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Shia Islam and oil geopolitics


In this paper it is shown that the concentrations of Shia Islamic peoples, in the Persian Gulf, are in the same areas as the oil fields and petroleum infrastructures. This is significant considering the growing influence these Persian Gulf oil producing countries will likely have due to their high levels of oil production and the possession of most of the world’s oil reserves. Considerable strategic geopolitical developments can be expected from this concentration of “petropower” in the Islamic Persian Gulf nations.


Industrial civilization from the early 1900s was fired up by the plentiful supply of cheap oil from various and many sources around the world. However, in recent decades this supply of oil has been increasingly held in OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) nations, and specifically, in the Islamic nations around the Persian Gulf. These nations are now enjoying newly held power, with an increasingly scarce energy source, which is vital for the maintenance of western developed societies, and for the other poorer nations that anticipate imminent economic development.

The Persian Gulf and Oil Reserves

Production of conventional crude oil production since 2005 has been on a plateau with slight decline in 2006 and 2007, and the slight increase in 2008 hardly even lifted off the plateau. Within this world petroleum plateau OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) is holding rather steady around 45% of world production since 2005.

However, around 75% of the world's oil reserves are in OPEC countries and most of OPEC's oil reserves are in states around the Persian Gulf (El-Badri, 2008; OPEC, 2007; Warren, 2008)

More specifically we need to consider that the overwhelming majority of the world’s conventional oil reserves are amassed in the Persian Gulf OPEC nations – with only the five nations of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) holding 58% of world oil reserves. In total, nine nations of the Persian Gulf region possess a hefty 61% of world oil reserves. And these nine nations are in close proximity, many bordering each other in the Gulf region.

Concerning Peak Oil, the world’s nations will not all peak at once, even though most producer nations have already peaked. The main countries which have not yet peaked are all OPEC members in the Persian Gulf: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, and The United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi). These nations taken collectively may be called the swing producers – that is, those countries which may still be able to increase production to meet world demand. And it is uncertain how long they will be capable of performing as swing producers because we don’t really know how much reserves they have left in the ground as their stated reserves are highly disputed (Pfeiffer, 2003).

The Gulf, Shia and Oil

In the table below we can see just how prevalent Shia populations are in OPEC and Persian Gulf states where world oil reserves are apparently largely positioned. Of the thirteen countries that make up OPEC, six are in the Gulf.

The Gulf states of Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, have 81.3 million Shia or about 61% of the total Gulf population. Further, if we just take the Shia populations of the five nations of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE holding 58% of world oil reserves, we see Shia make up a total of 62% of their populations. Clearly the Shia have the potential for significant influence over this whole Gulf region through their own nations and also ultimately to the world. Of course they could also wield regional and world influence through their solid representation in OPEC.

A map (Leigh/Harper College) of this region showing where significant concentrations of Shia populations are, highlights the strategic positions of the Shia over the oil fields and in the petroleum installations of the Gulf states. The concentration of oil fields and installations are, offshore along the full length of the Gulf, and onshore as could be expected, in Qatar, the east of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the south of Iraq and the west of Iran – exactly where Shia populations are concentrated. And although not shown on the map, the Shia are also concentrated around the Abu Dhabi (UAE) area which is the UAE’s oil centre on the southern end of the Gulf.

Iran is potentially the regional power of the Gulf and it is Shia. There is growing influence of Iran as a regional power with strong involvement and influence over politics in several Islamic nations: in Lebanon (through Shia Hezbollah), Syria (with its generally pliable government), Iraq (where it supports and influences the Shia in the south), Palestine (over Hamas which it supports and influences) and eventually in Egypt (where it supports the Moslem Brotherhood which may soon control the Egyptian government in future elections).

There has also been concern that Iran could ignite active discontent in the Islamic nations even further afield outside the Gulf and Middle East, in North Africa. Of course closer to home in the Gulf, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE there is concern that Iran could induce political change and dissidence, through the Shia populations and sympathizers, which would heavily influence matters in favor of Iran.

Geopolitical Considerations

The importance of the Gulf region for world oil supplies could not be overstated, for example:

In 2006, the Persian Gulf countries (Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) produced about 28 percent of the world's oil, while holding [more than half] … of the world's crude oil reserves. In 2006, the Persian Gulf countries combined exported … via the Strait of Hormuz … roughly one-fifth of world oil supply (EIA, 2007b).

Iranian leaders have said that Iran will block the Strait of Hormuz if significant political or military developments threaten their county – that would halt 20% of the world oil supplies all of which are exported through the Strait (Borger, 2008). The map below (Cole, 2008) shows the nations of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf chokepoint, the narrow strategically placed, yet vulnerable, Strait of Hormuz on the coast of Iran.

The Persian Gulf countries Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia are best positioned to be able to produce significant amounts of oil (before dwindling supplies set in) for on average the next 15 next years. Influence and good relations with this region for the other superpowers are vital for their continued supplies of oil.

It does appear that Iran and the Islamic PanArab States, several of them making up most of OPEC, may be generally much more embittered against the Christian West than they are against other peoples. History and current world events would suggest that there could be a looming civilization clash between European Christendom and the Islamic world which would put the Asian superpower in an advantageous position for trade with the OPEC countries, even with preferential treatment including the discounting of oil supplies.

The map below shows the geographic position and expanse of the three potential world superpowers which will vie for advantage in the crude oil market.

The following quote from Salman (2006) suggests that much of the future in developing relations with OPEC, may be outside the developed West (largely of Christendom) and towards the less developed, but high potential countries or blocs including Asia:

Given that developing countries will be responsible for most energy demand growth in the future, and given oil’s high energy concentration [in the Persian Gulf] and mobility, developing countries are the natural future partners of the big reserve holders [in the Gulf] on the producing side. The recent visit of the King of Saudi Arabia to China and India speaks for itself as an example of things to come in the dynamics and changes in the energy scene.

This has huge implications for access to reliable oil supplies at “favored” prices. It may even be that eventually those states without good relations with OPEC (a largely Islamic nations’ cartel), will not readily find reliable supplies of oil at any price, as OPEC uses oil as a devastating economic weapon, at least until their own supplies are critically low in another couple of decades. And as non-OPEC nations have rapidly falling oil supplies to export, OPEC is heading to be the world’s primary supplier – that is of much more than half the worlds dwindling oil in the imminent few years ahead. It could also be anticipated that OPEC will enjoy great civilizational power to wield its oil weapon for its own political agenda. (EIA, 2007a; Kerr and Service, 2005).

In the face of falling world oil supplies, Paul Roberts (2008) says, “We will face a post-oil future – a future that could be marked by recession and even war, as the … big oil importers jockey for access to secure oil resources”. And such conflict, considering the critical international context, could surely involve much of the world. The predicted trend in the dominance of OPEC it is argued will soon be manifest as OPEC begins to produce more than half of the world’s crude oil as non-OPEC production declines more rapidly (Duncan, 2000). Specifically it was forecasted that the world oil production peak would be reached in 2006, and a further prediction that around 2008 OPEC will begin to produce more oil than the rest of the world combined. Whenever this actually does happen, it will give these OPEC nations incredible “petropower”. Also it is interesting to note that both sources of oil, OPEC and non-OPEC, are predicted to have falling production, although OPEC is better off in this trend.

In all of this we could expect to see a greater voice of political Islamism coming from the Shia populations of the Gulf states. When that begins to appear, it may herald a growing and accelerating influence of Iranian Islamism over Shia populations, in the Gulf states, to influence their countries’ foreign oil policy. Iranian Islamism’s influence may also extend to other Islamic Arab states, for example, across North Africa. This potential Iranian international Islamist power bloc, as a bulwark against the West, may greatly influence OPEC oil policy, and steer its decision making, and so exacerbate these oil producers’ relations with the Western Christian world. Oil could become much more expensive for the west and even difficult to obtain, and particularly so if oil scarcity becomes a reoccurring problem in the looming world.

Concluding Comment

Soon oil may be used as a lethal economic and political weapon, and the greater the oil scarcity becomes, the sharper the oil weapon will be. Given that the looming world may be fragmented along civilizationl fault lines, the Islamic nations stretching from Morocco to Iraq, and specifically in the Persian Gulf, may be set to have more influence in world events than we would have typically considered possible a few decades ago. And if Islamism in general, and particularly Shia Islamiam, both with inspiration from Teheran, is the launch pad for this Islamic influence, it may be more assertive against the West, and more favorable to the East (Asia), than is generally anticipated.


Borger, J. (2008), Iran Opens New Naval Base at Mouth of Persian Gulf,, 29 October,

Cole, J. (2008), Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion, 31 May,

Duncan, R. (2000), The Peak of World Oil Production and the Road to the Olduvai Gorge, Geological Society of America, Summit, Reno, Nevada, 13 May,

EIA, Energy Information Administration, (2007a), World Proved Reserves of Oil and Natural Gas, Most Recent Estimates,

EIA, Energy Information Administration, (2007b), Persian Gulf Region, Background, June,

EIA, Energy Information Administration, (2008), World Crude Oil Production, 1997 to Present, 10 December,

El-Badri A. (OPEC Secretary General) (2008), Oil Outlook and Investment Challenges, Presentation, Nicosia Chamber of Commerce, 16 January.

Kerr, R, and Service, R. (2005), What Can Replace Cheap Oil – and When? Science, AAAS, July, 309(5731): 10.

OPEC Facts and Figures, (2007),

Pfeiffer, A. (2003), The End of the Oil Age, Centre for Research on Globalization, 30 July,

[The] Population of Shia, How Many Shia are there in the World?

Roberts, P. (2008), Tapped Out, National Geographic, June,

Salman, R. (2006), Skyrocketing Energy Prices – Cause and Implication, Views from the Middle East, World Energy Council Conference, Copenhagen, Denmark, February, 4,

Warren, M. (2008), The List: A Guide to Oil for Dummies, Houston Chronicle, 25 June,

Wikipedia, (2008), Demographics of Islam, 16 November,

James Leigh, PhD. CGeog. FRGS.
Assistant Professor Cultural Geography
University of Nicosia, Cyprus
Personal webpage:

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