A resolution of the Arab-Israeli crisis, with Israel returning the land it had occupied since 1967, was critical. “What do we want? ... A Soviet-Union-U.S. showdown in the Middle East? Or do we want to send troops in to get the Arab oil? Then we’ll have a showdown and no oil.”
So said influential oil reporter Wanda Jablonski in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor in 1973 after the Arab oil embargo.
Queen of the Oil Club
The Intrepid Wanda Jablonski and the Power of Information
It’s 2008 and there are troops from the US, Britain, and other countries in Iraq and no oil. Recently, it was revealed in the New York Times that, despite no agreement yet in Iraq’s parliament for disbursing oil revenues, several Western companies will be awarded contracts for extracting oil from Iraq. It’s notable that the Russian and Chinese companies that had made agreements with the Hussein regime for those same services are to be excluded.
In defense of the awarding of these contracts, Phillip J. Carroll, a Pentagon-backed adviser to the Iraqi Oil Ministry and a former head of Shell’s operations in the United States, told the New York Times, “These companies are long familiar with Iraq and have wonderful technology and loads of money,” he said. “The Iraqis could develop their own skills by learning from the international oil companies.”
Nevermind that Iraq has been pumping and refining oil for decades. Reading Anna Rubino’s well-done biography of trail-blazing reporter Jablonski makes it abundantly clear that Carroll’s patronizing attitude towards Iraq is the same as what Western oil executives have had towards the Middle East for decades. It’s also an attitude that Jablonski, through her reporting for Petroleum Week, and then later at her own highly influential (and often indispensable) Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, sought to undo.
To understand the life and career of Jablonski is to understand how control over oil production in the Middle East slowly shifted from a handful of colluding western oil companies known as the Seven Sisters to the governments of those oil-producing countries, and the formation of OPEC. Jablonski’s role was so prominent within the oil business that she was given the nickname “OPEC’s Midwife”. One must also understand how access to secure supplies of oil has been a major component in the foreign policy of the United States and Great Britain since the end of World War II.
Born in Trnava, Sovakia in 1920 to a Slovakian mother and Polish father, Jablonski was their first and only child. Her father, Eugen, worked as a geologist for oil companies. She and her mother, Maria, traveled with Eugen wherever his job took him; places like Germany, Egypt, Texas, and even New Zealand (where no oil was found).
It was thanks to this upbringing that Jablonski had an intimate knowledge of how oil was found, extracted, and refined. After graduating from Cornell University during World War II, she put this knowledge to use in the pages of the New York Journal of Commerce. Jablonski jumped into the slot vacated by the paper’s regular oil reporter and soon landed a number of front page stories.
Jablonski uncovered how the secretive oil companies set prices and often sold oil at below the stated market price. She revealed oil finds before the companies had planned to reveal them. It was later, while writing for Petroleum Week and Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, that she provided a forum for the points of view of decision-makers in oil-producing countries.
By allowing oil ministers in countries like Saudi Arabia (Abdullah Tariki) and Venezuela (Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso) to air their views without being caricatured as raving oil nationalists (as they were in large-circulation print media like the Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek), she gained their trust. This in turn allowed her unprecedented access to leaders in Saudi Arabi, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, and other parts of the Middle East.
She chronicled their attempts to gain more of a say in how their nations’ resources were developed, especially in their decades-long battle for a more equitable share of oil revenues. She also had the trust of top oil executives due to her deep understanding of the oil business and her willingness to hold onto information that was “off the record”.
Jablonski’s career was remarkable, not simply because of its reporting and publishing brilliance. That she got the stories she did, becoming a trusted reporter to businessmen and oil ministers when women were uncommon in both newsrooms and boardrooms, makes her accomplishments all the more astonishing. Rubino does a superb job of documenting Jablonski’s long and influential career and placing her accomplishments against the time and place in which they were achieved. Jablonski’s drive to get the stories no one else could get created a captivating life story that Rubino has made clear and accessible for all to read.