The year of the Arab Awakening is drawing to a close with an ominous air of peril and paranoia hanging over the Middle East. A movement of genuine promise for more legitimate and accountable government for the peoples of the Arab world is in danger of being overwhelmed by the forces of tyranny, corruption, fundamentalism and conflict. From Syria to Egypt to Libya, Palestine, Israel and Iran, resistance to peaceful change is manifesting itself in ways new and old – and all in the context of a global re-alignment of power that few in the region yet recognize. Preventing the four central challenges of the Middle East – Iran, the Arab Awakening, Energy Security, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – from turning into conflicts with global implications will be a task far more for the countries of the region themselves than at any time in recent memory. For this new reality the parties are almost completely unprepared.
This was confirmed during a visit last week to the Gulf where the collapse of trust between adversaries – as well as allies – was on stark display. Arab leaders expressed as much distrust of each other as they did of their ascendant rivals, the Persians and the Turks. The minimum demands of the Palestinians are as distant as ever from the maximum on offer from the Israeli government. And for a number of regional leaders buffeted by the extraordinary changes forced by popular movements from Syria to Tunisia, a key lesson appears to be lesser, not greater, openness to representative government. The Middle East, more than any other region of the world, gives validity to the old joke that even paranoid schizophrenics have enemies. But to the very real perils arising from deeply divergent interests among Arabs, Turks, Persians and Israelis is now added a degree of heightened paranoia that threatens to multiply the perils with consequences reaching far beyond the region itself.
Critical to understanding the new strategic landscape is an appreciation of the degree to which the United States – since Suez, the arbiter of war and peace in the Middle East – is on course for a long-term disentanglement from the cares and conflicts of the region. While its commitment to Israel certainly – and to its Arab allies less so – long has been more than just a matter of security, it is evident that a Middle East less critical as a source of oil will be one less able to claim the extraordinary expenditure of blood and treasure made by America over the past half-century. As a consequence of technological advances leading to new discoveries and new sources of oil and gas, the next oil shock will likely be one more defined by the growing irrelevance of the Middle East to the United States – however much the region’s ability to disrupt international oil markets will remain.
Energy Security. The estimates of the future U.S. dependence on non-North American sources of oil are as dramatic as they are under-appreciated. The share of U.S. oil imports from both OPEC more broadly and the Gulf, in particular, has collapsed since the 2007-09 financial crisis, replaced largely with Canadian and domestic crude. In 2008, the U.S. imported an average of 2.370 million barrels per day (bpd) from the Gulf and 5.954 million bpd from OPEC as a whole. In 2010, the average was 1.711 million bpd from the Gulf and 4.906 million bpd from OPEC.
Critically, this is not simply attributable to a cyclical fall in U.S. import demand. Canada alone has exported an average of 2.240 million bpd to the U.S. this year, up from 1.935 million bpd in 2010 and now accounts for approximately double Saudi crude imports. Thus, if U.S. domestic tight oil production touches 2.9 million bpd, and oil sands production increases to 3.0 million bpd by 2020, it could cut OPEC imports by well over half in less than ten years. Conceivably, by 2030, OPEC imports could drop to zero if 2007 daily consumption proves to be a historic high and domestic and Canadian production is increased as projected. (The contrast with China, currently serving more than 50% of its demand through crude imports – a figure that may hit 70% by 2020 – has equally significant consequences for Beijing and its future relations with the Middle East).