Skip over navigation
Share this:

Interview with Bernard Haykel

PEI and the Oil, Energy and the Middle East Initiative Collaborate to Solidify Princeton’s Role as World Leader in this Field

Bernard Haykel

"PEI has been the principal benefactor and academic supporter of this initiative. Without this support, it would be impossible to do the cutting edge research and teaching we are engaged in."

— Bernard Haykel


Bernard Haykel is Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Director, Institute for Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, and Director of the Oil, Energy and Middle East (OEME) Initiative. In addition, he is a PEI associated faculty member. PEI News interviewed Professor Haykel regarding his plans for the OEME Initiative this year, his teaching and research.

What inspired you to lead the OEME Initiative?

This initiative was started in 2005 by Professors Michael Cook (Near Eastern Studies), Shivaji Sondhi (Physics), Stephen Pacala (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Director of PEI), and Robert Socolow (Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering), before I arrived in Princeton. Their motivation was the debate surrounding the question of “Peak Oil,” namely whether the world was running out of hydrocarbon resources because the claimed quantities of proven reserves in the Middle East were in fact vastly inflated. After my arrival in Princeton in 2007, I agreed to direct this initiative because I believe that the energy resources in the Middle East and the ways these are utilized and exploited have critical significance for the environmental, economic and political future of the planet. Princeton must be a world leader in the debates and research surrounding these resources.

How has the collaboration between PEI and OEME helped make this initiative so successful?

PEI has been the principal benefactor and academic supporter of this initiative. Without this support it would be impossible to do the cutting edge research and teaching we are engaged in. Furthermore, PEI’s support is helping my department, Near Eastern Studies, to gain new academic expertise, and hopefully we will be able to make the case for a permanent faculty member in the field of energy studies and the political economy of the Persian Gulf region. In the study of the Middle East, these are sorely understudied fields despite their inordinate importance for the region as well as the world.

What are your goals for the program this year?

In addition to teaching two new undergraduate courses and continuing with our highly subscribed course “Oil, Energy and the Middle East,” OEME hopes to complete and publish two major studies. The first has to do with the new industrialization projects in Saudi Arabia that are likely to change the energy consumption and landscape of this important oil producing country. The second study will detail and assess the new food security policies of the Gulf oil-producing countries. This last issue is important because it involves questions of economic development in the third world, commodity prices and trade practices as well as fundamental questions surrounding the political sovereignty of nations. We will publish some op-ed pieces and hopefully a major article on Saudi energy policy in the journal Foreign Affairs. We also intend to hold a major conference on the issue of how oil is priced.

Do you collaborate with academic, business or governmental colleagues in the Arab world to enhance the program?

Yes. We recently concluded a research trip to the Gulf where we met with officials in the Saudi oil ministry, executives at Saudi Aramco, and members of the newly founded King Abdullah Center for Energy Studies. We hope to collaborate with our Saudi colleagues on projects of mutual interest. Another institution we have created links with is the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, and one of our research fellows this year, Dr. Eckart Woertz, is from this center and will be working on the food security study at Princeton.

What is the most compelling aspect of your work?

Understanding the environmental, political and economic dimensions of energy reserves in the Middle East is like being given a map to a secret cave full of treasure. The valuables here are the insights I obtain into the problems and possible solutions that these massive reserves pose to the countries and societies of the region as well as to the rest of the world. I am now convinced that the earth’s environmental greenhouse problem will not be resolved without adopting policies that take into account the hydrocarbon resources and policies of the Middle East. The producers of the Middle East will have to be partners in the solution(s), otherwise policies and technologies will need to be devised to sidestep them entirely which will prove exceedingly difficult. The reserves, some 60% of the world’s, are too huge and too cheap to exploit to be ignored.

Did you continue the OEME lecture series during the fall, and if so, whom did you invite to speak?

Absolutely. Our speakers’ series has been very popular and well attended. We had some great names speak this fall. These included Leonardo Maugeri, Senior Executive Vice President (Director), Strategies and Development, Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi (ENI), Antoine Halff, Deputy Head of Research at Futures Broker Newedge and adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, and James Hamilton, Professor of Economics, University of California.

What are the most important messages you strive to communicate through your scholarship, teaching, and outreach activities?

Oil is a commodity that touches every aspect of our lives. Understanding how it does, its history, pathologies, and what it makes possible is important for all of us to understand. The history of oil is intimately linked to the Middle East without whose resources the world we live in, and the way we live, would be very different indeed. At the most basic level, we would have seen many fewer wars in the region and we would be driving much smaller cars and many fewer miles.

What research projects are you currently pursuing, and why?

I am interested in the economic and industrial development that is being pursued in the Persian Gulf and the effects this is going to have on the domestic consumption and export capabilities of the region and the consequent political implications for the rest of the world. Saudi Arabia is the biggest producer in the region and it is here that I am concentrating my attention. A second line of inquiry has to do with the domestic subsidies of the oil producing countries and the wasteful consumption habits these foster. I am interested in studying what it will take for these countries to reduce their energy subsidies and for them to become less wasteful.

Please describe your collaborations with some of the other OEME scholars at Princeton, for example, Roger Stern and Steffen Hertog.

The OEME initiative has run a visiting fellowship program for three years and we have had with us some stellar scholars who have done very important work. Steffen Hertog has studied some of the national oil companies in the Middle East and described their histories, looking at their efficiency, professionalism, corruption, etc. Roger Stern has done work on the Iranian energy sector and I have recently written with him a short article that outlines a strategy for managing, or rather containing Iran now that a hardline leadership has empowered itself more fully in Tehran.

Do you hope to inspire your students, and if so, how?

In addition to teaching them about the multiple dimensions of the energy and oil sector in the Middle East, I try to show our students how intertwined all our lives are with the hydrocarbon reserves on the other side of the world and the political pathologies these create for all of us. The study of oil in the Middle East is full of great and illuminating stories too, and these are very useful for conveying fundamental information about the way the world is structured, for better or worse.