There is a growing disconnect between forecasts of prodigious amounts of oil coming out of the Middle East in coming decades and what is likely to happen in the region. The Middle East today is a patchwork of geographical entities known as states. A few, such as Iran, are reasonably coherent and go back hundreds of years, but others such as Iraq, Israel, and Jordan were created by outside powers out of a polyglot of ethnicities. In many countries, the people’s first loyalty is to a tribe or a religion rather than a national government.
Overlaying the region is Islam, which goes back to the 7th Century. Unfortunately, so does the intra-religion split which goes back some 1,200 years, and still provokes an amazing amount of animosity between Sunnis and Shiites. In some places this animosity runs deep, and in countries where the population is divided, such as Iraq or Syria, the group in power invariably discriminates against the other.
The rapid population growth has been and will be a fundamental cause of instability. Between 1970 and 2012, the population of the Middle East and North Africa grew from 127 to 569 million. Only some 160 million live in countries that enjoy substantial oil revenues, while the other 400 million live mostly in poverty. The region is adding about 8 million people a year, and because of traditional religious and social practices — mostly involved with the lack of empowerment for women — there is no end to rapid growth in sight.
We might add climate change into the pot. With rising temperatures, in an already warm region, there will be lower crop yields — and for those with lots of oil more air conditioning, which cuts the amount of oil available for export. Much of the region is already dependent on food imports to feed growing populations and this in turn requires foreign exchange.
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The political history of the region has done little but exacerbate the situation. The establishment of Israel after World War II has resulted in 65 years of confrontations punctuated by periodic wars. The Cold War resulted in the U.S., Russia, and to a lesser extent Europe arming their friends and clients in the region to the teeth. When these “well-armed” governments started collapsing from internal dissent or foreign invasion, it left millions of modern weapons and tons of high explosives available for any group that wanted to make trouble.
When the colonial powers pulled out of the region they left behind various kings and princes, some of whom quickly fell prey to military coups and decades of rule by military strongmen. More recently some of these have been replaced, in some cases with considerable violence, by their citizens newly empowered with information technology and aspirations for better forms of government. In the last few years alone governments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and soon Syria have been overthrown. Other governments are on the endangered list as recent violence in Jordan, Bahrain, and Kuwait clearly shows.
Although the troubles have not yet gotten to the major oil producers such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, they are getting closer all the time. Libya, Syria, Kuwait, Sudan, Iraq, and Iran have been unable to export oil for varying periods of time in recent years. Currently, Syrian oil exports are unlikely for the duration of the uprising; Iranian exports are down because of a disagreement about its possible acquisition of nuclear weapons; Egyptian exports of natural gas to Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon are out due to the precarious security situation in the Sinai. These are all rather minor when viewed from the global energy perspective; however, with the violent fighting going on in Syria and Gaza at the moment, there is the likelihood that there will be far more troubles ahead.
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The Gaza situation presently seems unlikely to have much impact on oil exports, unless the Israeli – Egyptian peace treaty should come apart; then all bets are off. The Syrian uprising has much greater potential for spreading further across the region and eventually affecting oil exports, for the country is at the crossroads of several long-standing confrontations. For historical reasons the Russians and Chinese are supporting the Assad government, which is prolonging the conflict. Then, the Assad government is a minority government made up of Shiites trying to rule a country which is 75 percent Sunni. The hatreds which have arisen during the uprising are already making themselves felt in Iraq and Lebanon. When the Assad government goes, it is likely to be followed by a period of instability if not outright chaos in the country. Foreign intervention may become necessary if only to secure some of the more dangerous weapons from Assad’s arsenal, further inflaming passions.
So far only a minor part of the region’s oil exports have become involved in the upheavals. The most vulnerable of the major oil producers is likely to be Iraq, which is already experiencing frequent bombings targeting the Shiite-controlled security facilities. The security situation in Iraq still permits increasing oil production, but this is not likely to last and we are already seeing major foreign oil companies pulling out of Iraq for Kurdistan where there is not as much oil, but the opportunity for profit and the security situation is better.
The region’s conflicts have been going on for a very long time and show every sign of getting worse as population pressures and the worsening climate leads to new pressures. Increasing communication with other cultures is also creating pressures that will inevitably lead to increased political instability. Those who count on the Middle East to produce much of the world’s oil supply over the next few decades are sure to be disappointed as the probability of steadily increasing violence is very high.
By. Tom Whipple