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Will the US abandon the Middle East

Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi

Published: Updated:
The World energy map will change in the next decade for ever. Fatih Birol, the Chief Economist at the International Energy Agency calls the surge of U.S. oil and gas production “the biggest change in the energy world since World War II.” The well known American expert Amy Myers Jaffe goes further to say that, by the 2020s, the capital of energy will likely have shifted back to the Western Hemisphere.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) in its annual report World Energy Outlook 2012 projects that the U.S. will overtake Russia as the world’s top gas producer by 2015 and will pass Saudi Arabia as the No. 1 global oil producer by 2017. By 2035 the U.S. is likely to be energy self-sufficient and an exporter of oil and liquefied natural gas. The IEA notes that unconventional oil which is primarily located in Americas stands at 3.19 trillion, exceeding Middle East dominated conventional oil of 2.67 trillion. Consequently; if these vast resources were extracted in a viable manner economically and environmentally, the additional supplies will certainly strengthens the position of oil-consuming countries and lower the concentration of energy resources in the Middle East and the influence of OPEC on the world oil markets. The United States will have much greater ability to make up for any import disruption through the country’s strategic reserves of oil.

With its own domestic energy production potentially freeing the United States from dependence on Middle East oil, some are beginning to ask whether the world’s pre-eminent superpower should bear the cost of policing the Gulf. The IEA report World Energy Outlook 2012 hinted, it is arguable that future American military interventions in the Gulf region would be less likely. As Javier Solana, former Secretary-General of Nato and EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy puts it recently: “For the U.S., energy self-sufficiency is the perfect excuse for a phased withdrawal from the Middle East; freed from energy dependency, America should be able to concentrate on the Pacific.”

Indeed, the American public could question the old mantra that “any threat to Middle East oil supplies correlated to a direct threat to American national security”. The longstanding legacy of the “Carter Doctrine” could gradually become a thing of the past, or at least become less strategically significant to the United States. Over time, U.S. taxpayers will question why they are paying for the Fifth Fleet to do the job. Why on earth, many Americans are asking, should the United States try to police a region, when all it gets in return is mindless abuse and violence? In that regard, the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia has already been taking shape for at least two years. As Tom Donilon, the White House national security adviser argues lately: “The US is a Pacific power whose interests are inextricably linked with Asia’s economic, security and political order (…) America’s success in the 21st century is tied to the success of Asia”. Maybe these developments what made Yoel Guzansky the research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University to write recently in Haaretz, “An American presence in the region is an Israeli interest of the first degree, and we must do everything in our power to maintain it”.

In reality, however, it is not that simple. David Goldwyn, a former U.S. State Department special envoy for international energy, wrote in the New York Times that “the U.S. suddenly having a great wealth of domestically produced gas and, increasingly, oil, the argument follows, will allow the United States to look inward and take less interest in international affairs, including Middle East (…) this is unlikely to happen”. Indeed, the United States engagement in the Middle East is not simply about oil imports. Everyone knows America hasn’t needed Middle East oil for years. U.S. President Barack Obama always mentioned what he called four “core interests” in the region. (a) “Countering terrorism”, (b) “Stopping the spread of nuclear weapons”, (c) “Securing the free flow of commerce”, and, (d) “Standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab Israeli peace”.

Furthermore, the United States would still need to worry about the Middle East since oil prices are set globally. In the U.S. Department of Energy’s reference case for 2035, total U.S. consumption of petroleum and other liquids, including both fossil fuels and bio-fuels, rises from 19.2 million barrels per day in 2010 to 19.9 million barrels per day in 2035 in the Reference case. The net import share of domestic consumption, which reached 60 percent in 2005 and 2006 before falling to 49 percent in 2010, continues falling in the Reference case to 36 percent in 2035. The bottom line: U.S. oil prices still depend on what happens abroad not the source or quantity of U.S. imports. The IEA warned that a fall in oil imports would not insulate the U.S. from developments in international markets or end its vulnerability to price spikes. The World Energy Outlook 2012 stated clearly that: “No country is energy -Island- and the interactions between different fuels, markets and prices are intensifying. Most oil consumers are used to the effects of worldwide fluctuations in price but consumers can expect to see growing linkages in other areas”.

Above all, at the strategic level, if Washington wants to remain central to Asia the U.S. administration always argues, there is no getting around the reality of Asian reliance on Gulf oil. As the Financial Times noted “The pivot to Asia does not pull America away from the Gulf. It takes it back by a different route”. Within this context, the Economist summaries the situation in a very interesting words: The Middle East is still the crucible of Islam: so much that affects American diplomacy around the rest of the world, from Pakistan to Indonesia, Nigeria, and even the suburbs of Paris, has its starting point here. It is the world’s energy centre: the Middle East still sets the price at America’s petrol stations. And the region is home to many of America’s most committed enemies, including Iran”. Most Americans may wish to keep out of the Middle East quagmire, unfortunately for them; the region will always re-play the proverb “if you can’t live with us, you can’t escape from us.”

(Naser AL-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East analyst with particular research interest in energy politics and political economy of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Middle East- Asia relations.)
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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