Are the U.S. and Saudi Arabia About to Trade Places?

During most of our lifetimes, if asked to name one country that's largely associated with oil, we'd immediately point to Saudi Arabia. That response is unlikely to change anytime soon, but it's also important to know that the kingdom is beset by geological, social, and geopolitical issues that just might precipitate its demise during, say, the next decade or two.

The real story on Ghawar
Saudi's geological considerations are largely exemplified by skepticism in the West -- first heralded by the late Matthew R. Simmons in his 2005 book "Twilight in the Desert" -- regarding the oil reserves the country really can lay claim to. The first consideration when this subject is broached typically involves its massive Ghawar oil field, which dwarfs any other field ever discovered.

As Simmons noted eight years ago: "Assuming Ghawar is one continuous oilfield, it is the greatest in the world. Ghawar's cumulative production has exceeded the production of the next few largest oilfields by a factor of two to three since it first began producing oil back in 1951." But while the Saudis hold their reserve information close to the vest, Ghawar's producible reserves appear to be declining rapidly, as do those of many lesser Saudi fields.

To quantify Ghawar's circumstances somewhat, the field has been judged to contain reserves totaling more than 70 billion barrels, and it can be counted on to produce about 5 million bpd. But there's evidence that water problems continue to plague the more than 2,000-square-mile field, and that it's beset by a decline rate that's probably reached a daunting 8% annually. That, for a field that single-handedly accounts for about 6% of total global oil output.

Seemingly, the kingdom would benefit from adopting neighboring Iraq's approach to oil and gas production. The war-torn country is benefiting from a host of major companies that are remediating its own giant fields, long neglected during the Saddam Hussein regime. For instance, BP (NYSE: BP  ) and its partners are successfully reworking the massive Rumaila field, while Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-B  ) is reviving the Majnoon oil field.

Admittedly, Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) is partnering with Saudi Aramco in production efforts in the Partitioned Zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. And oil-field services and technology kingpin Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB  ) has planted major facilities in the country. But it seems that a more widespread use of western companies' capabilities could do wonders for Saudi reserves and production longevity.

A dangerously deteriorating social fabric
Then there are the social issues that are dragging Saudi Arabia down. Included are the ages of those in the royal family, lack of employment opportunities for large numbers of the country's younger citizens, a well-organized Shia minority, and second-class status (if that) for the country's women. An ultimate replacement for 88-year-old King Abdullah will come from among his remaining passel of brothers, clearly indicating that the youth movement is hardly in the cards for the monarchy.

At the other extreme, about three-fourths of the citizenry is below 30. And an unemployment rate of 40% continues to plague those between 20 and 24.

Karen Elliott House, a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and the author of recently released "On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines -- and Future", sums up part of the country's situation by noting that "high birthrates, poor education, a male aversion to manual labor or service roles, social strictures against women working, low wages accepted by foreign labor, and deep structural rigidities in the economy, compounded by pervasive corruption, all have led to a decline in living standards ...".

Too many chasing too little
It's more than a little surprising for those of us who recall tales of Saudi Arabia's oil-induced opulence to note that that too has changed. It's the birth rate thing again. Despite the country's vast oil foundation, the rapid growth of its citizenry has shaved its per capita income to a fraction of that enjoyed by its neighbors.

That same population increase has dramatically boosted the country's own crude consumption. From a total domestic production of 11.6 million bpd in 2012, about 3 million bpd never left the country, thereby cutting meaningfully into Saudi revenue generation. As a proposed elixir for that problem, (and to permit a higher percentage of its production to be exported), the country, the controller of one-sixth of the world's oil reserves, has decided to go nuclear.

A couple of months ago, the regime reached a tentative agreement with the Japanese: For an increase in the amount of Saudi oil dispatched to its island nation, Japan would provide expertise in the construction of up to 17 gigawatts of nuclear power capacity in the kingdom during the next couple of decades.

Facing hostility to the east
Geopolitically, Saudi Arabia sits strategically amid Middle East volatility, with all sorts of less than desirable implications. However, the key element of that positioning involves the largely Sunni-Wahhabist Saudis' relationship with primarily Shia Iran. Up and down for decades, that relationship has been on the skids since the Hussein regime was flushed from Iraq, which lies directly between the two other countries. Now, Iran's increasing influence in (also majority Shia) Iraq, poses an increasing threat to Saudi Arabia.

With these -- and other -- negative influences intermingled in the Saudi kingdom, and with the Paris-based International Energy Agency predicting that the U.S. will assume world fuel production supremacy by 2020, it's eminently possible that our country will become the de facto Saudi Arabia of the next decade.

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