Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Oil threat rises as Arab & North Africa unrest spreads

The office of the chief of police is burned by anti-regime protesters in Benghazi, Libya, on February 25, 2011.

Authorities in Saudi Arabia, on the verge of major dynastic change, arrested a Muslim cleric in the oil-rich Eastern province Feb. 27 after he called for a constitutional monarchy. That could be a red flag.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, March 2 (UPI) -- Heavy fighting around the Libyan port of Brega, a key oil export center, and growing political turmoil in the oil-rich Persian Gulf has sharpened global concerns that Middle East energy flows could face serious disruption if the crisis isn't contained.

The increasingly beleaguered Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has threatened to sabotage the country's oil industry if it looks like he's going down.

Reports of an airstrike Wednesday by his warplanes on Brega in eastern Libya, which is lightly defended by rebel forces, underlined Gadhafi's threats.

Political unrest is mounting sharply in Iraq, Oman and Yemen, all oil producers, while a standoff between protesters and the royal family in Bahrain, a key Persian Gulf financial center, continues as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait look like they're heading for trouble, too.

"Uncertainty regarding the future stability of these states has raised global concerns over the potential adverse impact on global oil supplies," the global security consultancy Stratfor observed.

Forty percent of the world's seaborne oil supplies flow from the Persian Gulf. Thus, what happens there "is far more significant than the outcome of the rising against the Moammar Gadhafi regime in Libya."

Protests rallies have been scheduled in the two key oil states in the days ahead and that could trigger confrontations with security forces.

Authorities in Saudi Arabia, which is on the verge of major dynastic change, arrested a Muslim cleric in the oil-rich Eastern province Feb. 27 after he called for a constitutional monarchy. That could be a red flag.

Increasingly, the gulf regimes, including those in Baghdad, Muscat and Bahrain, have resorted to firing on protesters. Dozens have been reported killed, mainly in Iraq, in recent days.

So far, gulf oil supplies haven't been disrupted but that could change. If it does, that will signal a sharp, and possibly irreversible, escalation in the swelling protest action in the region.

That could imperil autocratic Arab regimes that the West has long supported, initially to counter the Soviets and more recently an expansionist Iran and to ensure supplies of oil.

No Middle Eastern regime would be willing to allow its economic lifeline, oil and natural gas, to be threatened and would likely be ruthless in protecting its energy resources, even against its own people.

The kingdom, the world's leading producer with claimed reserves of 267 billion barrels of oil, has an output of 8 million barrels per day.

Oman produces around 860,000 bpd, 1 percent of global output. If that was cut, along with the estimated reduction in Libya's daily output of 1.6 million bpd of at least 50 percent, but probably more, in recent days, world production could be slashed by more than 2 percent.

Oman's ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, the 14th in his dynastic line, has called out his army to confront protesters amid worsening violence, while making some political concessions. But the unrest in the sultanate on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula seems likely to grow rather than diminish.

Yemen, Oman's western neighbor, is also in ferment. Its ruler of three decades, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, is increasingly under attack by his own people. Before the regional upheaval erupted in January, he was grappling with al-Qaida, southern secessionists and a collapsing economy running out of oil and even water.

If his regime tumbles, the security of Saudi Arabia and its vast oil wealth would be immensely threatened, with Iran, its paramount regional rival, waiting to swoop.

So far the Saudis, with spare production capacity of some 5 million bpd, have been picking up the slack as Libyan production slipped. But some oil industry sources have questioned Riyadh's ability to sustain the extra production for any appreciable length of time.

So if Iraq, for instance, which is producing some 2.5 million bpd, suffers a major shutdown, the Saudis might be hard put to cover that as well.

Iraq's oil industry has been attacked twice in recent days. The country's largest refinery at Baiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, was crippled in a Feb. 26 attack. A pipeline at another refinery was blown up earlier. These haven't directly affected Iraqi exports but it's a worrying trend.

Trouble is also seething in Algeria, a major oil producer that also supplies 13 percent of Europe's gas imports.

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