Iran Sees an Opportunity in the Persian Gulf

6 MINS READMar 3, 2011 | 18:31 GMT
As protests and revolts play out in North Africa, much attention is shifting to the Persian Gulf. The concern is simple: If the social instability spreads to the world’s primary oil-production zone, the world could be in for a major supply shock. However, the real threat to the Persian Gulf states comes not from internal protests but from foreign-instigated unrest — specifically from Iran.
For many observers, the instability in North Africa bodes ill for the oil-rich Persian Gulf states, which constitute the world's primary oil-producing region — and what bodes ill for the Persian Gulf would also be a grave concern for the global economy. But it is important to keep in mind that North African states are quite poor as a rule, while the Arab states of the Persian Gulf are among the richest locations on the planet, largely due to their petroleum wealth. Moreover, while Arab leaders in the Persian Gulf certainly take a large slice of the national wealth for themselves, they do not hoard all of the wealth as the regimes of Egypt and Libya traditionally have done. (click here to enlarge image) In many of the Persian Gulf states, the elite realize full well that the groups they represent do not form a plurality, much less a majority, of the populations of their states. The ruling family of Saudi Arabia is only 100,000 (at the most) out of a population of roughly 20 million. More than 80 percent of the inhabitants of the United Arab Emirates are imported labor without citizenship. At least two-thirds of Bahraini citizens are Shiite while the ruling family is Sunni. The Arab elite's solution to this demographic mismatch is to mix an authoritarian political setup with an aggressive sharing of the petroleum largess. Subsidy rates — whether for food, electricity, housing or gasoline — are lavish. The rulers of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf essentially purchase political quietude. The real reason STRATFOR sees the Persian Gulf's Arab states as being threatened has less to do with spontaneous protests and more to do with foreign-instigated unrest — and this would-be instigator is Iran. Iran has struggled to increase its sway on the western shores of the Gulf since long before the mullahs rose to power in 1979, and in this new viral-protest age, Tehran sees an opportunity. In recent days, the Iranians have encouraged unrest in the Persian Gulf state that has the highest proportion of Shia: Bahrain. Luckily for the energy markets, Bahrain is practically a non-player. The real game is in the energy heavyweights of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In these states, we see three specific regions as being in potential danger because they are large sources of oil, they are immediately adjacent to Shiite population centers, and the oil-export routes pass through these to Shiite-populated ports:
  • Southern Iraq's Rumaila region is the country's most productive. The cluster of fields around the Rumaila super-field generates roughly 2 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude, nearly all of which is funneled into pipes that run just south of Shiite-dominated Basra, Iraq's second largest city, to loading platforms in the Persian Gulf.
  • The Burgan region of southern Kuwait is home to the Greater Burgan field, by far Kuwait's largest. It also is just inland from all of Kuwait's population centers, which wrap from the capital, Kuwait City, down to the Saudi border. Here the population is more of a Sunni-Shiite mix than it is in southern Iraq, but all of Kuwait's exports ship out from predominantly Shiite regions on the southern coast rather than Sunni-dominated Kuwait City itself. Greater Burgan produces slightly less than 1.7 million bpd and serves as the gathering point for all of Kuwait's 2.5 million bpd of output.
  • Saudi Arabia's Ghawar super-field is the most important of these areas of concern. With about 5 million bpd of output, Ghawar is the largest oil field in the world, and it lies right alongside the city of Al Hofuf, which has a mostly Shiite population of 650,000. Oil produced from Ghawar travels via pipes to the northeast across and parallel to major Saudi highways to reach a trio of tanker ports on the Persian Gulf — all of which are within Shiite-dominated areas.
There are only two possible routes for oil from these locations to be shipped should problems erupt within the Shiite populations. Iraq has the Iraq Petroleum Saudi Arabia (IPSA) pipeline, which could transfer 1.7 million bpd of oil from southern Iraq to the Saudi Red Sea port of Yanbu — in theory, at least. The problem is that IPSA has been closed since the earliest days of Operation Desert Shield, and it is not clear how soon it could be rehabilitated, if at all. The second alternative is Saudi Arabia's Petroline, which links Ghawar to Yanbu. It can handle 5 million bpd, which is roughly half of Saudi Arabia's entire production capacity. Such disruptions could take three forms. The first are outright attacks by angry citizens or disgruntled guest workers. By far the most vulnerable assets would be pipelines, the routes of which are obvious since they travel along transportation corridors or near population centers. To date, this has happened only once in recent weeks, against Egypt's natural gas export line to Jordan and Israel. The second would be disruptions caused by citizens — or guest workers — either not showing up for work or placing physical restrictions on the ability of energy workers to reach their jobs. Such disruptions have taken roughly two-thirds of Libya's energy output offline. In the Persian Gulf, the vulnerability varies greatly from location to location, based on how close to the fields the workers live. The final possible form of disruption is the most worrisome: foreign sabotage. Unlike the North Africa protests, which were by people rallying to improve their own countries — who thus had no interest in burning their countries to the ground — in the Persian Gulf any serious protests would receive significant foreign encouragement from a state wanting to change the regional power balance. Iran has a strong interest in limiting the power of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, even if it means taking Arab oil offline.

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