Oil in Turkey has acquired an elusive character, situated between presence and absence, reality and fantasy, loss and desire. Petrostates around the world fetishize oil as an almost magical resource with the ability to confer enormous political power. In contrast to the abundance of oil in the Middle East, however, Turkey has very limited oil reserves of its own.

Turkey’s Raman-8 well, where commercial oil was first discovered in 1946 and production began in 1948. After 72 years, Raman-8 is still operational. Photo courtesy of the author.

Moreover, the minimal oil deposits that Turkey does have are concentrated in one region: the Kurdish-populated southeast, a zone characterized for the past century by armed conflict, emergency rule and military occupation.

Despite its scarcity, oil has been a constant locus of aspiration since the start of state-led oil exploration in the southeast in the late 1930s. The history of oil in Turkey reveals how absence can generate unexpected political ideas and movements. An investigation into the entanglement of oil and Turkey’s so-called Kurdish Question reveals that oil has served as a medium through which the Turkish state (and pro-state actors) and the Kurdish people composed various—and often contested—political imaginaries ranging from ethnic assimilation (of Kurds into Turkey) to anti-colonial emancipation (of Kurds from Turkey).

Contrary to the hopes of Turkish leaders, oil eventually became a catalyst for many Kurdish people’s articulations of historical and political underdevelopment and critiques of state power instead of an engine of assimilation. Through the promises that oil infrastructures and the social changes oil forged, previously isolated Kurdish peasants formed political vocabularies that they later used to criticize the oil regime that the developmentalist state created. In this way they were able to compose a spatially oriented political-economic analysis of inequality in the Kurdish region.


Prospects of Oil, Modernity and Ethnic Assimilation


The Republic of Turkey emerged as a nation-state in the aftermath of World War I from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. As part of a state-led industrial development program, the founders of Turkey began their first national oil exploration activities with geological surveys in the Kurdish-populated eastern and southeastern parts of the country. In 1926, the first petroleum law was drafted, giving the right to explore and manage all hydrocarbon resources to the Turkish government. Based on the surveys conducted before World War I, the Mineral Research and Exploration Institute set up an exploratory drilling camp on Mount Raman, near an impoverished, 30-household Kurdish (and previously Armenian) village called İluh. Following a series of failed attempts, Turkish geologists finally discovered trace amounts of oil in Mount Raman in 1940. But the hopeful enthusiasm of the geologists and politicians quickly turned to disappointment when the well was deemed economically unviable. The petroleum was very heavy, meaning it had high viscosity and significantly higher density than that of light crude oil. These properties made the flow of oil to production wells difficult and thus made drilling too costly.

By this time, single-party rule by the Republican Peoples’ Party in Turkey had violently suppressed three Kurdish uprisings and earlier, in 1928, had established a type of administrative rule over the Kurdish region called the Inspectorates-General. Given this context, Memduh Şevket Esendal, a nationalist writer and a pro-government bureaucrat, visited the exploratory drilling site at Mount Raman in 1942 with the expectation of going back to the capital city Ankara with hopeful news. His report about the visit, however, was mostly concerned with what he saw as the profound backwardness of the region. Writing about the mud-brick houses and poverty in Kurdish areas, he likened the built landscape to archaeological ruins of a fallen civilization. Yet he believed that these ruins would “come to life” if commercially viable oil were to be discovered there.[1]

For Esendal, the main purpose of oil discovery was to enable the assimilation of the Kurdish-speaking people of the region into Turkish culture and language. He advocated for the forced resettlement and relocation of non-Kurdish populations from the country’s western or northern regions to the east. One proposed solution to what Turkey sees as its “Eastern Question” was assimilation through infrastructure development: Esendal believed that oil could be a catalyst for the building of roads, railroads and other infrastructure that would foster development and mobility to urban areas, which could in turn speed up the assimilation of Kurds into Turkish culture. For Esendal and other bureaucrats of the time, the Eastern Question was a problem of cultural and economic backwardness that oil discovery would remedy.

The anticipation of oil mediated not only political actors’ imaginaries of industrial development, but also their aspirations for the erasure of Kurdishness from Turkey.
The anticipation of oil mediated not only political actors’ imaginaries of industrial development, but also their aspirations for the erasure of Kurdishness from Turkey.

Turkish bureaucrats, however, were also suspicious of the possible outcomes of developing certain infrastructure. Six years before Esendal’s visit, First Inspector-General Abidin Özmen’s report on the Kurdish province of Van, another area where prospective drilling was carried out, speculated: “In the future, I think that the provinces of Van will develop and be populated. The natives of Van will disappear. As soon as the train reaches Van, the villagers around it will migrate there. This means that the town will be invaded by Kurds. Just like it has been happening in Diyarbakır.”[2]

Railroads, asphalt roads and other infrastructural developments triggered by the discovery of oil were a double-edged sword for these bureaucrats. They expressed modernist hopes of technological and social development as well as racialized fears of potential Kurdish unrest. Read against their grain, Esendal’s concerns foreshadowed the possibility that the unintended effects of petromodernity—the creative potential, mobilities and socioeconomic transformation enabled by oil-related infrastructure—could exceed the original intentions of their makers. And in the case of oil in Turkey’s Kurdish regions, they in fact did.


Inequality and Late-Modern Colonialism


Turkey realized its hopes of discovering commercially viable oil in 1946 when the exploration team at Mount Raman again found traces of oil. Unlike earlier discoveries, however, this time the petroleum was suitable for extraction and production. In the same year, in a village called Tılmerc, only a few miles away from Mount Raman, a Kurdish boy named Cemil, was born.[3] Cemil spent his childhood in the village under the shadow of poverty and the omnipotent presence of the Turkish military.[4] Cemil, like many other poor Kurdish kids from his generation, wanted to leave the village where he grew up for a modern education in a modern city. Batman, the new name of İluh, which was swiftly urbanizing due to oil, would be such a place. Cemil was 12 when he left his village to attend the newly built junior high school located within Batman’s Turkish Petroleum facilities.

The Turkish Petroleum Corporation was established in 1954 as the state-led national oil company responsible for hydrocarbon exploration and production. Soon after, Turkish Petroleum began construction on an oil facility that included a petroleum refinery and a housing complex composed of schools, parks, health clinics and recreational facilities.

With the emergence of an unprecedented level of development in the region, Batman’s population grew, attracting thousands of peasants from the surrounding regions who wished to become part of the nascent petroleum industry’s labor force.
With the emergence of an unprecedented level of development in the region, Batman’s population grew, attracting thousands of peasants from the surrounding regions who wished to become part of the nascent petroleum industry’s labor force. In the 1960s, Batman, as a new distinct center and an oil boomtown, attracted experts, politicians, musicians and filmmakers from the wealthy corners of the country. For a while, it seemed like Turkey would have a petroleum-driven future of economic and social prosperity.

Attending the junior high school located at the Turkish Petroleum complex in Batman, Cemil encountered for the first time amenities such as asphalt roads, oil pumps and even electricity being used for illumination. Most of the students at the school were the children of Turkish bureaucrats and engineers employed at the Turkish Petroleum Corporation and Batman Petroleum Refinery, who all lived in the housing on the Turkish Petroleum site. Cemil was one of just a few poor Kurdish boys from nearby provincial villages. Each day, Cemil had to walk for an hour from his village to the school. During this time, he witnessed the stark contrast between his school or his classmates’ houses—equipped with radiators, air conditioners, high ceilings, wide windows, lawns, pools and parks—and his hard-to-access, unelectrified village.

Striking class discrepancies were also obvious within Batman, a growing urban space characterized by the contrast between inner-city shanties and the oil complex. The path of the railroad, which divided Batman in half, embodied the racialized forms of social and economic inequality in the city. To the south of the railroads was the brand-new site of Turkish Petroleum, while north of the tracks hosted the makeshift buildings that extended around what used to be the small village of İluh. Years later, Cemil would remember that the contrast between the oil complex and the rest of the town was one of the first comparative lenses through which he and his Kurdish classmates encountered the unevenness that was at the heart of industrial development in Turkey.


Oil and Anti-Colonial Dissent


After finishing high school in Diyarbakır, Cemil moved to Ankara to receive a bachelors’ degree in the field of education. Ankara in this period was a lively hub for the burgeoning Turkish and Kurdish left. Cemil was introduced to socialism and became a member of the Workers Party of Turkey, the first socialist party in Turkey to win representation in the national parliament. After a three-decade-long silence following the violent suppression of revolts in the Kurdish region, a number of Kurdish students were forming political organizations that criticized the underdevelopment of what they called “the East,” since references to historical regions such as Kurdistan were officially banned.

The growing Kurdish dissent over economic inequality and political repression culminated in the Eastern Meetings of 1964–1967. The meetings mobilized a massive number of Kurds in urban centers in the Kurdish southeast, as well as in Ankara. Articulating demands of economic and social justice, the Eastern Meetings asserted a causal relationship between the underdevelopment of the region and the oppression of “Eastern” identity. Over a series of meetings in Diyarbakır, Batman and Silvan, Kurdish political activists expressed their discontent with the following chants:

“We demand teachers, not gendarmes!”
“We demand schools, not military outposts!”
“Factories and highways to the west, commandos and military outposts to the east”
“We demand factories, not bazookas!”
“Jail, police station, oppression equal the East!”
“Down with exploitation and tyranny!”[5]

Oil played a central role in the political and social mobilization that culminated in the Eastern Meetings. Cemil was among the tens of thousands of Kurdish people who gathered in Ankara. For him, oil reflected the links between economic and social inequality and the political repression that the Kurds faced. Growing up in Tılmerc, he had experienced this inequality firsthand. The oil drilled in his village was refined for consumption in the western cities of Turkey: The Kurdish people did not benefit from this transfer of commodities and wealth.

Mehdi Zana, one of the prominent figures in the Kurdish Freedom Movement in Turkey, viewed the 1967 discovery of Şelmo, an oilfield near Diyarbakır, as one of the main catalysts behind this popular mobilization. Zana wrote, “As if suffering from oppression and cruelty and being treated with contempt were not enough,” the Kurdish people’s “natural resources were being cynically plundered.”[6] Believing that Kurdish people should benefit from the resources extracted from their land, Zana urged his friends to occupy and “confiscate” the wells at Şelmo, contending that oil extraction in the region had brought nothing but harm to the Kurdish people, whose labor was exploited in the oilfields. Public resentment among the Kurds over the uneven path of oil was reflected in the Eastern Meetings, as seen in some of the slogans. At the Silvan meeting, for example, Kurdish protestors chanted,

“Petroleum is our blood!”
“From the minefield to the factory!”
“Oil, copper, chrome we have; a good life you have!”[7]

Through these demonstrations, a new generation of intellectuals and politicized Kurdish people voiced the particularity of the Kurdish region’s spatial unevenness vis-à-vis the rest of the country. In a way, the social and political unrest that emerged in the southeast and Ankara was the actualization of the anxieties of the bureaucrats over the potential consequences of oil discovery and industrial development in the previous decades. Recounting Cemil’s life story reveals the dialectical nature of the Turkish modernization project and the rapid sociopolitical transformation that accompanied it. Like many other politicized Kurdish people of his generation, Cemil was a product of the education he received at Turkish Petroleum’s junior high school in Batman and in Ankara. Contrary to the Turkish bureaucrats’ expectations, this education failed to assimilate him and other newly urbanized Kurdish peasants who became politicized in the 1960s.

By the 1970s, Kurdish and pro-Kurdish political activists and intellectuals were claiming that the Kurdish southeast was a colony where “Kurdistan’s raw materials (in particular oil, copper, iron, chrome and coal) are being exploited.”
By the 1970s, Kurdish and pro-Kurdish political activists and intellectuals were claiming that the Kurdish southeast was a colony where “Kurdistan’s raw materials (in particular oil, copper, iron, chrome and coal) are being exploited.”[8]

In the years to follow, Kurdish dissent found its voice in multiple political formations. Cemil became involved in the movement around the Rizgarî magazine and advocated for an anti-colonial, socialist and democratic struggle. In the 1980s, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê or PKK) emerged as the most prominent organization fighting for Kurdish rights and espoused guerilla warfare tactics against the Turkish state. For the PKK, oil was stolen “Kurdish oil,” on occupied, colonized Kurdish land. Building on the arguments of the previous generation of Kurdish intellectuals and politicians, the PKK regarded oil as a valuable resource that would belong to the Kurdish people once an independent Kurdistan was founded. In the 1990s, the PKK targeted state-controlled extractive and mining industries, including oil pipelines, drilling sites and storage facilities of Turkish Petroleum in Batman. The organization also staged attacks on foreign oil companies’ oilfields, where they destroyed their rigs and set fire to filling tanks and wells. By 1994, Chevron, Mobil and Shell had suspended their operations in the region.

In 2013, after more than 30 years of war between the Turkish armed forces and the PKK, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) formally announced that it had entered negotiations with Kurdish leaders and had reached a truce. But in the summer of 2015 the peace process collapsed, and full-scale war resumed. As the war shifted to urban spaces, the military reclaimed some rural and mountainous areas once controlled by the PKK in an effort to create new resource frontiers in the previously inaccessible and unexplored terrains of the southeast. Daily newspapers in 2018, for example, announced that Turkey was “finally set to drill for oil in an area freed of terror,” referring to the mountainous zones where Kurdish guerillas took shelter. [9]

Turkey’s drift to authoritarianism accelerated following first the Gezi Uprising from May to August 2013 and in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in July 2016. The ruling AKP government led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used the attempted coup as a tool to consolidate their base, eliminate the opposition, speed up the transition to a new presidential (rather than parliamentary) system and intensify repressive politics through populist strategies, continuous war and polarization. In this period, politicians utilized oil to generate popular support before local and national elections. The majority of exploratory drills failed, however, to find commercially viable deposits of oil and those wells that are viable are still far from making Turkey an oil-rich state. Compared to Iran or Iraq, for example, which each produce around 4.4 million barrels per day, Turkey’s oil production is starkly low, around 50,000–60,000 barrels per day, supplying only 7 percent of its domestic oil need.[10] With no new large oilfield discoveries in recent years and with the existing fields maturing, Turkey’s oil production tends to fall each year as demand increases.

Cemil now runs a private teaching institution in Diyarbakır and his niece, Mahmut, is a chief technician in a Turkish Petroleum oilfield in the same province.[11] Mahmut is a keen supporter of the left-wing, pro-Kurdish, pro-peace, Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which advocates for self-governance, pluralism and democratic autonomy.


Moving Beyond Oil


Turkey never realized its hopes of becoming an oil nation. Yet despite its relative lack, oil has been a constant object of anticipation central to both consolidating and challenging the Turkish nation-state. Oil exploration and extraction have been at the center of the state’s and state actors’ visions of industrial and assimilationist projects in the southeast. On the other hand, many young Kurdish people like Cemil, who grew up in proximity to the oilfields and witnessed the racialized forms of inequality and repression in the southeast, came to be involved with dissent and critique. Through the social and economic tools that industrial development, infrastructure and urbanization offered—and oil was central to them—newly urbanized and educated Kurdish people conjured up visions of a future of autonomy, justice and emancipation.

Along with other radical and anti-colonial movements of self-determination that took place in the same historical milieu, the political visions voiced by Kurdish (and Turkish) leftists and revolutionaries, however, have remained dependent on horizons limited by petromodernity.

Along with other radical and anti-colonial movements of self-determination that took place in the same historical milieu, the political visions voiced by Kurdish (and Turkish) leftists and revolutionaries, however, have remained dependent on horizons limited by petromodernity.
They saw sovereignty over fossil fuels and a petroleum-powered society as the precondition for their projects of independence. This view remains prominent within the Turkish left, as the recent geopolitical dispute over natural gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean reflect.[12] The majority of the Turkish political opposition is critical of the AKP government’s aggressive policy of exploring for gas in contested waters and are invested in an approach that promotes dialogue, but both sides ignore ecological concerns, let alone consider a post-carbon political stance that would leave the hydrocarbons under the seafloor.

The question to be asked, given the world’s currently grim environmental predicament, is whether it is possible to link decolonial projects of political emancipation with environmental justice and ecological care. Such a task requires political actors to imagine alternative futures that move beyond society’s dependence on oil and extractivism that are characteristic not only of Turkey, but of most of the world in the past century. Despite their political differences and separate histories, two political movements in Turkey provide some hope: the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)—one of the successors of the Kurdish political mobilization— which has gained broad appeal in Turkey, and more recently, the relaunched Green Party.[13] With their internationalist perspective and local concerns, these movements are paying attention to the deep interdependence of political and ecological problems and insisting that neither can be resolved without the other.


[Zeynep Oguz is a postdoctoral fellow in Environmental Humanities at the Kaplan Humanities Institute and the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University.]




[1] Memduh Şevket Esendal’ın Doğu İllerine Yaptığı Gezinin Raporu, T.C. Başbakanlık Arşivleri, 490.01-571.2274.1, p.32.
[2] “Umumi Müfettiş Abidin Özmen Raporu (1935)” in Hüseyin Yalman, Şark Meselesinden Demokratik Açılıma. Türkiye’nin Kürt. Sorunu Hafızası (Ankara: SETA, 2011).
[3] “Cemil” is a pseudonym.
[4] Stories about Cemil are based on interviews conducted with him by the author and his unpublished autobiographic writings.
[5] Ertuğrul Kürkçü, ed. Encyclopedia of Socialism and Social Struggles Vol. 7 (Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1988). [Turkish] [6] Mehdi Zana, Bekle Diyarbakır (Istanbul: Avesta, 2014), p. 93.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Kemal Burkay, Seçme Yazılar (Istanbul: DENG, 1995).
[9] “Terörden Temizlenen Herekol’da Petrol Aranıyor,” Milliyet, August 31, 2018.
[10]Orta Dönemli Petrol ve Doğal Gaz Arz-Talep Projeksiyonu,” MAPEG, 2017.
[11] “Mahmut” is a pseudonym.
[12] Wintour, Patrick. “How a Rush for Mediterranean Gas Threatens to Push Greece and Turkey into War,” The Guardian, September 11, 2020.
[13] Duygu Yildiz, “Social and Ecological Problems Intertwined in Turkey – Green Party Co-spokeswoman,” Ahval, September 25, 2020.


How to cite this article:

Zeynep Oguz "The Unintended Consequences of Turkey’s Quest for Oil," Middle East Report 296 (Fall 2020).

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