The Oil Road: Journeys From The Caspian Sea To The City Of London

By James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello
Verso, London/New York;
344 pgs, index

Caucasus old hand, Thomas Gotz, uncovers flaws in a nonetheless exhaustive piece of detective work on the ties that bind the region's new oil empires and the City of London.

The Oil Road is an ambitious, often beautifully written but highly partisan and possibly even deeply flawed book about global energy, and which might be best summed up as a street assault on the politics and economics of BP, focusing on that company’s designs on the Caspian Sea region of the former USSR, and specifically on BP’s role in the creation of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) “main-export-pipeline” across Azerbaijan and Georgia to the Turkish deep-sea port of Ceyhan on the eastern Mediterranean coast and the human and climate-change impact of that mega project.

Oddly, perhaps, the best parts of the book have nothing to do with the BTC per se, but rather with the conceptual frame-work initiated by the authors that the BTC is merely part of a much larger “Oil Road” into central Europe leading from the BTC to Trieste in today’s Italy, over (or through) the Italian/Austrian Alpine frontier to the vast industrial zones of Ingolstad in Germany—and then beyond, as petroleum and its byproducts are used to fuel airplanes from the “hub” of Munich to touchdown places as distant as Colorado and Calcutta, smooth the Autobahn and create all manner of plastic products unknown 100 years ago.

But the announced thrust of the book is an exploration of the politics and economics of the BTC—and that is where the book is at its weakest.*1

There are certainly many things to be said about Azerbaijan (and most other post-Soviet states) that easily fall into the category of legitimate criticism, but the authors appear to have adopted a “nothing Baku  can do is right” attitude from almost page one, which soon strays into the nefarious and conspiratorial long before the BTC was even a pipedream. While there is the standard, negative (and convenient) focus on Heydar Aliyev—former KGB General, former First Secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party, former Politburo member brought up to Moscow by Spy-master Yuri Andropov, etc — the authors bring nothing new to the table, and often simply have their facts wrong.

The following items might seem nit-picky, but in a book based on numbers (and numerous Freedom of Information documents), one would hope the authors had taken more care.

For example, on page 43, in their survey of pre-Soviet Baku during the days of the Nobels and Rothchilds, the authors erroneously state that empty tankers coming down the Volga to upload Baku oil used water as ballast so that the Nobels could water trees…Alas, the real story is far more interesting: tankers arriving empty in Baku were taxed; those that brought a ballast of top-soil were not. As such, the Nobels might be said to have been actively engaged in the greening of Baku, which previously was nothing but sand and scrub.

Map Platform
Map Platform
Caspian-Sea NASA LandSat
Caspian-Sea NASA LandSat

They also get a number of geographical/political items wrong. Thus, on page 29, they have Heydar Aliyev born in Naxjivan, an Azerbaijani exclave ‘beyond the disputed Nagorno Karabakh.’ Well, there are many things that remain obscure about Mr. Aliyev’s life (and death), but there was no Nagorno (“Mountainous”) Karabakh when he was born in 1920, only Karabakh; the “Autonomous District of Mountainous Karabakh” (or the NKAO in Russian acronym form) was created in 1923 by Stalin and his commissars, thus making Aliyev technically a Karabakhi.

More dubious is a grand-leap paragraph on page 41, which might be regarded as the authors’ summation of the brutal Karabakh war (1988-94), where they have Azerbaijani refugees settling in homes vacated by fleeing Armenians in the city of Sumgayit just north of Baku. The problem here is that the Armenian flight from Sumgayit occurred in late February/early March 1988, and the only Azerbaijani refugees at the time were those expelled from Armenia in 1987 and January 1988. Then, in the same paragraph, the authors make the extraordinary leap by stating that western oil companies exploited the war, the refugees and the chaotic circumstances of the collapse of the Soviet Union to drive a hard bargain with Azerbaijani authorities. If so, this situation only pertained in the Spring of 1993, when things were indeed going very badly for the government of then President Abulfez Elchibey, who was desperate to cut some deal--even with the devil--to save his crumbling regime. But between 1988-1991 there were no serious negotiations of any sort between foreign oil companies and Baku, because Azerbaijan was still very much part of the USSR, and all deals were done in Moscow.

As suggested previously, the authors virtually skip over the horrible war in Karabakh between the Azerbaijanis and Armenians—and in so doing completely miss the first truly weird murmurings of a BTC-like project proposed by a shady, Lebanese-American entrepreneur named Roger Tamras to the new Clinton administration. Roger got face-time with Bill in exchange for paying some $300,000 as a “donation” to the Democratic Party for the pleasure of sleeping in a White house bedroom, and used the opportunity to promote a “Peace Pipeline” designed to shoot Caspian crude from Azerbaijan to Turkey, but via Armenia and not Georgia…Rather than dig around for salacious real-world details of this sort, the authors see fit to include a truly gratuitous reference to a Sunday Times story published in 2000, allegedly based on “Turkish intelligence sources” about BP backing the 1993 coup against Elchibey, which they then seeming retract because the Sunday Times axed it from its website (pgs 58-59). Well, what is it? If ST allegation is not true, why include the reference at all? As the Turks say, ‘Throw mud at a wall and it either sticks or leaves a mark.’

Photo: ChloeDeweMatthews
Photo: ChloeDeweMatthews

I could go on and on about the inaccuracies, superficiality of research and downright agenda-driven vindictiveness about Azerbaijan (and particularly about Heydar Aliyev), but would like to shift to similar omissions or errors concerning Georgia, where they are repeated with slightly less venom.

On page 139, the authors refer to being in Georgia on April 9, 2009, “…the anniversary of Georgia’s post-Soviet declaration of independence in 1991.”  April 9, 1991 is indeed the day that Georgia declared independence, but there still was a USSR--the other 14 ‘Union” republics started declaring their own independence (or ‘sovereignty’) following the abortive putsch in Moscow of August 19 of that year; Azerbaijan did so on October 18, but few were recognized until Gorbachev formally resigned on December 25. On page 142 they have Eduard Shevardnadze resign as Soviet Foreign Minister in December 1991 before returning to Georgia. Sorry. Shevardnadze resigned that post in Mikhail Gorbachev’s government on December 20, 1990, but then took up the position again in November 1991 during the last month of the USSR’s legal existence, and of course watched the position itself dissolve on December 26, the day after Gorbachev announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Moreover, Shevardnadze was not ‘appointed’ Georgian ‘president’ in March 1992, but was invited to assume the role of chairman of the (military) council that had taken over the country following a putsch against first Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia. ‘Shevy’ eventually became Chairman of Parliament (and thus head of state) but he did not become president until 1995, when he was elected

Details, details….

(Not surprisingly, the authors trot out the usual trope against Gamsakhurdia for his “ultranationalist” statement of “Georgia for the Georgians.” They may be forgiven, because this slight is repeated so often that it is accepted as fact. I even used this myself in my book on post-Soviet Georgia. Then an astute Georgian historian led me to footage wherein Gamsakhurdia vigorously denies ever having said such a thing, and explains why he never would. I stood corrected, and took the vow to do penance for my shoddy fact-checking/repetition of others’ errors--and this review is yet another opportunity to set the record straight! Zviad never said “Georgia for the Georgians”)

Photo: ChloeDeweMatthews
Photo: ChloeDeweMatthews

Unlike in Azerbaijan, where the authors parrot some genuine and other dubious ‘usual suspects’ as sources, in Georgia they actually start to break new ground and do some serious investigating themselves, and should be commended.

Specifically, the whole of Chapter 10 (“We Shut Down The Media”) running from pages 147-157 finds the authors exploring an alleged Russian bombing of the BTC during the brief Russian-Georgian war of August 2008. They run up against (BP) brick-wall after brick-wall of deflection and denial until they suddenly have an epiphany: the Russian aircraft were not bombing the BTC, but the nearby (and earlier) Baku-Supsa pipeline, presumably as a demonstration of military power-projection that would stop just short of a major international incident.

Nobody but Mother Wit is giving them any sort of assistance in getting to the bottom of this fulcrum moment in ‘Resurgent Russia,’ and so they should be given full credit for getting the basic facts out for the first time (at least to my knowledge, and I follow Georgia). On pages 175-76 they also expose some very interesting sub-standard (BTC) pipe-laying business in the precious Bojormi mineral water/national park region that I had not previously been aware of, replete with corporate-style cover-up by BP (or its offspring, the BTC Inc.)

Congratulations, and thanks!

But sadly, by this time, the narrative of the book has taken on a hit & run quality, wherein the authors seem to excel in the description of minor details—clouds of birds, mud patterns, or the personal habits of their interlocutors—until they suddenly run into another ominous cop or car bearing the insignia of a local contractor, forcing them to anonymously slip away and speculate about what it all means...which is always expressed in off-putting, negative, global-Green terms.

(And I am greenish; I have not sat in a car for almost three weeks as I write these notes, and have not driven one for almost two months—although I did commit the crime of boarding an airplane from Montana to Istanbul, and riding a bus to my North Aegean hideout here in Ayvalik, Turkey.)


The chapters devoted to the Turkish portion of the BTC trumps all in generalized negativity—Kurds, Kurds and more Kurds, and even Kurds in the UK.
“It is February, and the month of celebrations marking Newroz--the Kurdish New Year—has just begun,” they write on page 190, referring to a Kurdish culture club in north London, which opposes the BTC.

In that Newroz/Nowruz, Nevruz culminates on March 20, they may be technically right about the month starting in late February, but the implication is that Newroz (etc) is a uniquely Kurdish holiday, which it clearly is not: ask the Azerbaijani, Uzbeks, Kazakhs (and of course the Persians) about that! We all know what an “Irish Wake” is all about—but who refers to an “Irish Christmas?”

The authors’ journey across Turkey, I have to say, is truly the weakest in the book. One has the sense that the authors are just trying to fill in color (usually ‘danger’) details, with a few factoids tossed in for spice. Abandoned Armenian houses in Ardahan allow for an exegesis on the alleged “Armenian Genocide,” with the erstwhile residents being force-marched into the Syrian Desert, for example.

Without going into the fate of Ottoman Armenians during WWI, I would like to point out that Ardahan was safely behind Russian lines until February, 1918, when Trotsky signed it over to the Turks as part of the Brest-Litovsk peace deal that took (now Bolshevik) Russia out of that war. Subsequent fighting between Armenians and the Ottomans (and then the Turkish nationalists) may have resulted in the exodus or expulsion of Armenian communities in the region (usually referred to generically as ‘Kars’), but those sad individuals traveled East into the short-lived Republic of Armenia  (1918-1920) which morphed into the Soviet Armenia part of the TransCaucasian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, and not Southwest into by-then the British-occupied Levant (1918), or the brief Arab Kingdom under Faisal I (pal of Lawrence of Arabia) or the new French Mandate of Syria established in 1920.


Please, authors—if you are going to use history as a narrative vehicle to beef-up your book, at least get your facts straight.

I was about to toss the book and apologize to the pal who sent it to me with the request to review it, when I turned page 243 (the first tanker to leave Ceyhan in 2006), and found myself looking at Part Three, subtitled “The Ship.”

Suddenly, the book took on new life, and the argument of a global ‘system’ began to make much, much more compelling sense.

Although the authors cannot board the Dugi Otok (Croatian) tanker to make the journey from Ceyhan to Trieste, they can and do track it on-line with exact GPS coordinates until it comes in to offload its crude in the extreme northern Adriatic. And it is there, in southeastern Europe, far from the vaguely sinister road-trip via beat-up car, bus and the odd taxi in the Caucasus, that this book finally takes form and becomes compelling reading.

We are in Trieste (I have a soft-spot, because this is where my hero Richard Burton died), and in the confused history of pre-WWI and then WWI and then post WWI and then WWII Europe and then Iron Curtain Europe, where oil was key. The bizarre if meticulous descriptions of the creation of the Trans Alpine Pipeline  are superb—and the fact that (locally-speaking) literally no one knows (or cares) about this forty-year-old fate accompli is jaw-dropping.

Trans alpine pipeline
Trans alpine pipeline

And yet, as the authors rightfully point out, the politically super-charged BTC pipeline from distant Azerbaijan via Georgia, Turkey, the eastern Mediterranean, the Adriatic, Trieste, Lienz and then Ingolstadt is indeed very much a part of today’s petrol-driven, climate-changing, war-inducing geopolitical “Oil Road,” impacting on everything from Almkaese (Austrian ‘mountain cheese’) to Adriatic oysters and as well as the very air we breath.

“It takes twenty-two days for this process to run its course…” the authors write on page 230. “…for the oil to travel over 5,000 kilometers across the Earth’s surface, and for it to move from 5 kilometers below sea level to 10 kilometers above sea level; [airplanes]; twenty-two days for geology laid down 4 million years ago to be incinerated into gas. The energy of those rocks takes minutes for the engines to burn. It is as though we are consuming time itself.”

I just wish that the authors had gotten to that central point much sooner.

Thomas Goltz is the author of the “Caucasus Triptych” of Azerbaijan Diary (1998),Chechnya Diary (2003) and Georgia Diary  (2006/2009) as well as numerous articles on the region from 1991 until today. His description of riding down the BTC pipeline on sidecar motorcycle was published as an Amazon/Kindle book under the title An Oil Odyssey in 2012. His web site is

*1.Full disclaimer: I have written about the BTC for years, and even marshaled a made-cap band of adventurers to deliver the first symbolic barrel of Azerbaijani crude down the still-not-sanctioned pipeline in 2000, and via Soviet-style side-car motorcycle; either the authors decided to avoid contact with my work on both the BTC as well as the wider post-Soviet chaos in the Caucasus (despite citing page after page of books by friends such as Tom de Waal and Steve LeVine that specifically cite my work) or they remained oblivious and self-selective. Ah, well. Let us say that I just found it odd that the only citation to me was an LA Times OpEd dating to 1997 when Azerbaijan was flat on its back. -back-