October 31, 2008

Oil in the Middle East

This graph shows that over 60% of the world's oil reserves lie in the Middle East, embracing Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, together with a handful of other states. So it was in 1987, so again in 2007, so it is likely to be in the future.

This great geopolitical fact has been a vital feature of the energy predicament for more than half a century. Oil was a key foundation of world economic recovery after 1945, as Western Europe especially imported huge quantities to fuel its recovery from World War II.

So another essential aspect of the energy problem is the concentration of the most irreplaceable form of energy in the world's most volatile region. Over the years, a geopolitical competition has ensued whose stake was either control over this great resource, or denial of control to others, but in either case fixed on the transcendent significance of this resource, more valuable than gold.

The United States has been deeply interested in the region since the 1940s. Its armed forces are now overwhelmingly deployed either directly or indirectly in support of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

US policy in the Middle East is not solely reducible to oil by any means, but the fact is undeniable that the existence of the great oil reservoirs in the region has always been a vital conditioning factor in US policy.

The map from British Petroleum shows "proved reserves." In fact, however, the "proved reserves" aren't proven; a cloak of mystery surrounds the true state, for instance, of the Saudi oil fields. But in all probability the figure does not lie too much. Most of the easily accessible, cheap to produce oil lies in the Middle East.

In thinking about the energy problem from a geopolitical perspective, we confront a much different world from that seen by the scientists. Their perspective is, as it were, from “on high”; this is “down low.” It is thick with avarice and selfish ambition, clever (and not-so-clever) Machiavellian calculations. It has lots of different dimensions, later to be explored. But the chart speaks volumes. The concentration of oil reserves in the Persian Gulf is a fact of commanding importance in thinking about the energy predicament. The role it plays in the global energy system has decisive implications for the viability of other forms of energy.

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