What 'Dune' teaches us about energy sustainability

Frank Herbert’s book has themes of oil and imperialism, but also water, the environment and their relation to local peoples

A harsh desert, inhabited by tribes who understand its ways, which is host to a priceless substance, essential for the international economy, and fought over by empires. As if to underline the parallels, the blockbuster Dune was even filmed in Abu Dhabi.

Frank Herbert’s original 1965 novel has themes of oil and imperialism, but also water, the environment and their relation to local peoples. Its prescience and applicability to the Middle East of Herbert’s day and ours makes it interesting.

Arrakis, the proper title of the eponymous planet Dune, is based on the Arabic name of a real star, “The Dancer”. The native population use Arabic words and their lifestyle has many echoes of traditional Bedouin ways.

Yet Herbert had not visited the Middle East or North Africa when he wrote the book. It was heavily influenced by TE Lawrence’s account of the Arab revolt against the Turks during the First World War, the subsequent British and French imperial machinations and the classic 1962 film version.

The galactic Emperor’s command to the villainous Harkonnens to hand over Arrakis to the House of Atreides is no doubt inspired by this period. Of two sons of Sharif Hussein of Makkah, Abdullah became king of the new state of Transjordan, while Faisal was briefly king of Syria.

Removed to make way for French colonial occupation, he became king of another new country, Iraq, with the former Turkish vilayet of Mosul attached – where soon after, in 1927, a British-Dutch-American-French consortium found the giant oilfield of Kirkuk.

As in another sci-fi epic, Avatar (2009), Dune has echoes or premonitions of the later western-led deposition of dynasties in oil-rich Iraq and Libya.

However, the novel Dune is not straightforwardly pro- or anti-colonial. Despite the space travel, it has a sceptical attitude to technology and “modernisation”.

Mysticism and religious faith and fanaticism prove more powerful. Though “spice” is essential for interstellar travel and the galactic economy, and brings those who mine it fabulous wealth and power, the book is not a simple allegory of the exploitation of crude.

But Herbert was about a decade ahead of popular awareness in foreseeing how the ownership of Middle East oil could change hands and transform fortunes. In 1965, the post-war tussles over the region’s petroleum had left the American corporations in firm control, the British in a strong second position and the French in third, with bit-parts for the Italians, Japanese and others.

The British military had not yet left Aden and the Gulf. Despite some regional socialist governments, pro-western Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia appeared to be a strong barrier against Soviet encroachment. The major conflicts influenced by petroleum – the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the US-led removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003 – lay in the future.

The oil price had been low and stable, even falling, since the early 1930s and would keep dropping until 1970. It was so low that the US domestic oil industry demanded, and won, special protection against competition from imports.

The renowned American geologist Everette DeGolyer, visiting Saudi Arabia in 1943, saw early that “the centre of gravity of world oil production is shifting from the Gulf [of Mexico]-Caribbean areas to the [Arabian] Gulf area.” Yet, this realisation took a long time to reach the general public.

Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq’s nationalisation of Iranian oil in 1951 was overturned by a western embargo and subsequent coup that brought back the Shah. Opec, which was founded in 1960, was not taken seriously despite successfully negotiating better terms from western oil companies. The Gulf countries were building modern infrastructure but their populations were still small and the fabulous wealth of the 1970s was unimagined.

As late as April 1973, the US State Department’s top energy official, James Akins, was well ahead of conventional wisdom in The Oil Crisis: This Time the Wolf is Here, where he warned of the shortage that was to arrive that October. He recalled “the popular, almost universal theory of the 1960s … that this abundant supply of oil … would soon be sold at … $1 per barrel or less”.

In environmentalism, Herbert was not so much ahead as in pace with the emerging zeitgeist. The Guardian newspaper’s original review of his novel picked up on the ecology but not the oil. Herbert was upset by the spoliation of nature by loggers in his native Washington State, and read Silent Spring, a key inspiration of the modern environmentalist movement, published in 1962.

His character Dr Liet-Kynes is an ecologist with dreams of unlocking Arrakis’s underground water to make the desert bloom. But outsiders’ imperative is to continue exploiting the spice, for which the planet must remain dry.

“The spice must flow”, a phrase not exactly in the original book but spoken in David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation, captures how the 1970s oil shocks disrupted world trade.

With the benefit of over half a century’s perspective, Denis Villeneuve’s cinematic adaptation focuses a little differently on the themes of environmental spoliation and manipulation, and resource conflict and colonialism. The Middle Eastern countries did eventually gain control of their resources and some burnt it in futile Dune-style wars.

Others built up imposing modern cities, technology and film industries. Now, the question is how to use the wealth under the sands sustainably and eventually to move beyond it. The UAE’s interest in another desert planet, Mars, is both a homage to past science fiction and a demonstration of the constructive force of the spice.

Robin Mills is chief executive of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

Updated: October 25th 2021, 3:39 AM