The flip-flop trail has many beginnings. My plan to follow the largest volumes of ‘traffic’ moving along the trail means the trail should begin in Saudi Arabia because Saudi holds the world’s largest oil reserves and it supplies centres of plastic production. But researching the male world of oil in Saudi poses practical problems of propriety, dress and mobility for a female researcher. Even if I was prepared to wear a burka (and I think I was resigned to it) and employ a driver to get me to remote oil fields in the desert because women are not allowed to drive, two further obstacles blocked my way to Saudi. Firstly, unaccompanied women arriving at Saudi airports run the risk of being turned-back unless they can arrange to be met by a male escort. I wasn’t confident I could. Secondly, while the male world of oil could be probed by employing a male research assistant, this raised issues of propriety, from a Saudi perspective, in the un-chaperoned daily contact the research would involve. Saudi was out.
Oil reserves in Venezuela and Canada follow Saudi’sand both offer less problematic research sites. But oil from these regions, like oil from the Russian Federation and former Soviet bloc countries – also key producers – does not flow towards the epi-centres of plastic production. This is the wrong oil. Oil geographies are only partly about a matrix of pipelines, tanker-routes and proximity to markets, which are, anyway, materializations of geographies past. Oil geographies are also shaped by complex, shifting geopolitical calculations expressing tensions between regimes. Oil security and diplomacy are interlaced as oil purchasing and producing nations favour some alliances over others and this too directs where oil goes.
Then there are new expediencies. The cold war still runs through oil as Russia seeks influence in bordering regimes: sanctions against Iran means finding new sources. America secures its recently won oil-independence with Canadian supplies lessening its reliance on the Middle East and the tectonic plates of geopolitics shift once more as oil redraws world maps. Iran and Iraq’s oil reserves place them after Canada but it is difficult to get a visa for Iran while sanctions limit its exports, ruling it out as a research site. Oddly Iraq is more accessible: the nice lady at the British Arab Chamber of Commerce offered to fix me up with a trip to Basra, but due to the recent theatre of war with poor everyday security, I ruled it out on safety grounds. This was later confirmed by a contract oil driller I met in Kuwait who had worked there and told me that he could not leave the drilling camp except in an armoured car under military escort. Research is not important enough to warrant such securities: I gave up on Iraq and Iran. Connections between oil, armed conflict and regime paranoia is not, however, coincidental. Oil production is a high-tension point in twenty first century geopolitics and in just searching for a place to start my research I had learned my first lesson about oil.
Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths based at CUCR. Her research is about circulations of people and objects and, in addition to publishing many books and papers, she is co-author (with Douglas Harper) of Hong Kong: Lives, Landscapes and Journeys published (2009) by University of Chicago Press.
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