Kleveman’s book updates and explores the ‘Great Game’, played by Russia and the British in the mountains and deserts of Central Asia in pursuit of their respective imperial goals in the 19th century and immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his novel, Kim.
Russia still features as a main player in the New Great Game and is joined by the US, Iran, China and the countries of Central Asia and the Causcasus. The prizes in this game are the oil and gas reserves of the Caspian Sea.
The New Great Game is a compelling piece of reportage. Having driven round the Balkans in 1999-2000 in an old Citroen CX25 reporting on the ongoing ethnic conflict and the revolution against the Milosevic regime and also reporting on blood diamonds, child soldiers and oil in West Africa, Kleveman’s attention turned to the Caucasus. So, in August 2001, Kleveman set out from Berlin on a road trp to Baku in Azerbaijan (again in a Citroen CX25).
Prevented from entering Chechnya by Russian security services, Kleveman was “after five days of interrogation (and heavy vodka-drinking) […] expelled from Russia on the fateful day of September 11, 2011.” He eventually managed to reach Baku by train where he became increasingly interested in Caucasus oil politics.
Shortly afterwards, after a visit to Uzbekistan during the US led Afghan war, Kleveman became “hooked” on Central Asia.
According to his website, he then spent most of 2002 “zigzagging the region and meeting with the principal actors of the New Great Game about oil and pipelines: Kazakh oil barons, US generals, Russian diplomats, Afghan warlords.” His travels and research took him through Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Georgia, Iran and arose the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, the deserts and steppe of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan before heading to the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan and Krygystan and finally to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In the New Great Game, Kleveman argues (for summaries see here…and here) that the Caucasus and Central Asia are the focus of a struggle for the gas and oil reserves of the Caspian Sea. As known reserves of fossil fuels elsewhere in the world dwindle while demand for them soars, the prospect of new reserves outside of OPEC’s influence area a truly valuable prize. The break up of the Soviet Union, coupled with the discovery of vast reserves of oil and gas in the Caspian region has therefore given the US an unprecedented opportunity to court the former Soviet republics to attempt to secure access to these reserves and so lessen its dependence on OPEC oil supplies.
As the Caspian is landlocked, transporting the oil and gas to the sea so that it can be shipped to markets around the world is a major challenge. This requires the construction of thousand mile pipelines to the Mediterranean or Indian Ocean if a route through Russia is to be avoided. As any pipeline must therefore go though either Iran or former Soviet republics (regarded by Russia as still being within its sphere of influence), Kleveman reports that the various countries of the region are jostling to accommodate the pipelines and to reap the rewards of the transit fees and to guarantee their independence from Russia. Add to this mix the oil thirsty countries vying to secure access to the reserves and it becomes apparent that the competition in this game is fierce and the stakes high as the players make their moves and countermoves.
Kleveman’s book sweeps across the region providing a masterly overview of the ‘New Great Game’ and its complexities. Kleveman puts himself at considerable risk to obtain his interviews and is often than not rewarded for those risks. The characters he meets are larger than life with extraordinary stories to tell that bring to life the region, its history and its turbulent present. More reportage rather than a ‘classic’ travel narrative, it is nonetheless Kleveman’s travel throughout the region and the on the spot interviews which the give the book its detail and immediacy and prevent it from being simply a book about oil and gas geopolitics (examples of photos taken on his travels are on his website).
Now several years old, it would be interesting to know what the current state of play in the New Great Game is. However, although the pieces may have moved, The New Great Game is still a fascinating portrait of a region and a snapshot of how the board looked at the time the book was written.