A politically charged epic about the state of the oil industry in the hands of those personally involved in and affected by it.
American oil companies Connex and smaller Killen are undergoing a merger, the new company named Connex-Killen. The move is in response to Connex losing a number of oil fields in the Persian Gulf region as Prince Nasir Al-Subaai, his country's foreign minister, and the oldest son of the Emir and thus the heir apparent to the throne, signed a contract with the Chinese instead. As Killen somehow managed to get the contract for the oil fields in Kazahkstan, the merger would give Connex-Killen additional control of the industry in the Middle East. Connex's retained law firm, headed by Dean Whiting, assigns Bennett Holiday to demonstrate to the US Department of Justice that due diligence has been done to allow the merger to proceed i.e. that the merger would not break any antitrust regulations. The US government is unhappy with Prince Nasir's decision to award the contract to the Chinese, and in combination with issues around illegal weapons, the CIA assigns field agent Bob Barnes, who has experience in the Middle East, to assassinate the Prince, whose eventual leadership would further undermine US oil security. Barnes becomes a pawn in the goings-on between the players. Meanwhile, Geneva based Bryan Woodman, an energy analyst, eventually becomes associated with the Emir and his family, largely due to a tragic incident. In the process, Woodman learns of Prince Nasir's western leanings and his want to change radically his country into a western democracy with a diversified economy. If the Emir found out, it could threaten Prince Nasir ascension to the throne and thus derail the democratization process. Through all these manoeuvrings, migrant workers are affected, some who cannot retain work with the changing of companies controlling the oil. Some of those may try to take matters into their own hands for their form of justice.
A missile disappears in Iran, but the CIA has other problems: the heir to an Emirate gives an oil contract to China, cutting out a US company that promptly fires its immigrant workers and merges with a small firm that has landed a Kazakhstani oil contract. The Department of Justice suspects bribery, and the oil company's law firm finds a scapegoat. The CIA also needs one when its plot to kill the Emir-apparent fails. Agent Bob Barnes, the fall guy, sorts out the double cross. An American economist parlays the death of his son into a contract to advise the sheik the CIA wants dead. The jobless Pakistanis join a fundamentalist group. All roads start and end in the oil fields.
Syriana is a thriller of corruption and power related to the oil industry that tells four parallel stories: the CIA agent Bob Barnes with great experience in Middle East that falls in disgrace after an unsuccessful mission dealing missiles in Lebanese Republic; the investigation of the attorney Bennett Holiday related to the merge of two American oil companies, Connex and Killen; the traumatic association of the energy analyst Bryan Woodman with the son of a powerful emir of Emirate; and the social drama of the Pakistani immigrant worker Wasim Khan that is fired by the oil company.
- United States energy giant Connex is losing control of key Middle East oil fields in a kingdom ruled by the al-Subaai family. The emirate's foreign minister, Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) has granted natural gas drilling rights to a Chinese company, greatly upsetting the US oil industry and government. To compensate for its decreased production capacity, Connex initiates a shady merger with Killen, a smaller oil company that recently won the drilling rights to key petroleum fields in Kazakhstan. In the film, Connex-Killen is loosely based on ExxonMobil and their deal for the Tengiz oil field in 2003. Connex-Killen ranks as the world's twenty-third largest corporation, and US antitrust regulators at the Department of Justice (DOJ) have misgivings. A Washington law firm headed by Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) is hired to smooth the way for the merger. Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is assigned to promote the impression of due diligence to the DOJ, deflecting any allegations of corruption.
Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is an energy analyst based in Geneva, Switzerland. Woodman's supervisor directs him to attend a private party hosted by the emir at his estate in Marbella, Spain to offer his company's services. The Emir's illness during the party prevents Woodman from speaking directly with the Emir while, at the same time, the emir's younger son, Prince Meshal Al-Subaai (Akbar Kurtha), shows the estate's many rooms and areas to Chinese oil executives via remote controlled cameras. No one notices that a crack in one of the swimming pool area's underwater lights has electrified the water. Just as Woodman and all the other guests are brought to the pool area, Woodman's son jumps into the pool and is fatally electrocuted.
In reparation and out of sympathy for the loss of his son, Prince Nasir grants Woodman's company oil interests worth US$100 million, and Woodman gradually becomes his economic advisor. Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) is dedicated to the idea of progressive reform and understands that oil dependency is not sustainable in the long term; Nasir desires to utilize his nation's oil profits to diversify the economy and introduce democratic reforms, in sharp contrast to his father's repressive government, which has been supported by American interests. Woodman and his wife drift apart as he becomes more involved in working with the Prince and she even questions whether he is trading on the tragedy that took their son's life. Nasir hopes to succeed his father as emir, but his younger brother is willing to continue the status quo and is chosen as the King's successor instead even though he's clearly unqualified to run a nation. Nasir plans a military coup, but American intelligence plans to assassinate him via a remote missile attack on his convoy.
Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is a veteran CIA Operations Officer trying to stop Middle Eastern illegal arms trafficking. While on assignment in Tehran to kill two Iranian arms dealers, Barnes notices that one of two anti-tank missiles (actually FIM-92 Stingers) intended to participate in an explosion was diverted to an Egyptian (Amr Waked), while the other explodes and kills two Iranian agents. Barnes makes his superiors nervous by writing memos about the missile theft, and is subsequently reassigned to a desk job. However, unaccustomed to the political discretion required, he quickly embarrasses the wrong people by speaking his mind and is sent back to the field with the assignment of assassinating Prince Nasir, whom the CIA identifies as being the financier behind the Egyptians obtaining the missile. Prior to his reassignment, Barnes confides with in his ex-CIA agent friend, Stan Goff (William Hurt), that he will return to Lebanon. Goff advises him to clear his presence with Hezbollah so they know he is not acting against them. Barnes travels to Lebanon, obtains safe passage from a Hezbollah leader and hires a mercenary named Mussawi (Mark Strong) to help kidnap and murder Nasir. But Mussawi has now become an Iranian agent and has Barnes kidnapped instead and then tortures him. The Hezbollah leader ultimately arrives at the scene of Barnes's torture in time to stop Mussawi from beheading Barnes.
When the CIA learns that Mussawi plans to broadcast the agency's intention to kill Nasir, they try to distance themselves by scapegoating Barnes, portraying him as a rogue agent. Whiting worries, first about Barnes talking about the Nasir assassination plan, second about the possibility that Nasir's coup might have a greater likelihood of success, and third that killing Nasir with a Predator drone missile would make it obvious that it is an American-backed assassination. He plots to make Barnes the scapegoat. He has his passports revoked, locks him out of his computer at work, and has him investigated. Barnes, however, learns from Stan Goff that Whiting is responsible and threatens him and his family unless he halts the investigation and releases Barnes's passports.
Barnes eventually learns why he was portrayed as a rogue agent. He drives across the desert, intent on warning Nasir. He stops Prince Nasir's convoy to warn him of the assassination plan. Before he can tell the Prince, the Predator missile strikes the automobile of Nasir and his family, killing them. Barnes stumbles away wounded. Woodman, who gave his seat in Nasir's car to Nasir's wife, survives the blast and goes home to his wife and son.
Pakistani migrant workers Saleem Ahmed Khan (Shahid Ahmed) and his son Wasim (Mazhar Munir) board a bus to go to work at a Connex refinery, only to discover that they have been laid off due to a Chinese company outbidding Connex for the rights to run that facility. Since the company has provided food and lodging, the workers face the threat of poverty and deportation due to their unemployed status. Wasim desperately searches for work, but is refused because he doesn't speak Arabic. Wasim and his friend join an Islamic school to learn Arabic to improve their employment prospects. While playing soccer they meet a charismatic Islamic fundamentalist cleric (Amr Waked) (the very same Egyptian man who earlier stole Robert Barnes's anti-tank missile) who eventually leads them to execute a suicide attack on a Connex-Killen LNG tanker using a shaped-charge explosive from the missing Tehran missile.
Bennett Holiday meets with U.S. Attorney Donald Farish III (David Clennon), who is convinced that Killen bribed someone to get the drilling rights in Kazakhstan. While investigating Connex-Killen's records, Holiday discovers a wire transfer of funds that leads back to a transaction between Texas oilman Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson) and Kazakh officials. Holiday tells Connex-Killen of his discovery and they pretend not to have known about it. Holiday advises Dalton, who makes a stirring defense of how corruption is simply the way of competition and how America "wins" against the rest of the corrupt world, that he will likely be charged with corruption to serve as a "body" to get the DOJ off the back of the rest of Connex-Killen. Farish then strong-arms Holiday into giving the DOJ information about illegal activities he has discovered. Holiday gives up Dalton but Farish says this is not enough. Holiday meets with ex-Killen chief Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper) and informs him that the DOJ needs a second body to drop the investigation. Pope asks Holiday whether a person at Holiday's firm above him would be sufficient as the additional body. Holiday acknowledges that if the name were big enough, the DOJ would stop the investigation and allow the merger.
Holiday is brought by his colleague and mentor Sydney Hewitt (Nicky Henson) to meet with the CEO of Connex-Killen, Leland "Lee" Janus (Peter Gerety). In a surprise move, Holiday reveals an under-the-table deal that Hewitt made while the Connex-Killen merger was being processed. Holiday has given Hewitt to the DOJ as the second body, thereby protecting the rest of Connex-Killen. Janus is able to attend the ceremony "oil industry man of the year" with a load taken off his shoulders. Throughout the film, Holiday has angrily crossed paths with his alcoholic father Bennett Sr.; at the movie's end when the merger has been completed, Bennett Jr. lets his apologetic-looking dad enter his house and shuts the door.