Iraq, BP and the British Museum – look upon these works and hang our heads in shame

14 Mar 2019 james
Action at British Museum to oppose BP’s sponsorship – on the steps of the portico (Credit Safa Kadhim)

I had read in advance the briefing that Culture Unstained had put out to accompany the planned action. The protest at the British Museum was to be against BP’s sponsorship of the exhibition ‘I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria’, a display of treasures from the land of Iraq. I read lines in the statement which described:

‘the large-scale contamination in the Province of Basra’s water supplies, with about 100,000 residents … estimated to have been taken ill after drinking polluted water in the summer of 2018… Chemical and bacterial contamination of Basra’s water has been found to be extremely high and salinity is more than 20 times the recommended level. This was one of the triggers for the mass protests (in August 2018) – dubbed by some as the “water uprising”.’

How ignorant I felt. I had no knowledge of the appalling conditions in the southern Iraqi city that, of all places, should be benefiting from the oil that Iraq pumps each day – 4.6 million barrels, the world’s fourth largest producer. I had not noticed that there were weekly protests against the foreign oil corporations such as BP. I read the words of photo journalist Khaled Tawfiq Hadi:

“In Basra, all the wars weren’t enough for us to die in them. Now, even the taps kill us, the very taps that are the sources of the water in our houses”

How ashamed I felt, by the sense that, like so many, I had turned away from Iraq. A country that had been central to the attention of companions at Platform for a decade (particularly Greg Muttit and Ewa Jasiewicz), had dropped out of my view in the last five years. I felt sickened that the UK and its corporations were now, 16 years after the invasion of Iraq, involved in relentless resource extraction alongside merciless immiseration.

Terry Adams – BP senior executive and then UK Foreign Office consultant on Iraqi oil policies and contracts 2004-05

Shame turned to anger. How can it be that many of the architects of the destruction of Iraq now relax in absolute security, immense wealth, and in the comfortable support of friends and peers? For this is the life today, in February 2019, of the men who planned and oversaw the war and the subsequent plunder of Iraq’s wealth: of Tony Blair, of Lord John Browne (head on BP during the Iraq War), of the Rev Sir Philip Watts (former head of Shell 2001-04), of Terry Adams (ex BP and then UK Foreign Office consultant on Iraqi oil policies and contracts 2004-05), of Tony Hayward (Head of BP Exploration and BP CEO 2003-10) and of Bob Dudley (current CEO of BP)? The list goes on. An array of millionaires.

Tony Hayward – Head of BP Exploration and then BP CEO 2003-10

In my anger I imagined what it would be like to accompany these men, not around the galleries of the British Museum to gaze upon the works of the Assyrians, but around the streets of Basra. That we too would see the polluted waterways. That we too would witness the rage in the Friday protests. These ruined cities, these oil pipelines draining the resources of Iraq, are their works. These are the works of BP, of the UK Government, and in the shame of our averted eyes, us British citizens.


With a head full of thoughts, I joined the massive queue outside the British Museum on the morning of Saturday 16th February. Americans, Chinese, Italians … people coming from all around the world to view our imperial loot. The British Museum, an engine of the British economy. An economy living off past theft, the theft of the past, a kind of necro-economy. An economy dependent upon tourists ferried in on a million aeroplanes. The stench of jet fuel.

Such was the queue I came into the Great Court of the museum from the back entrance thirty minutes late. There was not an activist to be seen. But to my relief the air was filled with the sound of the protest. I could hear voices chanting in denouncement, like the roar of a great wave. It set my heart quickening. I could feel the demonstration in my belly before I saw it. As I walked around the curve of the Rotunda, lines and lines of people dressed in black came into view. They faced two speakers, Danny Chivers, of BP or not BP? and Ibtehal Hussain, of Campaign Against Arms Trade, whose heads were just visible above the crowd, holding high in the air a portable sound system. Ibethal read from Khaled Tawfiq Hadi:

“Our dreams are repeated frequently because as soon as we enter into a dream we are quickly pulled out of it as no hour passes without the sound of falling tears nearby. I have yet to find someone in Basra who has completed his dream all at once.”

Straining to be heard, Danny and Ibethal were almost lost in the vast space of the Court amidst the constant rumble of shuffling feet and conversation. Unable to hear the speeches, it seemed to me that their voices came from a far distance, from another land, another time.

The lines of protestors, in orderly ranks, were like mourners for the dead. There was a sombre seriousness about the gathering. This was not an act, not a pose of discontent, but rather a demonstration. A demonstration of a view of history held by a great mass of people across this country and far beyond. A demonstration of patient rage.

“We are here because it is inexcusable for a public museum to be promoting a fossil fuel company in the midst of a climate crisis”

“We are here because sixteen years ago the largest mobilisation of people across the world took place to protest the Iraq War”

The yellow vested British Museum staff looked on in bemusement, chatting in pairs, whispering into walkie-talkies. They had a right to be baffled, for something new was taking place before their eyes.

There were many here in their early 20s. They must have been children when at 02.30 am on the 20th March 2003, forty cruise missiles fired from US warships in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf began the attack on Baghdad and reopened the Iraqi oil industry to foreign capital after forty years of closure. Alongside them there were many grey haired women and men who had surely joined the million strong London march in February 2003. Here, as then, several generations were in action. The demonstration at the Museum came the day after the Climate Change School Strikes, and in the midst of Extinction Rebellion. There was a feeling of a growing movement, a new wave, combining opposition to war and colonialism with the struggle against the oil corporations and climate change.

As the figures in black chanted:

“No War No Warming”


Action at the British Museum – the tapestry around the Rotunda (Credit Diana More)

The shining white marble floor of the Great Court was suddenly revealed as the lines of black dispersed in different directions. All of those attending the protest were invited to participate. This was a demotic action in a demotic space, this was more ‘community theatre’ than ‘performance art’. The 350 demonstrators stood one after the other surrounding the Rotunda. Against the sound of camera shutters clicking, they sang:

“We are the people rising

When oil burns and armies grow

You stole our past and future

It’s time for you to go, go, go,

It’s time for you to go!”

In their hands they held a 200-meter long ‘living tapestry’ whose white letters on a black background read:


















The long line of figures carried echoes of past resistance. The Women in Black who bore witness to the Yugoslav Civil War, demonstrating in London by the Edith Cavell Monument next to Trafalgar Square (an action that continues to this day). The Greenham Women who ‘Embraced the Base’ in 1982. As at Greenham, this was not a tightly controlled performance and there was space for the unscripted action. A well-dressed woman in her fifties held up a piece of cardboard on which she had hand-written:

‘My history looted by ISIS and auctioned by Christies’


Tara Mariwany and Yasmin Younis address the crowd (credit Diana More)

After perhaps an hour the action of surrounding the Rotunda came to an end. The chain of protestors uncoiled from the circle and recoiled itself in one corner of the Great Court. From the midst of this seated crowd rose three  Iraqis, who voiced their truths in turn. During the war and its aftermath we so rarely heard the words of the people of Iraq, especially in the prolonged struggle over access to the oil. Their voices were drowned out by the cacophony of western politicians and consultants. Here, at the heart of the British Museum, space was being made by the demonstration.

Zeena Yasin spoke: “I am going to share a personal story that is a direct legacy of the invasion of Iraq. During the bombing of Mosul against ISIS, which is a direct consequence of the western invasion of Iraq – the husband of my auntie wanted to aid his neighbours. His wife begged him not to, worrying for his safety. Because of his bravery, strength and chivalry, he went in an attempt to save his relatives. Alas, the house he went to was bombed and he was one of the casualties. Because of the destruction of infrastructure and transport, she could not get him to the hospital in time. It was not safe enough to get a taxi or get on a bus. She pushed him on a pushchair for hours and he succumbed to his injuries on the way. Allah yaharmu (Allah bless his soul)”

As each speaker took the portable microphone a banner was held in front of the crowd which read:

‘Iraq is THE big oil prospect. BP are desperate to get in there’ – Foreign Office official November 2002

These were the lines from a memo, which through insane determination, Greg Muttitt extracted from Whitehall. They were words typed by an official (name redacted) after a meeting with a BP group led by Richard Paniguian (later Sir Richard). That November, whilst the world felt the invasion of Iraq remained in the balance and three months before the mass demonstration against the war, Paniguian’s team made it clear that BP regarded Iraq as ‘vitally important – more important than anything we’ve seen for a long time.’ Paniguian worked for BP of 37 years, helping the company break into the oilfields of Angola, Azerbaijan, Russia, Egypt, Libya and Iraq. On retiring from BP he became head of the UK’s Department for Trade & Industry defence sales team. Paniguian passed away in 2017. Surely he was a Master of War, a father of the ceaseless violence that has rained down on Iraq in these last decades.

Sir Richard Paniguian with the Prince of Wales receiving his knighthood in 2015

Yasmin Younis spoke: “As a member of the Iraqi diaspora and the child of Iraqi immigrants, being Iraqi has been one of the most influential aspects of my life. But growing up during and living in a post-Iraq War era, the war’s destruction extends beyond the Iraqi border. The most formative years of my life were filled with self-hatred and self-doubt as the world turned against my people and “Iraq” became synonymous with “war” and “violence.” Whenever I tried to learn about my history or my culture outside of intimate familial settings, my searches were limited to violence, war, and casualty.”

With her voice cracking she continued:

“When I saw there would be a special exhibition on my culture and my history, I was ecstatic because for once, my culture’s beauty would be celebrated, but finding out the sponsor was BP was a massive slap in the face. These are the very same sponsors who advocated for the war, which destroyed my homeland and slaughtered my people all in the name of oil. To BP and the British Museum, I say how DARE you use my culture and my history as an attempt to hide your colonialist skeletons. Not my culture, not my country. No war, no warming!”

The Rumaila field, to the west of Basra, is the biggest oil project currently operating in Iraq. It is an Elephant Field, discovered by a BP subsidiary in 1953, the third largest in the world, and the backbone of Iraq’s exports. In 2018 it accounted for 40% of the country’s oil sales, and contributed around 30% of the total budget of Iraq. It is now operated by BP, in partnership with the Chinese state multinational PetroChina. It gives these corporations a hugely powerful stake in the Iraqi economy and thus its political future. Power in Iraq was once in the hands of Saddam Hussein and his circle, now it is in the hands of a number of foreign business executives and government ministers.

BP’s ability to draw profit from Rumaila is a direct consequence of Paniguian’s lobbying the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, via his officials, and a direct consequence of the forty cruise missiles that rained hell down on Baghdad in March 2003. It is also the consequence of BP’s relentless pressuring of the post-War Iraqi regimes – which was so exhaustively documented in Greg Muttitt’s book Fuel on the Fire’ – as they strove to secure rights over those ‘vitally important’ oil fields. Central to their campaign to get hold of Rumaila was Michael Townshend, Regional President BP Iraq 2009-13, currently head of BP Middle East, who had previously overseen the building of the infamous BTC pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean. Townshend was an architect of the Rumaila project and now the people of southern Iraq have to live with the consequences of his plan.

Michael Townshend, Regional President BP Iraq 2009-13, currently head of BP Middle East

Tara Mariwany spoke:

“We have all heard the argument that the 2003 invasion would bring democracy, stability, and peace to the people of Iraq. Yet, the current situation shows, the invasion and subsequent occupation has only been in the interest of corrupt politicians, foreign governments, and oil companies like BP – all of this at the very expense of Iraqis…

Today, oil-rich areas are one of the most deprived in the country. More than 80% of Iraq’s total GDP comes from the ports around Basra. Yet 50% of Basrawis live below the poverty line…While oil revenues account for 88.8% of total revenues, only 1% of jobs in the oil sector go to Iraqis.”

Filled with fury she continued: “In Basra, daily protests have been staged since summer 2018 due to growing frustrations at the corrupt leadership and foreign companies that are draining the country’s vast resources unhindered, to the detriment of the people. Local government offices were stormed, and entry to key oilfields were blocked off by protestors – and in retaliation, clashes with government forces killed 20 people, injured 492, and another 425 were arrested for participating, in just one single month. Hussam Abdel Ameer, 25 years old, and an unemployed university graduate from Basra said:

“We want jobs, we want to drink clean water, and electricity. We want to be treated like human beings and not animals.”

She refers to the method used by BP to extract oil as fast as possible from Rumaila, by injecting water deep into the rocks beneath the desert so that it maintains ‘well pressure’ and drives oil to the surface. It is a technique built into Townshend’s plan.

“As Iraqis are struggling to find water for their crops or feed their cattle with, the British Museum have partnered up with a company that is not only polluting waters with waste, but in 2016 and 2017 have injected over 720,000 barrels per day of water for their oil production.”

She rises to a crescendo and concludes:

“On this anniversary, it is up to us to remind the British Museum that we will not accept this sponsorship. We refuse to be complicit not only in the destruction of our planet, but the exploitation of a people and their land that have done nothing but demand to live their lives in dignity. As Iraqis continue to rise up, we too must demand the British Museum end their partnership with BP.”


Text by Bob Dudley, CEO of BP in the front of the British Museum’s exhibition catalogue

The words of Zeena, Yasmin and Tara stand in stark contrast to the Sponsor’s Foreword in the catalogue of the exhibition. Signed by Bob Dudley, Group Chief Executive, BP it includes the passage:

‘The important Iraqi Rumaila Field, which we helped to discover in the 1950s, is a great example of this (applying new technologies to historic resources.) We returned to the area in 2009 as the first international oil and gas company to invest in the country after conflict. Development of Rumaila has been extremely important for Iraq: it provides thousands of jobs for local people, and generates tens of billions of dollars in revenue every year for the country.’

An ‘application of new technologies’ sounds like serene common sense. But by this he means corralling the scarce water of a desert land in order to boost oil production, and boost profit. ‘Providing thousands of jobs’ sounds like the act of a great paternalist employer. But 16 years ago 99% of all those employed in the country’s oil industry were Iraqi nationals. Now the highest paid jobs in Iraq’s oil sector go to foreign nationals. It is hard to check Dudley’s claim on employment but we can be sure that the wage differential between foreign workers and Iraqi’s is massive. That sudden inequality in the industry is phenomenal. It feels like a return to the semi-colonial days before Iraq took control of its own resources in the 1960s and 70s. ‘Tens of billions of dollars in revenue’ sounds like BP is the benefactor for the nation. But what of the billions of dollars in profit that now go to BP and once went to the government of Iraq?

Dudley’s words describe how BP ‘returned to area’. It sounds almost as if the company were heading back to a well-remembered pub. In the mind of those that read the catalogue foreword, this page serves to vanish the simple fact that BP could only return to Rumaila on the back of a cataclysm of violence. And the British Museum, a great public institution, a showcase of the nation to the world, enables this vanishing act through this sponsorship deal and the publishing of this foreword.


Ilaf Moslawy performing at the entrance to the British Museum (credit Safa Khadim)

On a signal the protestors once again form a line and, carrying the tapestry, snake out of the Great Court and arrange themselves on the steps on the museum, before the pillars of the portico. They sing and watch the Iraqi poet Ilaf Moslawy perform:

“I am BP.

How dare you question my activity?

I am British Petroleum:

King of Exploitation,

King of Injustice”

The British Museum is a building that hopes to convey continuity and stability. It presents its cornucopia of treasures in a spirit of trying to create exchange between cultures, to assist peace even. And it welcome visitors from across the world who filled the queues I had joined, attempting to be inclusive to all, as an important institution within a democratic culture.

The demonstrators of February 2003 were told that these three things – stability, peace, democracy – would be delivered to the people of Iraq as a replacement to Saddam’s brutal regime. Yet none of them have come. That which was promised by our government and the corporations has not been delivered. What has come are war and instability, poverty and pollution, and the profits of the country’s resources are being drained away from the common wealth of Iraqis to the private wealth of the government officials, company staff and corporate shareholders. Some tiny fragment of these stolen riches is syphoned back to the pension funds of British citizens and the marketing department of the British Museum.

I’m filled with a desire for justice. That those that designed and carried out this catastrophic destruction of a land and its peoples should be held to account. Perhaps we could stand alongside Lord John Browne, Terry Adams, Tony Hayward, Bob Dudley, Michael Townshend and the ghost of Richard Paniguian. We could accompany them as they look at the 350 people gathered together on the steps of the British Museum. Doubtless these white men in their sixties and seventies, like Tony Blair, would have no remorse, but believe that all their actions were taken with the best of intentions. But we would stand beside them in the knowledge that, on this day at least, the consequence of their actions was not forgotten but revealed.

May we take inspiration from the people of Iraq, who have kept up an extraordinary resistance, persevering in the face of unimaginable horror and oppression. May we, in the midst of luxury, maintain the same level of determination.

May there be many more days like these.

Banner held up at the front of the Museum as the action closed (Credit Safa Kadhim)


Thanks to Jess Worth, Danny Chivers, Greg Muttitt, Paula Serafini, Chris Garrard, Ben Diss and Steve.

This blog builds on the back of research being undertaken for the forthcoming book ‘Crude Britannia – How Big Oil shaped an nation’s past and future’ Due out in 2020.

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