TAPline and the Rise of a New Capitalist Order in the Levant, 1945 – 1950
by Eric Raimondi
A 1951 celebratory publication titled Tapline, the Story of the World’s Biggest Oil Pipeline describes the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line (TAPline) — the largest and longest pipeline ever constructed at the time — as a symbol of mutual progress for both the United States and Middle Eastern countries. The publication compares TAPline’s construction, in which both Arabs and Americans were involved, to the biblical Tower of Babel, a monumental infrastructure inscribed in the Western Canon — whose architects designed “its top [to be] in the heavens.” In the book of Genesis, the people who lived in the city of Babel lived as one people and were, therefore, able to commence construction on the sky-reaching tower. Yet, before the Tower of Babel was completed, “the Lord scattered them” out of fear that “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them,” thus halting the project and dividing the world of humans. In this celebratory publication, which TAPline issued, the American rendering of the Tower of Babel is considerably different from its biblical counterpart. Here, the TAPline Company, in constructing the line and linking two different geographies, the oil fields of Saudi Arabia and the Eastern Mediterranean, and two different peoples, Arabs and Americans, picks up where the architects and workers of Babel left off.
Drawing from the book of Genesis, the company demonstrated that it was playing a role in its own genesis, the genesis of the American economy’s hegemony. True, it is strange that the TAPline Company highlighted similarities between its project and the Tower Babel, but this characterization of the pipeline speaks to the tangible qualities of capitalism, in which wealth and infrastructure bind developing states, like the postcolonial states of the Middle East, to the ambitions of well-endowed companies, like the TAPline Company. Indeed, this story is indicative of a greater historical development: the establishment of America’s new capitalist empire, extending beyond the nodes of capitalist and imperial authority in Washington and New York, to the postcolonial territories in the Levant.
The TAPline Company, incorporated in 1945 in the state of Delaware as a private subsidiary of the massive oil conglomerate Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), occupied a position of significant authority in the Middle East. First conceived as a government project and then later changed to be a private enterprise, TAPline’s construction is a monument of the American oil industry’s expansion in the Middle East. Designed in accordance with the U.S. government’s broader post-war economic agenda, TAPline was the means by which Washington subsidized ARAMCO’s expansion in the Middle East. It was thus a link between the government and the private oil industry, and was as much a project of the private sector and the government.
In the last seventy years, the U.S. government has been rightly accused of committing overt and clandestine acts of intervention, particularly in the Middle East. In 1953, the CIA played a crucial role in the infamous coup in Iran, which deposed the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. And in 1958, the U.S. deployed 15,000 marines south of Beirut in Lebanon to preserve the regime of Prime Minister Camille Chamoun, a notably Western-friendly figure, from civil war. In the late 1940’s, however, I argue, as have others before me, that the U.S. government did not yet possess the sophisticated foreign service network it later constructed. While it is important to recognize the power of the U.S. government, its supremacy should not be assumed. If historians assume the U.S. government’s authority as supreme, then other arms of American power, in this case the TAPline Company, do not appear as subjects that warrant interrogation.
Going to the Archives
This history relies on both published and archival sources. Newspaper articles, the trade magazine Pipe Line News, company publications, and contemporary journal articles reflected the world of the TAPline Company as it was publicly seen during the pipeline’s construction. In particular, I found Pipe Line News to be most fruitful in reconstructing the community of businessmen in both the domestic and foreign segments of the American oil industry. Yet while these sources contribute to our understanding of the petroleum community at this moment in history, the material collected from Middle East and U.S. archives provide insight into a historical process that was hidden beneath the surface of publicly-available material.
In summer 2018, I collected a number of documents from the Jafet Memorial Library at the American University of Beirut, which holds a collection of TAPline Company documents that has recently been made available. I also rely on declassified CIA reports obtained through the online CREST database. Most importantly, I gathered the majority of the documents cited in this thesis from the National Archives at College Park, MD (NACP), which I visited in January 2019. The documents collected from NACP were created by the U.S. State Department and the American legations in Beirut and Damascus.
The majority of company documents, as opposed to government documents, are unfortunately retained in private archives, most of which are inaccessible to the public. Thus, the window into the world of the TAPline Company is admittedly narrow. The body of primary sources that form the basis of this project also lacks Syrian and other Arabic sources. Not only are these sources difficult to locate as a result of the political circumstances in Syria, but reading and analyzing Syrian government sources and the massive body of the Arabophone and Francophone presses was frankly too ambitious a project to conduct in the given time frame. In reading English-language archives, I try to reconstruct the voices of Saudi, Syrian, and Lebanese leaders involved with the TAPline project. However, I must note that these documents, usually copies of statements in Arabic that have been translated by government or company personnel, may not be entirely accurate representations of the original speakers’ language. Yet unlike previous scholarship, this project places considerable emphasis on company-produced documents that were collected by government officials, and therefore reorients the reader’s attention toward a new set of voices within the private sector as opposed to voices within the U.S. government. Without these company documents that were collected by the State Department and American legations or voluntarily shared by the company, the findings included in this thesis would be less original.
Accessing these sources proved to be an incredibly difficult process. I was scheduled to visit the archives over the winter intersession of the current academic year 2018/2019. Unfortunately, a government shutdown over disagreement of a federal appropriations bill from December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019 initially prevented me from fulfilling this goal, jeopardizing the project and forcing me to reconsider the focus of my research. Then, when it was announced that the government would reopen at the end of January 2019, I made the immediate decision to travel to NACP. Over the course of only two and a half days, I collected nearly one thousand different documents related to TAPline in the Middle East, with a keen focus on Syria. This project is largely the result of that work.
TAPline remains an understudied element of the postcolonial history of the Levant, and partly for this reason, I embarked on a journey to answer the questions that were brewing in my head. What was TAPline’s relationship with the United States and how does it characterize a larger trend in both the U.S. and the Middle East? How was TAPline involved in the development of oil politics of Arab states? How did TAPline shape the trajectory of postcolonial states in the Levant, particularly Syria? In a process of historical revision and in examining the TAPline Company’s relationship with the state of Syria, I reexamine in this project the constitution of American power in the early years of the postcolonial period in the Middle East.
Excerpt adapted from “America’s Forgotten Project TAPline and the Rise of a New Capitalist Order in the Levant, 1945-1950”
Recommended Citation: Raimondi, Eric J, “America’s Forgotten Project TAPline and the Rise of a New Capitalist Order in the Levant, 1945-1950” (2019). Senior Projects Spring 2019.
Eric Raimondi is a graduate of Bard College and currently resides in northern Massachusetts. While at Bard, he studied Middle Eastern history and the Arabic language. He is particularly interested in the history of petroleum infrastructure in the modern Middle East and plans to further pursue research in this area in the future. In addition to his academic work, Eric is an advocate of refugees’ right to education and has worked extensively with refugee communities in both Greece and Turkey on this issue. When he is not working, you can find Eric baking and eating sweets, enjoying long walks, and laughing with his friends.
Email Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org to access the full thesis.