not end imperial wars. But I am also concerned that he and I, like others, did not think to address the climate crisis more directly—specifically, to imagine ways that our research could help those environmental activists whose understanding of the relationship between energy and conflict might be misdirected.
From my position as a historian, I contend that there is no reason why the omission of climate change should persist in Middle Eastern history. The way we talk about climate change does not have to be rooted in future speculation or presentist concerns. Nor is the absence of climate change inevitable in projects that focus on topics like ethnicity, nationalism, identity formation, or other phenomena that are not always overtly physical, material, and environmental.
Critical histories have established that oil is a complex of institutions, cultures, and power relations. That fact throws the contingencies of the climate crisis into relief. When historians establish that oil is best understood through the ideologies and social life it produces, we are tearing down the façade of oil as something essential. If the idea of wars for oil is illusory; if we don’t actually need so-called “oil security” to have energy; if, indeed, this recent scholarship has discredited the idea that oil is best understood as a deadly bargain the United States is in to maintain its security—then it becomes clear that the perpetual consumption of oil is not inevitable.
Historians of oil in the Middle East should follow and amplify scholars of oil and other forms of energy in Latin America and Africa, who have often made the links between their work, climate change, and environmental justice much more explicit. We should also acknowledge, support, and follow our colleagues who are doing this kind of work within Middle Eastern studies.
For instance, Mona Damluji, who has written extensively about the visual culture of oil and specifically the history of oil and film, has convened a seminar and a research group on the topic of energy justice at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she is a faculty member in film and media studies. In 2018, Damluji and her seminar co-convener, Javiera Barandiarán, introduced their project by arguing for the role of the humanities in energy studies; humanistic inquiry, they suggested, can challenge the common assumption that existing energy systems are inevitably necessary in modern life. Another example is On Barak’s recent history of coal in the Middle East, which lucidly makes the case that coal, as a fuel of empire, is as important to the histories of oil-bearing regions as oil is, and that the world cannot decarbonize without first understanding the full trajectory of carbonization.
Humans have chosen to extract and burn fossil fuels for centuries. Critical histories of oil can shed light on why they have done so. By demonstrating the contingency of this choice, such histories can help us map a path forward for moving past the fossil-fuel era. I am calling on my fellow scholars who work on the history of oil in Middle Eastern contexts to think carefully, and with sustained focus, about how to reframe our work to make that contingency explicit and central.
 See, for instance, Stephen Hemsley Longrigg, Oil in the Middle East: Its Discovery and Development (London: Oxford University Press, 1954).
 See, for instance, the multivolume histories of BP by J. H. Bamberg and R. W. Ferrier commissioned by the company. The first volume is Ferrier, The History of the British Petroleum Company, Volume 1: The Developing Years, 1901–1932 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982). Perhaps the most famous history of the oil industry written by an insider is: Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991).
 See, for instance, Farah Al-Nakib, Kuwait Transformed: A History of Oil and Urban Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016); Christopher R. W. Dietrich, Oil Revolution: Anticolonial Elites, Sovereign Rights, and the Economic Culture of Decolonization (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017); the special journal issue “Histories of Oil and Urban Modernity in the Middle East,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 33, no. 1 (2013), featuring articles by Farah Al-Nakib, Reem Alissa, Arbella Bet-Shlimon, Mona Damluji, and Nelida Fuccaro; Toby Craig Jones, Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); and Brandon Wolfe-Hunnicutt, The Paranoid Style in American Diplomacy: Oil and Arab Nationalism in Iraq (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021).
 Arbella Bet-Shlimon, City of Black Gold: Oil, Ethnicity, and the Making of Modern Kirkuk (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019).
 See, for instance, a more recent brief book by Toby Jones that is primarily a work of commentary: Jones, Running Dry: Essays on Energy, Water, and Environmental Crisis (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015). Other historians and historically-oriented scholars cited herein have often expressed concern about climate change outside of their major published academic works.
 See, for instance: Gökçe Günel, Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019); Jim Krane, Energy Kingdoms: Oil and Political Survival in the Persian Gulf (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019); Mari Luomi, The Gulf Monarchies and Climate Change: Abu Dhabi and Qatar in an Era of Natural Unsustainability (London: Hurst & Co., 2014).
 Robert Vitalis, Oilcraft: The Myths of Scarcity and Security that Haunt U.S. Energy Policy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020). A similar argument that also does not substantively discuss climate change is found in Emily Meierding, The Oil Wars Myth: Petroleum and the Causes of International Conflict (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020).
 Vitalis, Oilcraft, 5.
 For an example of how Vitalis’s work in Oilcraft can be used to make such an argument, see Sam Ratner, “Climate Justice, not ‘Energy Security,’” Fellow Travelers, 4 January 2021, https://fellowtravelersblog.com/2021/01/04/climate-justice-not-energy-security/.
 See, for instance, Stephan F. Meischer and Dzodzi Tsikata, “Hydro-Power and the Promise of Modernity and Development in Ghana: Comparing the Akosombo and Bui Dam Projects,” Ghana Studies, v. 12/13 (2009/2010): 15–53; Myrna Santiago, “Extracting Histories: Mining, Workers, and Environment,” in “New Environmental Histories of Latin America and the Caribbean,” ed. Claudia Leal, José Augusto Pádua, and John Soluri, RCC Perspectives no. 7, 81–87 (2013); and Suzana Sawyer, Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).
 “Energy Justice in Global Perspective,” https://energyjustice.global.ucsb.edu/seminar.
 On Barak, Powering Empire: How Coal Made the Middle East and Sparked Global Carbonization (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2020).