You Can't Afford to Ignore the Middle East

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With the media having been focused on barnstorming buses crisscrossing Iowa, you may not realize that events in the Middle East have recently become dicier.

While these events don't involve the throngs of demonstrators that dotted the Middle East in the Arab spring, they just might raise crude prices, along with the amount you're forced to cough up at the gasoline pump, while ultimately affecting the cost and value of your energy stocks. It is incumbent upon serious investors to keep up with changing Middle East geopolitics.

Here we go again
There was relatively little coverage of Monday's 42 coordinated attacks across Iraq. The attacks, which resulted in a death toll approaching 100, along with additional hundreds wounded, made for the deadliest day of the year for the country. According to The New York Times, the nature of the attacks left Iraqis shaken, "because it suggested that radical Sunni insurgents, led by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, may have regained the capacity for the kind of violence that plagued Iraq at the height of the sectarian war in 2006 and 2007."

The violence occurred as numerous Western oil companies were plugging away at increasing the output of Iraq's big oil fields and American military forces were closing in on a major troop drawdown by year's end. But the reduction in forces, from about 46,000 currently to a training mission numbering just 10,000, could be delayed. Earlier this month, the government of Iraq agreed to discuss with U.S. officials rethinking the planned shrinkage.

Pentagon officials have been concerned about a reduced U.S. presence resulting in a resumption of precisely the sort of sectarian violence that occurred Monday. More privately, they have expressed a belief that the larger force could better deter Iran from increasing its nefarious role vis-a-vis its neighbor.

One dangerous combination
As I've indicated to Fools for several years now, it's clearly no small matter that an overt combination of (Shiite majority) Iran and (also Shiite majority) Iraq would not be positive for Saudi Arabia and its Sunni majority, or for the region as a whole. For starters, it could affect the 16.2 million barrels of oil the three countries produce each day, which comprise more than half OPEC's total. And this says nothing of its likely impact on the Strait of Hormuz, a pivotal point for the world's crude transportation. Under those circumstances, it's impossible to predict the stratospheric level crude prices could rise to.

Meanwhile, such major energy companies as BP (NYSE: BP  ) , PetroChina (NYSE: PTR  ) , and ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) are achieving success in their efforts to materially raise production from Iraq's largest established oil fields. Those big producers are being assisted by the efforts of a phalanx of oil-field services companies, including Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB  ) and Baker Hughes (NYSE: BHI  ) .

Somewhat surprisingly, a BP-PetroChina combination was able to boost production from the massive Rumaila field by 100,000 barrels a day in a matter of months after initiating its efforts. Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-B  ) performed a similar feat with the big Majnoon field, which, like Rumaila, is located in an active oil-field area near the southern city of Basra, the home of the fictional Sinbad the Sailor, and also the site of recent sectarian violence.

Largely because of the companies' successes, Iraq last November increased its conventional reserve estimate from 115 million barrels to 143 million barrels. That moved it into second place behind Saudi Arabia -- but only for a day -- because, "coincidentally," Iran quickly goosed its own estimates.

But Iraqi operations are hardly a cakewalk, even for the big companies. Indeed, they're finding it necessary to attend to infrastructure projects to increase their access to both equipment and water. In fact, the presence of outmoded transportation, for which safety is a constant concern, typically makes receipt of even basic equipment an adventure. It also won't surprise you to know that all the companies working in the country are forking over large amounts to meets their security needs.

Iran's other partner
Finally, Iraq isn't the only game in town for Middle East intrigue. In fact, you may well be tired of hearing the rat-ta-tat-tat of commentators chattering about unchanging chaos in vacation spots like Libya and Syria. However, you also may have skipped past Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, which included a lengthy front-page article about the ruthless government of Syria's Assad family apparently monitoring, interrogating, arresting, and maybe even executing the country's citizens whose relatives have been involved in dissident activities outside the country, including in the United States.

Yes, you say, but Syria is a minor factor in oil and gas, producing less per day than OPEC's runt, Ecuador. And you're right, except that Iran is a major player in and supporter of Syria, and the more that Iranian turmoil spreads through the Middle East, the greater the prospects become that the region, along with the world's energy picture, could become more unstable.

Along with my clear-cut notion that Fools should monitor the Middle East as never before, dubious energy circumstances also dictate energy inclusion in your portfolio. It may intrigue you to know that Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) -- the only member of Big Oil with upstream operations in Saudi Arabia -- is similarly the lone member of the group not currently involved in Iraq. That intriguing dichotomy causes me to urge you to add the solidly managed company to your version of My Watchlist.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Schlumberger. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Chevron. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

 We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies named above. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.  

Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (6)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 19, 2011, at 3:32 PM, jimmy4040 wrote:

    The only good reason to sell a dividend paying diversified oil company in the futre is to buy a better one.

  • Report this Comment On August 21, 2011, at 12:44 AM, Shawnerz wrote:

    Good article, David. It would be interesting to see if Iraq can get the fields near Kirkuk up to their full potential too.

  • Report this Comment On August 25, 2011, at 4:18 AM, Hallucigenia wrote:

    Nah - the place to be looking for trouble is in the Near East, not the Middle East, the next month is going to be all about Palestine. The big campaign for UN membership ("Palestine 194" - but what exactly will be the entity that becomes the 194th member of the UN?) is going to kick off on 20 September, but there's bound to be all sorts of manouevring ahead of that, on top of the usual Fatah-Hamas civil war. It's further complicated by the fact that Syria and Egypt are on the edge, they could fall either way and so you'll see attempts to destabilise them. And then of course there's Israel and the US' hamfisted attempts to intervene in the region. The worst-case scenario is that they try another Six Days War, but right now, the Levant is looking like Hamas' to lose.

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