Heightened Geopolitical Risks in the Middle East and Potential Impacts on Oil Markets

In this presentation, given at IP Week, Bassam Fattouh discusses the heightened geopolitical risks in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the potential impacts, both short-and long-term, on oil and gas markets. He argues that the nature of geopolitical risks in the region has changed dramatically and that despite the defeat of the so called Islamic State (IS), overall there has been a general deterioration in the geopolitical backdrop as old conflicts resurface and new risks emerge, including the fragmentation of some states, the rise of non-state actors and local power centers, consolidation of power and more assertive foreign policy from the world’s top oil exporter, and heightened confrontation between regional and international powers.

Despite this general deterioration in the geopolitical backdrop, the short-term impacts on oil and gas markets have been muted. Unplanned outages from MENA have been limited in the last two years, and the recovery of Libyan output (though from very low levels), as well as the resumption of Iranian exports after the lifting of sanction meant that despite the high compliance from key Middle East oil exporters to the OPEC/NOPEC deal, supply from MENA declined only marginally in 2017. The deteriorating geopolitical backdrop did not preclude OPEC, and its members, and Russia from reaching an agreement to cut oil output and pursue further cooperation. At times when stocks were high, and given the limited output losses so far, the market has barely reacted to geopolitical flashpoints from the region in the last few years. Having said that, the geopolitical backdrop is having a more subtle longer-term impact on MENA’s long-term oil capacity, preventing some countries from expanding their oil and gas productive capacity (Iran, Libya, KRG), which raises a key question as to whether some of the lowest cost producers in the region will be in a position to develop their reserves faster than higher cost producers. Heightened regional confrontation has also meant higher defense and military expenditure and hence the need for higher oil prices at times when most countries are embarking on very ambitious plans to reform, diversify, and open their economies. Looking ahead, as the crude and products overhang gets eroded and as spare capacity becomes thinner (especially when compared to global oil consumption), geopolitical flashpoints in the Middle East will have a bigger impact on markets, though the short-term impact on prices is expected to remain small in the current market context in the absence of a supply disruption from a large oil exporter.

By: Bassam Fattouh