Oil and the Arab world’s unrest
Feb 24th 2011 | http://www.economist.com/node/18233452
A MONTH ago Brent crude oil stood at around $96 a barrel and Hosni Mubarak was ensconced as Egypt’s ruler. Now he is gone, overthrown by a display of people power that is shaking autocratic leaders across north Africa and the Middle East. And oil has surged above $115. Little wonder. The region provides 35% of the world’s oil. Libya, the scene of growing violence this week, produces 1.7m of the world’s 88m barrels a day (b/d).
So far prices have not been pushed up by actual disruptions to supply. Oil hit a peak even before news emerged that some foreign oil firms operating in Libya would cut production and that the country’s ports had temporarily closed. As Adam Sieminski at Deutsche Bank points out, oil prices are driven both by current conditions and by future expectations.
Oil markets don’t like surprises. The sudden ousting of Mr Mubarak and the unrest in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Iran and Algeria (which between them supply a tenth of the world’s oil) had added 20% to oil prices by the middle of this week. The big worry is that spreading unrest will culminate in another shock akin to the oil embargo of 1973, the Iranian revolution or Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Oil is more global than it was during those previous crises. In the 1970s production was concentrated around the Persian Gulf. Since then a gusher of non-OPEC oil has hit markets from fields in Latin America, west Africa and beyond. Russia overtook Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest crude supplier in 2009; OPEC’s share of production has gone from around 51% in the mid-1970s to just over 40% now.
Yet the globalisation of oil supply has not diminished OPEC’s clout as the marginal supplier of crude. Markets are tight at the moment. Bumper inventories, built up during the downturn, are running down as the rich world recovers and Asia puts on a remarkable growth spurt. Demand rose by a blistering 2.7m b/d last year, according to the International Energy Agency, and is set to grow by another 1.7m b/d this year by Deutsche Bank’s reckoning. Many other producers are already running at full capacity; OPEC has its hands on the only spare oil (see chart).
If Libya’s oil stopped flowing importers would look to Saudi Arabia to make up the shortfall. The oil could probably flow to fill the gap in Europe, Libya’s main market, in a matter of weeks. OPEC claims that it has 6m b/d on tap but that looks wishful. Analysts think the true number is nearer 4m-5m b/d, with 3m-3.5m b/d in Saudi hands. That is ample to plug a Libyan gap but would hasten the day when growing world demand sucks up all spare production capacity. Analysts at Nomura reckon that it would only take a halt of exports from Algeria as well to absorb all the slack and propel oil to a terrifying $220 a barrel.
Despite saying it stands ready to produce more oil, Saudi Arabia has so far been reluctant to turn its stopcocks. OPEC claims that the world is amply supplied with oil and seems content with a price around $100 a barrel. Traders hope that Saudi Arabia will boost production stealthily or that OPEC will call a special meeting to raise quotas and calm markets.
The worst-case scenario for oil prices would be some kind of disruption to Saudi supply itself. That concern has become livelier given the unrest in neighbouring Bahrain. The tiny island kingdom produces little oil but is of vital strategic importance in the Persian Gulf, a seaway that carries 18% of the world’s oil. America’s 5th Fleet uses the country as a base.
The Saudis may also fear that protests by Bahrain’s Shia population could spill over their own borders. Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces are home to both its oil industry and most of its Shias, who may also have cause for grievance with their Sunni rulers. The king this week announced $36 billion in benefits for his people. One crumb of comfort is that oil facilities across the region are generally located far from the population centres, where protests tend to be concentrated, and are well defended against anything but a concerted military assault.
What might be the effects of a more general supply crisis in the Middle East and north Africa? The oil shocks of the 1970s spurred the world to build stockpiles, such as the 727m barrels of crude oil in America’s strategic petroleum reserve, to be drawn on in the event of upheaval in the Middle East and elsewhere. China is building up a strategic reserve of its own. America’s Energy Information Administration puts total rich-world stocks in the hands of governments and industry at 4.3 billion barrels, equivalent to nearly 50 days of global consumption at current rates.
The impact of a crisis would therefore depend on how much oil production was lost and for how long. Even seismic shocks in oil-producing countries might not cut off supplies for very long. Yet the example of Iran shows what can go wrong. Leo Drollas of the Centre for Global Energy Studies, a think-tank, points out that pre-revolutionary Iran pumped 6m b/d. The new regime ditched Western oil experts and capital, and it has never come close to matching that level of output since; it now produces just 3.7m b/d. Middle Eastern oil is largely state-controlled but, as Amrita Sen of Barclays Capital observes, foreign investment remains vital to north Africa’s oil industry. If new regimes emerged that were more hostile to outsiders, that might have a lasting effect on production.
The world could probably weather a short-lived crisis. But the damage if oil prices spiked and stayed high for a long time could be severe for the recovering economies of the rich world. As for the prospects of reducing the importance of the Middle East to global oil supplies, forget it. Strong Asian demand is likely to mean that OPEC’s share of oil production rises again as it pumps extra output eastward. A troubled region’s capacity to cause trouble will not diminish.