Counting the Cost

Syria and the geopolitics of oil

How will rising tensions in the Middle East impact the global energy market?

The global energy market is ruled by geopolitics. With tensions continuing in Egypt, Libya and Iran, and with Syria now added to the mix, things are looking shaky in the Middle East.

This week, Counting the Cost discusses what might happen, and how the markets can avoid more potential oil shocks.

When there is the threat of trouble in the Middle East, the price of oil usually starts to climb. This week, US oil prices hit a two-year high as traders worried about what looked like the ever-more-probable chance of military action against Syria.

The Middle East accounted for 35 percent of global oil output in the first quarter of this year, according to the International Energy Agency. So any potential disruption to that supply has the market worried.

But it is not quite as black and white as one might think. Back in May 2011, when NATO went into action against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, US oil prices actually fell almost 10 percent. And it was the same 10 years ago, when the US-led coalition invaded Iraq and oil futures tumbled 15 percent.

The short story goes that prices rose because of fear, and then settled when the actual battles commenced.

But in the case of 2013, US oil stockpiles are up, increasing by the most in four months. There are now 362 million barrels of crude oil sitting in tanks as a back-up in case supplies are interrupted.

In fact, Syria itself does not really export oil in any great amount. It is the opposite of previous conflicts – Libya and Iraq – where the possibility of war meant a real threat of oil disruption to the rest of the world.

In this case, Syrian oil is more important to the Syrian economy than anywhere else.

So why is the oil market in a flurry? To discuss recent developments around Syria and the geopolitics of oil, we speak to Dr Mamdouh Salameh, who has worked in the business for 30 years and is now director of the Oil Market Consultancy Service, based in the UK.
Shale gas revolution?

As geopolitics impact the oil market, are there things that could help to offset some of that volatility? In North America, experts say a boom in oil production may help to moderate those shocks.

Some estimates suggest the US could be sitting on the gas equivalent of a trillion barrels of oil. So, could something like shale gas be the answer to the world’s energy problems?

There has been a lot of talk about shale gas lately, particularly the protests against its extraction.

Critics say governments are sometimes not being honest about the environmental risks of shale gas exploration.

Even though it is gaining more publicity now, shale gas actually has quite a long history as an energy source.

Shale gas was first extracted in 1821 in the town of Fredonia in New York state. But it was in 1947 that the process of fracking was developed; a process whereby rocks containing the gas are blasted apart with high pressure liquid.

In the 1970s it became bigger business, when the US saw the first industrial-scale extraction of shale gas.

So, is shale gas as important as it is often described? We discuss this with Cornelia Meyer, an independent energy expert and CEO of the MLR Corporation, who joins us from Geneva.

Property buy-up

Elsewhere, Middle East investors are pouring money into European property markets.

A new report out from the international commercial real estate company CBRE, has shown that in the first half of this year, buyers from the Middle East accounted for nine percent of the entire market, with 25 percent now coming from anywhere outside of Europe.

London remains the hot spot; nearly 50 percent of all property investments by Middle Eastern buyers are in the British capital.

In the last few years, there have been some real landmark British properties snapped up.

Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund bought up the famous Harrod’s department store, and also financed the Shard, which is now the tallest building in Europe.

Nick Maclean, the managing director of CBRE Middle East, speaks to us from Dubai.


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Follow Kamahl Santamaria @KamahlAJE and business editor Abid Ali@abidoliverali