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Geography, Demographics, and Resources

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Riches Beneath the Earth

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Colbert C. Held

From Middle East Patterns. People, Places and Politics
© 2000, Westview Press
With the permission of Perseus Books Group All rights reserved.

Underground Resources


In its enormous wealth in petroleum and natural gas resources, the Middle East is without equal and perforce has a unique role on the world scene. Moreover, the region's percentage of the world's oil reserves, as well as its percentage of the world's production, is certain to increase, since the relatively smaller reserves elsewhere are being more rapidly depleted by intensive exploitation. In income benefits, never before in history has a region achieved such explosive large-scale economic development in such a short time as the Gulf oil producing area of the Middle East did during the four decades following the end of World War II. Western cognizance of the vital importance of Middle East oil was manifest in 1990 when U.S. and European forces responded immediately to the threat to control of Kuwaiti and Saudi oil fields. Now that the more dramatic aspects of the Gulf "oil boom" have subsided and large production is again routine, the region is often taken for granted and even disparaged. U. S. attention is more focused on the emerging (and reemerging) Caspian oil province, partly to offset the importance of the Middle East.

The importance of the Middle East's petroleum reserves notwithstanding, it should not obscure other significant aspects of the region. The Middle East also possesses historical, geopolitical, political, human, geographical, and other nonenergy economic significance. The importance of these other aspects is often overlooked or is subordinated to petroleum and more limited regional interests. Although this chapter focuses on oil, one major aim of this book as a whole is to weight the various phases of the region in order to achieve a more balanced perspective.

Petroleum and petroleum products are the sole item produced and exported on any scale by several Middle East countries. At the average rate of production during the 3 years 1996-1998, Middle East petroleum resources will last for about 88 years if no additional resources are found. Unlikely as the lack of new discoveries may be, the oil-producing countries themselves are alert to the singularity of the basis of their wealth and to its eventual depletion. They are also aware of the external forces that influence the production, transportation, and marketing of their most important exchangeable product. In view of the relatively rapid exhaustibility of this singular resource, and with the lessons of numerous boom-and-bust producing areas to guide them, Middle East oil producers have sought ways to control their own destinies-through the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), for example. In an effort to maintain economic viability for a longer period, they are also conducting intensive programs of economic diversification, including agricultural development, as was shown in Chapter 7.

With certain exceptions, the overall percentage of the world's supply of underground resources other than petroleum in the Middle East is relatively minor. Nevertheless, the exploitation of nonenergy minerals is a major item in the economies of several countries with limited oil output. Nonoil mineral industries are or have been of noteworthy importance in Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Cyprus, Egypt, Syria, and Israel.

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