The Prize discusses oil and its importance to the world economy, beginning during World War II (1939–1945), when oil's dominance became apparent. Also, after WWII, America's share of the international oil market declined, and oil became increasingly intertwined with international politics.
Yergin traces the history of oil back to Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859. Oil was found there and soon thereafter in Russia as well as Poland and Romania. Rich and prominent families such as the Nobel and Rothschild clans became active in the industry.
In 1938, oil was discovered in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Foreign firms were responsible for these discoveries, and control of oil eventually became a struggle between companies and countries in which those companies were extracting oil. By the late 1960s, the political situation in the Middle East had changed; Britain pulled out of the region in 1971. The United States, however, was weaker because of its protracted and fruitless war in Vietnam, and the United States was more dependent on oil than ever before. In America, attempts to find alternate sources of oil in Alaska were blocked for years because of environmental concerns, opposition by Indigenous peoples, and legal battles. It became clear that Alaska would not be a panacea for America's oil dependency.
International companies had gained access to oil on foreign territory by using a concession system. This was really just another form of imperialism; it would be challenged by Arab governments in the 1970s. Libya—lead by Muammar Gaddafi—and Saudi Arabia led the challenge to the concession system. Saudi Arabia completed its takeover of its oil industry in 1990.
Yergin covers the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the resultant Arab oil embargo. Most of Europe caved in to Arab nations's demands, and drivers in the United States had to wait in long lines and overcome restrictions to get fuel. The embargo was a major shock to the world economy. Meanwhile, OPEC reached its zenith between 1974 and 1978. Oil producers made lots of money, but importers's economies suffered because of high fuel costs. The United States needed a new "policeman" for the region in the 1970s, and it turned to Iran. On the throne since the 1950s, the Shah modernized his nation and suppressed radical Islam. His rapid modernization and increasing authoritarianism led to his overthrow in 1979. Iran's political turbulence upset the oil markets.
Another challenge for the oil industry was the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988). Fortunately for the West, however, oil prices were low for most of the 1980s. By the end of that war, however, oil tankers were being attacked in the Persian Gulf.
Yergin concludes with an analysis of the Persian Gulf War (1990–1991). The West would not allow Saddam Hussein to control so much of the world's oil, thereby expanding his economic power. Hussein, as he had done in 1980, miscalculated badly.