News about the discontent being fomented rapidly across much of the Middle East and North Africa comes at you from your television, your computer, your newspaper, and your radio. Soon, you might be getting the message when you pull up to the pump at your automobile's favorite eatery.
Take Monday, for instance. Brent crude produced in the North Sea jumped $3.36 in price, before settling well north of $104 a barrel. Meanwhile, the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) benchmark that Americans are more familiar with continued to trade in the mid-$80s. It happens that, because we have higher stocks of WTI than we know what to do with (for now, anyway) the two grades have never been further apart.
Unless rationalism and tranquility begin to prevail in the area that provides much of the world's oil, that gap will close quickly, and not in the direction of WTI. In fact, according to New York University economist Nouriel Roubini, who often displays uncanny financial prescience, three of the past five global recessions have come on the heels of Middle East shocks.
Roubini's comments are now 2 weeks old, however, harkening back to when mobs in Tunisia and Egypt were sopping up most of our concerns. Suppose the area's fast-moving contagion were to befall Saudi Arabia. Don't bet the ranch against that daunting possibility. In fact, the kingdom might already be feeling the scratchy throat that portends something more unpleasant will soon take hold.
We'll return to oil's biggest producer in a moment. For now, Egypt has settled down to a certain degree. From an energy perspective, the likes of Diamond Offshore
However, Egypt's malady has spread to Iran, Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, and Bahrain.
A supply squeeze
In Tehran, crowds perhaps exceeding 100,000 people ignored tear gas and chanted "Death to the Dictator" as they marched along a major road. As I've previously noted, those for whom oil constitutes a major part of life's necessities -- and that's all of us -- must hope that events in Iran don't affect the crucial Strait of Hormuz. The isthmus connects the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. It thereby serves as a major thoroughfare for much of the world's traded crude oil.
Bahrain possesses a significance of its own as home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. It therefore is noteworthy that the protests there have become violent. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and birdshot were fired at the demonstrators.
Returning to concerns about Saudi Arabia, many in the U.S. assume the kingdom, which is responsible for a quarter of the world's oil production, is above the chaotic uprisings of its neighbors. I therefore am compelled to point to a superb opinion piece written by Karen Elliott House in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal. (Click here to view the article; subscription required.) House, a Pulitzer Prize recipient for her Middle East coverage, lifts the veil -- figuratively, of course -- from misconceptions about our longtime ally.
Saudi Arabia could crumble
Given the Saudis' role in the world of petroleum, it's important to understand that, despite our lengthy relationship with the kingdom's royal family, among the members of Big Oil, only Chevron
As such, our ability to influence or protect Saudi oilfields in the event of an upheaval would likely be minimal.
Of course, the major oilfield service companies, including Schlumberger
House says it best: "The traditional sources of stability in Saudi Arabia have been the royal family and the Wahhabi religious establishment. … Those twin pillars were losing credibility and legitimacy even before events in Egypt."
All of these spreading circumstances, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, clearly provide reasons for concern. At the very least, they should induce all Fools to maintain portfolios that, in essence, are well oiled and fully gassed.
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.