The future of oil

The increase in US oil and natural gas production could have a dramatic effect on world energy markets, according to Dr Pierre Noel, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Senior Fellow for Economic and Energy Security at IISS–Asia.

Dr Noel appeared on CNN yesterday to discuss the future of the global oil market, the effect of sanctions against Iran, and new figures released by the International Energy Agency indicating increased oil and gas production in the United States.

‘US unconventional liquid supply is growing by a million barrels a day each year, which has the potential to revive the growth of non-OPEC supplies,’ he explained. The effect on future oil prices however is unclear, and ‘depends on the supply–demand balance, and it is very difficult to know what’s ahead of us’, he said.

‘Demand is growing rapidly in emerging economies: China, India but also Southeast Asia – so you may actually need this rise in unconventional supply, especially if other parts of the supply picture disappoint.’ US and EU sanctions against Iran, for example, might also make this unconventional supply a necessity.

Dr Noel discussed the effect the sanctions might have on the Iranian presidential elections in June. He explained that the latest round of sanctions were ‘working’ – meaning that the situation was getting harder for the Iranian population – but that this would not necessarily mean the public would choose a leader more open to engaging with the West. ‘The risk that I see politically is that a larger and larger share of the population will actually reward a politician tempted by a hardening of the Iranian position, rather than a softening,’ he said.

He also discussed the security impact that a hard-line Iranian position would have on the region,  explaining that Iran’s neighbours were worried about the connection between Iran and the crisis in Syria. ‘I think the governments in this part of the world see the future as a very risky one geopolitically,’ he added.

Watch the video.

For more on this topic, watch the IISS’s May 15 panel discussion on the future of the Middle East oil environment, and read the IISS Strategic Comment on the United States’ falling need for foreign oil.

Ruppersberger: Russia can help on Syria, Iran

It wasn’t all about Syria in the Q&A at the end of the First Plenary Session – but it certainly led the discussion. Senator John McCain was critical was critical of US inaction: ‘In Syria … everything that people said would happen if we did not intervene has now happened because we have not intervened,’ he said. Fellow panellist Charles Ruppersberger, on the other hand, was optimistic about the role Russia could play not only in Syria but also in negotiations with Iran. ‘Sometimes negatives turn into positives and I think this relationship that we can work with Russia will help us,’ he said.

Participants also spoke about various wider regional and geopolitical risks generated by the Syrian conflict. The discussion provided a remarkable insight into the current situation and of US thinking on the processes taking place in the Middle East.

Energy issues were not forgotten. David Butters of Chatham House provocatively asking the panel: ‘How long are the American people prepared to continue to bankroll the security of Chinese oil supplies?’

Read the first part of Alexander Vysotsky’s account of the session: Day 1 at Manama: view from the floor

Day 1 at Manama: view from the floor

Every year, the IISS invites nominees from the next generation of strategists to attend the Manama Dialogue as part of its ‘Young Strategists Programme’. Here, one of this year’s Young Strategists – Alexander Vysotsky, Senior Secretary in the Office of the Mayor of Moscow – reflects on his highlight from Saturday in Manama:

‘I’m in the process of preparing a PhD thesis on Democratisation as an element of the US policy in the Middle East in 2001-2008, so I was especially looking forward to Saturday’s Plenary Session on “The US and the Region”.’

Taking part in the session were Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, former presidential candidate John McCain and Charles ‘Dutch’ Ruppersberger, who is the senior Democrat member of the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.
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Sectarian narrative simplifies and obscures

Lebanese protesters warn of the dangers of sectarianism.. Photo from the Lebanese Laique Pride Group
By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS-Middle East

These days, there is a dark meta-narrative spreading in parts of the Arab world and beyond: if the previous decade was that of Shia ascendancy, this one will be about the revenge of the Sunnis.

The chasm between Islam’s two main branches, many believe, already shapes internal Arab politics and mirrors a great regional competition that pits Iran against the Gulf states, in particular Saudi Arabia.

The story reads this way: Iran won the first rounds, when it helped Shia parties grab Iraq from Sunni clutches, groomed Hizbollah into a powerful force in Lebanon, and consolidated its alliance with the Alawite House of Assad in Syria. This drive has now been stopped and is being reversed, starting in Syria.

This view, as narrow, simplistic and offensive as it may be, has come to colour the perception of the uprisings that have shaken heterogeneous Arab societies. It helps some people to find a pattern amid the chaotic uncertainty brought about by the massive changes unfolding in the region. It is also circular and self-serving: the more sectarian one is, the more one is likely to subscribe to this reading. Interestingly, many Arabs on both sides of that divide propagate it to mobilise their allies.

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Hoping for a zone of goodwill in the Mideast

Beirut's Al-Amin Mosque. Timos L. Flickr user

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

BEIRUT, Lebanon, 4 July – An IISS workshop in this sun-kissed capital showed that the decades-long cold war between Iran and Saudi-led Gulf Arabs has again heated up, this time over Syria. But one issue on which those nations see common cause is the goal of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons (hereafter, simply the ‘Zone’). If it ever came to pass, the Zone would resolve Riyadh’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme and Tehran’s grievances about being held to a standard that is not applied to Israel. And since the Zone is such a far-off goal, nobody need be too bothered today about the intrusive inspections and other sensitive compromises that would need to be made for it to be implemented.

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Believing in a Mideast WMD-free zone

Nuclear weapons-free zone sign from IowaHighways' flickr accountBy Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Sometimes you never know what you think about an issue until you start putting pen to paper.

Last November, the United Nations Association of the UK (UNA-UK) asked me to write a briefing report on the issue of establishing a Middle East Zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. (This mouthful is usually abbreviated as MEWMDFZ, or sometimes simply called the ‘zone’.) The paper would be the second in a UNA-UK series on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Part of the organisation’s ‘Towards Zero‘ programme, the paper seeks to raise awareness ahead of a conference being organised later this year by Jaakko Laajava, Finland’s under secretary of state for foreign and security policy, in support of the zone goal.

My initial reaction was to wonder whether there was anything new to say on the subject, given that the zone has been on the international agenda since 1974 and is as distant now as it was then. I also confess to having harboured some initial cynicism about whether the 2012 conference would contribute to the goal of a zone, or indeed whether it would even be held, given the differences among the key players.

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Trying to stem a nuclearised Mideast

Guest post by Giorgio Franceschini, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt

One highlight of the forthcoming EU Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Conference will be the session on non-proliferation and security in the Middle East. The subject is highly topical because states in the region are expected to attend a UN-facilitated conference aimed at the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (which goes by the rather unwieldy acronym of MEWMDFZ) sometime this year.

The obstacles for the establishment of such a zone are enormous. It would require – at a minimum – a viable solution to the Iranian nuclear challenge, and a change of Israel’s nuclear posture, one that would be acceptable to both Jerusalem and its neighbours. A further requirement for an MEWMDFZ will be the ratification of both the biological and chemical weapons conventions by all states in the region – first and foremost, Egypt, Israel and Syria – and a dense web of confidence- and security-building measures in the conventional military realm, especially with respect to WMD-capable delivery vehicles.

But tensions are high and some countries find themselves in the midst of a turbulent political transition. It is therefore not at all clear whether the MEWMDFZ conference will take place at all in 2012; and if it does, it is uncertain which countries will attend.

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