We live in troubling times. After the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ began in December 2010 in Tunisia, unrest spread through Libya, where the toppling of dictator Muammar Ghaddafi has not stopped the turbulence and bloodshed. To the east, civil unrest in Egypt culminated in the overthrow of two governments and the reintroduction of military rule, while further east again there are ongoing disturbances in Yemen and Bahrain and ruling elites are getting rattled. Meanwhile, Syria has collapsed into full scale civil war, and the very young and fragile democracy of Iraq looks increasingly unstable and undemocratic as the fundamentalist fighters of IS spread their hold on the oil-rich regions of northern Iraq and Kurdistan. To the north, Gaza and Israel continue their uneven trade of shooting missiles at each other.
The Middle East and North African regions have been at the centre of world energy supplies for nearly a hundred years, accounting for over half of global proved reserves and almost a third of production. The rest of the world looks on aghast and helpless at the violence and horror, but also with concern over security of energy supply and the effect of these upheavals on the oil market and ultimately the wider global economy. If IS forces consolidate their hold in Iraq and Syria, they could control a large slice of the region’s reserves; it is estimated that they are already adding about two million US dollars a day to their coffers through selling oil from captured Iraqi fields on the black market.
Further north again, over 2,000 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine in a civil war that is as much about wealth and power struggles between Europe, the US and Russia as it is about territorialism in Eastern Europe. Sanctions on Russia have so far had little impact on either the price or the flow of oil and gas from Russia, but if the situation continues, that is likely to change.
Despite this, the search for hydrocarbons goes on, and technological improvements will continue to unlock hitherto untouchable resources. Worries about energy security may indeed push some of these developments forward, and without easy access to Russian supplies, Europe may open up to shale gas; trouble and conflict always bring a gain to someone. But it is still a very disturbing world, and all we can do is hope that peace will soon prevail.