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What the Unrest in the Middle East Means for Global Oil Production

And why the recent rise in the price of oil is just an early tremor heralding the oilquake to come.

| Thu Mar. 3, 2011 6:32 PM EST

The experiences of Iran and Iraq may not in the usual sense be comparable to those of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Oman, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen. However, all of them (and other countries likely to get swept up into the tumult) exhibit some elements of the same authoritarian political mold and all are connected to the old oil order. Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Oman, and Sudan are oil producers; Egypt and Jordan guard vital oil pipelines and, in Egypt's case, a crucial canal for the transport of oil; Bahrain and Yemen as well as Oman occupy strategic points along major oil sealanes. All have received substantial US military aid and/or housed important US military bases. And, in all of these countries, the chant is the same: "The people want the regime to fall."

Two of these regimes have already fallen, three are tottering, and others are at risk. The impact on global oil prices has been swift and merciless: on February 24th, the delivery price for North Brent crude, an industry benchmark, nearly reached $115 per barrel, the highest it's been since the global economic meltdown of October 2008. West Texas Intermediate, another benchmark crude, briefly and ominously crossed the $100 threshold.

Why the Saudis are Key

So far, the most important Middle Eastern producer of all, Saudi Arabia, has not exhibited obvious signs of vulnerability, or prices would have soared even higher. However, the royal house of neighboring Bahrain is already in deep trouble; tens of thousands of protesters—more than 20% of its half million people—have repeatedly taken to the streets, despite the threat of live fire, in a movement for the abolition of the autocratic government of King Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa, and its replacement with genuine democratic rule.

These developments are especially worrisome to the Saudi leadership as the drive for change in Bahrain is being directed by that country's long-abused Shiite population against an entrenched Sunni ruling elite. Saudi Arabia also contains a large, though not—as in Bahrain—a majority Shiite population that has also suffered discrimination from Sunni rulers. There is anxiety in Riyadh that the explosion in Bahrain could spill into the adjacent oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia—the one area of the kingdom where Shiites do form the majority—producing a major challenge to the regime. Partly to forestall any youth rebellion, 87-year-old King Abdullah has just promised $10 billion in grants, part of a $36 billion package of changes, to help young Saudi citizens get married and obtain homes and apartments.

Even if rebellion doesn't reach Saudi Arabia, the old Middle Eastern oil order cannot be reconstructed. The result is sure to be a long-term decline in the future availability of exportable petroleum.

Three-quarters of the 1.7 million barrels of oil Libya produces daily were quickly taken off the market as turmoil spread in that country. Much of it may remain off-line and out of the market for the indefinite future. Egypt and Tunisia can be expected to restore production, modest in both countries, to pre-rebellion levels soon, but are unlikely to embrace the sorts of major joint ventures with foreign firms that might boost production while diluting local control. Iraq, whose largest oil refinery was badly damaged by insurgents only last week, and Iran exhibit no signs of being able to boost production significantly in the years ahead.

The critical player is Saudi Arabia, which just increased production to compensate for Libyan losses on the global market. But don't expect this pattern to hold forever. Assuming the royal family survives the current round of upheavals, it will undoubtedly have to divert more of its daily oil output to satisfy rising domestic consumption levels and fuel local petrochemical industries that could provide a fast-growing, restive population with better-paying jobs.

From 2005 to 2009, Saudis used about 2.3 million barrels daily, leaving about 8.3 million barrels for export. Only if Saudi Arabia continues to provide at least this much oil to international markets could the world even meet its anticipated low-end oil needs. This is not likely to occur. The Saudi royals have expressed reluctance to raise output much above 10 million barrels per day, fearing damage to their remaining fields and so a decline in future income for their many progeny. At the same time, rising domestic demand is expected to consume an ever-increasing share of Saudi Arabia's net output. In April 2010, the chief executive officer of state-owned Saudi Aramco, Khalid al-Falih, predicted that domestic consumption could reach a staggering 8.3 million barrels per day by 2028, leaving only a few million barrels for export and ensuring that, if the world can't switch to other energy sources, there will be petroleum starvation.

In other words, if one traces a reasonable trajectory from current developments in the Middle East, the handwriting is already on the wall. Since no other area is capable of replacing the Middle East as the world's premier oil exporter, the oil economy will shrivel—and with it, the global economy as a whole.

Consider the recent rise in the price of oil just a faint and early tremor heralding the oilquake to come. Oil won't disappear from international markets, but in the coming decades it will never reach the volumes needed to satisfy projected world demand, which means that, sooner rather than later, scarcity will become the dominant market condition. Only the rapid development of alternative sources of energy and a dramatic reduction in oil consumption might spare the world the most severe economic repercussions.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet. A documentary film version of his previous book, "Blood and Oil," is available from the Media Education Foundation. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Klare explains how resource scarcity is driving protest and much else on our planet, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

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