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Oil and Politics Mix Uneasily in Strife-Prone Middle East

Mid-East, North African
Daily Oil Production

Thousand Barrels/Day 2009
Source: Energy Information Administration

Saudi Arabia 9,759 Egypt 678
Iran 4,176 Sudan 486
UAE 2,794 Syria 399
Kuwait 2,496 Yemen 286
Iraq 2,400 Chad 115
Algeria 2,125 Tunisia 91
Libya 1,789 Bahrain 48
Qatar 1,212 Israel 4
Oman 816Morocco 3.9

Click for Full Coverage of Libya Coverage

The Fall of Tripoli, Oil Reserves and Production, Reconstruction

by Robert Thomason
Civil protests have spread throughout oil-rich countries of the Middle East and North Africa this year. Long criticized for their lack of democracy, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen are experiencing lethal street demonstrations.

A case-by-case look at not only the countries in turmoil, but also at other major oil producing countries shines light on the region's political risk. Also, an examination of oil export data compiled by the US DOE of various countries reveals the underpinnings of economic volatility.

In mid-January protests in Tunisia led to the toppling of the 33-year reign of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14.

Although the protests mainly revolved around public discontent over unemployment, poverty and a lack of judicial and civil liberties, Wikileak revelations of the Ben Ali family lording over much of the country's wealth inflamed the anger of the demonstrators.

Tunisia's standing as an oil exporter has decayed seriously. It was a net petroleum importer for most of the last decade, but in 2009 exported 2.5 thousand barrels a day after . The country had experienced a serious slide in exports, from a high of 68 thousand barrels a day in 1984 to a low in 2001, when it imported 14 thousand more barrels than it produced each day.

Washington Post's Griff Witte reports on the beginning of the demonstrations
Egypt slipped into net oil importer status in 2007 when it bought 7 thousand more barrels than it produced daily. Throughout the early 1990's it had enjoyed massive trade revenues as its net exports were in the range of about 450 thousand barrels a day.

But in 1996 its exports began a steep decline that has reversed its fortunes in this sector. President Hosni Mubarak, strong-man ruler of the country since the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, now finds himself the subject of the country's growing street rebellions. Among the protestors who are facing very stern anti-riot tactics of the police is 2005 Nobel Laureate Mohamed elBaradei.

One of the world's poorest countries, Yemen was rocked by street protests this week calling on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to deliver political reforms. A country with many ties to Islamic terrorism, it was the operational base for the failed Christmas 2009 bombing attempt over Detroit, MI.

Yemen, which years ago had been a net oil importer, saw a tremendous rise in net exports from 1987 to 2000, when it exported a net 340 thousand barrels a day. Since then net exports have been steadily falling, but were still at a net 130 thousand bbl/day in 2009.

Saudi Arabia
The world's largest producer of oil has for almost a century been ruled by the royal Saud family. Autocratic and extremely wealthy, the family has cautiously doled out political liberties over the decades, allowing local and other elections from time to time.

It sits upon the world's largest oil field, the Ghawar, and works its diplomatic influence throughout the Arab and Islamic world. It has frequently hosted US military facilities. It is also the native land of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and 15 of the Sept. 11, 2001 suicide attackers.

Since 1991 it has export 7 million to 9 million barrels of oil a day, 1.5 million to the United States. It claims to have a reserve production capacity of 4 million a day.

A Persian rather than Arab country, Iran has a long and troubled history of its own with regard to street protests. The seminal turmoil in its modern history was the 1979 Islamic revolution which culminated in the capture of the US Embassy in Tehran and the ensuing 444-day captivity of American hostages.

Despite decades of sanctions and other actions against Iran, it remains a major player in the oil and natural gas arena. China has poured money int Iran oil and gas production in the wake of US and other prohibitions against investments in the sector.

Despite attempts to isolate Iran, it has exported about 2.5 million barrels a day for the past decade.

However Iran suffers its own political discontents, and domestic energy policy is one component. In June 2009 large street protest broke out amid allegations of fraudulent vote counting in the presidential election. That plebiscite saw the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an ally of fundamentalist clerics who hold the highest positions, over Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a more reform-minded candidate.

Recently, Iran decreed that it would end fuel subsidies that had given its citizens some of the lowest gasoline prices in the world.

The scene of two US-led invasions in as many decades, Iraq is rebuilding its oil and gas network after it was destroyed during the defeats of executed dictator Saddam Hussein.

Iraq is now a blend of multi-billion international deal-making and the continued tragedy of mass-casualty bombings committed by various terrorist groups.

Iraq's oil exports have varied widely. It fell from over 2.5 million barrels a day in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein was a US ally in its tensions with Iran, to nothing in the 1990s when Hussein was sanctioned for invading Kuwait. (That 1990 invasion was prompted by Husseins allegations that Kuwait had been improperly drilling into Iraq's reserves near the countries' borders.)

Iraq was permitted under UN supervision to begin importing 2 million barrels a day at the turn of the century. But the 2003 invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition more than halved that level of trade. Exports are now returning to the 2 million barrel a day level.

A small Persian Gulf island off the coast of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain exports about 10 thousand barrels a day, down significantly from its average of about 33 thousand a day in the 1980s and 1990s.

Sparsely populated it may not have the political or economic profile of its larger or more disaffected neighbors. But the island does play a major role in international and regional security: it is the host the US Naval Forces Central Command, its US Fifth Fleet and also US Air Force combat wings that help guard the oil fields and shipping routes that provide the world with about a fifth of its petroleum.
Published Jan. 28, 2011

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