Fears of sectarian uprisings in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have set off the first serious wave of investor flight from the Gulf, compounding market turmoil as civil war in Libya pushes Brent crude over $116 a barrel.
Saudi Arabia’s Tadawul stock index has tumbled 11pc in wild trading over the past two days, led by banks and insurers. Dubai’s bourse has hit a 7-year low.
The latest sell-off was triggered by the arrest of a Shi’ite cleric in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province after he called for democratic reforms and a constitutional monarchy. The province is home to Saudi Arabia’s aggrieved Shi’ite minority and also holds the country’s vast Ghawar oilfield, placing it at the epicentre of global crude supply.
“Unrest in this region can have fatal consequences for the world,” said JBC Energy. “The plunge on the Saudi stock exchange can be interpreted as a sign of waning trust.”
In Bahrain, the island nation’s Sunni elite holds sway over a Shi’ite majority that is denied key jobs and has a token political voice, making it a trial run for Saudi Arabia’s near-identical tensions in the Eastern Province.
Bahraini dissidents have so far been much bolder, prompting a bloody crackdown last month when at least seven people were shot by the military. The ruling family – under intense pressure from Washington to stop the killings – has since held out an olive branch to protesters and let the radical Haq leader Hassan Mushaima return from exile, yet the crisis is far from contained.
My Mushaima said on Wednesday that protesters have “the right to appeal for help from Iran” if Saudi military units interfere in the struggle. Tanks were seen crossing the 17-mile causeway from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain on Tuesday.
“These were supposed to be Bahrain’s tanks returning from Kuwait: that is not a credible story,” said Firas Abi Ali, a Gulf expert at the risk group Exclusive Analysis.
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He said the outcome in Bahrain will set the template for events across the border. “There is no good outcome from this for Saudi Arabia. If Bahrain offers concessions, the Saudi Shia will demand similar concessions. If they crack down, they risk an uprising. These people do not want to live under the House of Saud,” he said.
Saudi activists have called on Facebook for a “Day of Rage” on March 11, despite the penalty of lashing for street protest. A similar call to arms in Syria fizzled because people were frightened, and the security forces nipped it in the bud. “We will be watching closely to see how many people turn up, and how far their demands go,” said Mr Abi Ali.
Saudi King Abdullah has scant leeway. His own legitimacy stems from Wahabi clerics, who refuse any compromise with the Shia. He is 87 and in poor health, raising the prospect of an imminent succession struggle that favours the hard-line interior minister Prince Nayef. He would undoubtedly crush any protests. The monarchy has sought to gain time by spending an extra $36bn (£22bn) on welfare and salaries, but patronage politics may strike the wrong note at this stage.
Whatever the hopes in the West, Mr Abi Ali said the Mid-East is now in the vortex of multiple uprisings that will create turmoil for years and destabilise oil supply for a long time. “The Arab world is not going to start behaving like the Swiss,” he said.
Libya’s slide into civil war has already cut oil shipments by 1m barrels per day (bpd), slicing into the world’s safety margin. The International Energy Agency (IEA) said the Saudis had covered the short-fall, though Saudi heavy oil is a poor substitute for Libya’s “sweet” crude.
However, analysts suspect the kingdom had already boosted output to 9m bpd before disruptions in Libya, and has not in fact added much net supply. There is a raging debate over whether the Saudi oil giant Aramco can raise output by 3m bpd if needed, as claimed. While two new fields have come on stream adding 2m bpd since the 2008 oil shock, “attrition” on old fields has offset much of this. “We think they’re close to full capacity,” said one analyst.
Global spare capacity may in reality be less than 4m bpd, and perhaps as low as 2m. Meanwhile, oil demand from China alone rose by 850,000 bpd last year.
Helima Croft at Barclays Capital said the longer Libya’s crisis continues , the more damage it will do to long-term supply. Foreign companies have evacuated staff and may be reluctant to restart operations until the dust settles.
Rebel leaders in Benghazi are planning to investigate oil contracts, reserving the right to renegotiate terms in accordance with the “will of people in the street”.
Ms Croft said foreign oil companies will not sink large sums of money into Libya until it is clear what will emerge from the cauldron of tribal divisions. A plan for $10bn of oil investments by BP, Shell, Oasis and over others the next three years is in tatters. “With the disintegration of a stable political regime in Libya, we view the bulk of the projects as being extremely unlikely to proceed on time, if at all,” she said.
Fatih Birol, the IEA’schief economist, warned that investments in fresh fields across the Middle East “may be deferred for years. The age of cheap oil is over.”
The Libyan crisis has brought forward an oil crunch that was likely to happen within three years or so, given the relentless decline of non-OPEC output in the North Sea and Mexico.
While the world can cope with the loss of Libyan crude for now, the stakes will rise sharply if one more country succumbs, and explode off the charts if Gulf monarchies lose their grip.
- Shaky Saudi Arabia (lewrockwell.com)
- Saudi Arabia contagion triggers Gulf rout (telegraph.co.uk)
- If Saudi Arabia Intervene in Bahrain Affairs, Opposition will Ask Help from Iran (jafrianews.com)
- Saudi Arabia Bans All Protests (censorshipinamerica.com)
- Saudi Arabia detained 22 Shi’ites, activists say – Reuters Africa (news.google.com)
- Saudi Arabia bans protests, warns of security crackdown (theglobeandmail.com)
- Saudi Arabia says won’t tolerate protests (reuters.com)
- Saudi Arabia: The Next Capital of Islamic Feminism? (newsrealblog.com)
- Official: GCC weighing ‘stability’ fund (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- More Shi’ite protests in Saudi oil region (reuters.com)
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