Putting the Mideast energy risk in perspective

Risk analysis shows region’s biggest oil, gas producers not in danger zone.

Iranian oil platform, Iran flag (photo credit: Reuters)
Iranian oil platform, Iran flag
(photo credit: Reuters)
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA), usually at the forefront of concerns about political stability, poses relatively little risk to the world’s energy supplies from domestic instability, an assessment by a leading political risk concern has found.
Maplecroft’s Resource Nationalism Index (RNI), which measures the strength and stability of political and legal institutions in 197 countries around the world, found that 44% of global oil production is located in countries posing an “extreme” or “high” risk. But MENA’s biggest exporters have a relatively low risk profile, a compilation of figures from Maplecroft and the global energy company BP show.
Not counting Iran, whose energy exports are already subject to Western sanctions, only 8% of the world’s oil from MENA countries is in extreme- or high-risk countries and no single country among them accounts for more than 3% of global production. Gulf oil producers, which account for 21% of world oil output, are tagged as “medium” risk by Maplecroft.
The Arab Spring has toppled leaders across the region, pounded economies and is putting into place Islamist regimes whose policies are still a question mark. But nearly all of MENA’s top energy producers in the Gulf have stood aloof from domestic turmoil. And when oil exporters have raided government coffers to pay for handouts and ensure popular support, higher energy prices are easily covering the costs.
Even MENA countries that have been hit hard by the Arab Spring have avoided targeting their energy industries for populist measures like nationalizations or demands to renegotiate contracts. But the Arab Spring has served as an incentive for economically pressured regimes around the world to exploit their energy and other natural resources at the expense of the multinational companies by taking over assets or demanding better terms.
“Regimes in resource-rich countries suddenly [are] cognizant after events in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere of what a dissatisfied populace can accomplish,” James Smither, Maplecroft’s associate director, said in comments provided to The Media Line. “All this in combination makes highly profitable private corporations extracting these countries’ natural wealth very expedient targets for revenue extraction and public chastisement.”
Among countries in the MENA region, the only major oil producer carrying “extreme” risk is Iran, which accounted for about 5% of the world’s oil production in 2010 and ranked eighth on RNI. With the economy reeling from global sanctions and leaders feeling pressured by the street to act, Maplecroft warned that the few remaining foreign companies still active in the country may fall victim to populist measures.
“International oil companies that have continued to buy Iranian oil despite stringent US and EU-led sanctions are becoming increasingly exposed to risks associated with resource nationalism,” Torbjorn Soltvedt, MENA analyst at Maplecroft, said in comments provided to The Media Line. “The regime – which faces significant domestic challenges – is likely to attempt to turn the EU oil embargo into a unifying rallying point.”
Iraq also looks like a candidate for resource nationalism. The company is host to multinationals like ExxonMobil, Total, Lukoil and China National Petroleum; and has been offering concessions to develop oil and gas reserves after decades of neglect due to war and misrule. Iraq's giant Rumaila oil field is being developed by BP and another major reserve, Majnoon, is being developed by Royal Dutch Shell.
But Iraq’s leaders are in the midst of a power struggle between Shiite and Sunni factions and the country has been hit by periodic waves of bombings since American forces withdrew in December. Maplecroft ranks Iraq at 13th in the world for risk.
Jonathan Terry, a MENA analyst for Maplecroft, said Iraqis growing up in the Saddam Hussein era were educated to distrust foreign energy companies and politicians like Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr and attack them in speeches. Nevertheless, he said, the likelihood of nationalization is “low” because the economy is so reliant on foreign companies.
Among the other high-risk countries, the only significant producers are Libya and Algeria, but none account for more than 2% of global oil production. Libya, which was paralyzed by eight-months of civil war between strongman Muammar Gaddafi and his opposition, has been the only major energy exporter to shut down production due to the Arab Spring.
Libya reported this week, however, that oil production reached 1.4 million barrels a day in February, up by 100,000 barrels over January and close to the 1.6 million barrels it was pumping before the conflict. Officials have said they aim to return to pre-conflict output levels by mid-2012.
MENA is a smaller player in the global natural gas market, with at-risk countries accounting for 18% of the world’s total production, compared with 35% for all. Iran, an extreme-risk country, is the region’s biggest gas producer, accounting for just over 4% of the world total. But the other two bigger producers – Qatar and Saudi Arabia with a combined 6.2% share, are rated as “medium” risk by Maplecroft. 
The RNI focuses on domestic factors, but the greatest threat to the Gulf producers today comes from a conflict between Iran and the West, particularly Israel, over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the transit point for nearly all of the Gulf’s oil, and to bar exports to Europe.