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The "Syrian Sickness": What Crude Oil Gives, Crude Oil will Take Away

Here, I argue that the origins of the Syrian collapse are to be found in the economic downturn generated by the gradual depletion of the Syrian oil reserves. Crude oil had created modern Syria, crude oil has destroyed it. This phenomenon can be termed the "Syrian Sickness" and the question is: "which country will be affected next?"

Crude oil is a great source of wealth for the countries that possess it. But it is also a wealth that comes as a cycle. Normally, the cycle spans several decades, even more than a century, so that those who live through it may completely miss the fact that they are heading to an end of their wealth. But the cycle is faster and especially visible in those areas where the amount of oil is modest; there, wealth and misery appear one after the other in a dramatic series of events.

One of these rapid cycles of growth and decline is that of Syria. It is a country that never became a major world producer, its maximum output was less than 1% of the world's total production when it peaked, around 1995. (graph below, from Gail Tverberg's blog). For the small Syrian economy, however, even this limited amount was important.

The Syrian oil production went through its cycle over little more than three decades. Depletion generated progressively higher production costs and that led to a scarcity of capital investments to keep production increasing, eventually forcing it to decline. The result was the "bell shaped" production curve that is often called the "Hubbert curve". Around 2011, the internal consumption curve crossed the production curve and that transformed the country from an oil exporter to an oil importer. The cross-over point corresponded to the start of the civil war.

The IMF data show that the Syrian government's budget was still 25% dependent on oil in 2010. Data on what it was earlier on are hard to find, but it is clear that it must have been much larger. It may well be that, at the time of the peak, most of the government's revenues came from oil. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that the complete loss of these revenues generated a big turmoil.

So, we can build up a narrative of what happened in Syria after the peak. With progressively lower oil revenues, the government was less and less able to afford the bureaucracy and the social services it used to provide. Gradually, it became also unable to afford an efficient police force and a functioning army. The middle class, that had been strongly dependent on the government's handouts, was badly hit. The most educated and wealthy ones left the country or, at least, moved their financial assets abroad. Those who were forced to remain saw their assets destroyed by hyperinflation and became an impoverished urban proletariat. At the same time, the countryside also went through an economic disaster, enhanced by the droughts created by climate change. At this point, a large number of young men, unemployed and without hope for the future, become cannon fodder for religious fanatics and for local warlords, often paid by foreign powers interested in carving out the country in pieces to be distributed among themselves. The destruction of whatever was left was also helped by economic sanction and aerial bombardments. The final result is what we see: the "Syrian Sickness." A nearly terminal form of social sickness; it is hard to imagine when and how Syria will be able to recover even a shade of its former wealth and stability.

The factors that led to the Syrian disaster are by no means limited to Syria alone. Yemen went through a nearly identical cycle; going through the peak its oil production in 2002 at levels smaller than those of Syria, but probably even more important for the local economy. The cross-over point of the production and consumption curves took place in 2013 and, like Syria, the country is at present being destroyed by civil war and aerial bombardments.  (image from "crudeoilpeak")

There are several other examples of minor oil producers that went through similar cycles. Egypt, for instance, experienced the cross-over of production and consumption in 2010, experiencing a phase of dramatic civil unrest. Egypt, however, did not collapse; most likely because the importance of oil in its economy was not as large as it was for Syria. Other examples of countries that experienced the cross-over are Malaysia and Indonesia, also undergoing internal troubles, but no generalized collapse. No country is completely immune to the Syrian sickness, but some are less sensitive to it. So, some oil producers, such as the United Kingdom went through the cross-over point without suffering evident disasters; but the dependency of the UK government on crude oil was only 2% in 2011.

At this point, the question is obvious: given the known cases of Syrian Sickness, given that depletion is unavoidable, which country is next in line?

There are several candidates for a future crossover of production and consumption, but none seems to be very close to it. Venezuela, Iran, and Mexico may be the producers most at risk; but the critical moment may still be several years away in the future. But the most interesting and worrisome case is that of Saudi Arabia. The data shown below are from Mazamascience. Most producers of the Arabian peninsula (with the exception of Yemen) show a similar pattern.

You see that, despite the rapid increase in internal consumption, Saudi Arabia is still able to export about two thirds of its production. But how about the future? Of course, extrapolations are always dangerous, but it doesn't seem that the production and consumption curves are destined to cross each other very soon. Hence, the country might still have at least a couple of decades of substantial oil export revenues. The problem is that the Saudi economy is heavily dependent on oil: 90% of the government revenues come from oil. So, Saudi Arabia may not need to go through the cross-over point to start experiencing troubles. Consider that it is nearly completely dependent on imports for the food its population consumes, and that the trend is worsening because of the depletion of local aquifers. You can imagine what the problem could become in case of a substantial loss of financial resources coming from crude oil. If Saudi Arabia starts suffering of the Syrian Sickness, the result disaster may make the Syrian collapse look like a children's game.

Is there any hope for Saudi Arabia or any other producing country to avoid the Syrian Sickness? There are several ways to postpone or reverse the decline of oil production if sufficient financial resources are available. However, these are just stopgap measures: depletion is an irreversible process. A country can only prepare for it by building an alternative economic infrastructure while it is still possible; an opportunity that was missed in Syria. Today, Saudi Arabia doesn't lack the financial resource for massive investments in renewable energy, that would provide an alternative to the collapse created by depletion. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that these investments are being made, with the Saudi government preferring to engage in expensive military power games. That's a bad idea not only for Saudi Arabia, but for the whole world: with more than 10% of the world's oil consumption provided by producers in the Arabian Peninsula, you can imagine what might happen if the region falls victim of the Syrian Sickness.

Crude oil has given a lot to Saudi Arabia, crude oil can take back a lot from it. But there is something that crude oil can never provide, and that is the wisdom necessary to manage it well.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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