On Middle Eastern Oil Reserves

February 20, 2006

Reprinted from the February 20, 2006 edition of ASPO-USA’s Peak Oil Review (a free weekly newsletter)

It is now common knowledge that the lion’s share of remaining conventional oil reserves is concentrated in the Middle East (ME). All major reserves’ assessors agree on this crucial point, as shown in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Middle East’s share of global conventional oil reserves

Assessor Middle East’s share of worldwide oil reserves
Oil & Gas Journal (1) 57.5%
BP Statistical Review (2) 61.7%
Dr. Colin Campbell (3) 51.8%


[1] O&GJ, December 19, 2005 (for January 1, 2006).

[2] BP, June 2005 (through end of 2004).

[3] Dr. Campbell, fifth revision, February 2, 2005 (end of 2004).

If the above assessors generally agree on the ME’s predominant share, they tend to disagree on specific estimates of both global and ME reserves.
It goes without saying that when assaying ME oil reserves, one should tread carefully. Because, on the one hand, oil reserves’ estimation is both a science and an art; and, on the other hand, seen from the point of view of most ME countries, oil reserves are more political than geological. Thus, non-scientific views come to prime over science and further enhance the various types of shades that have led to an overall opaque situation in the Middle East.

Middle East Reserves

Focus here will be on the five major ME oil producing countries, the so-called ‘ME Five’ — namely: Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Four of the latest available estimates for these major producers are presented in Table 2.

Table 2. Remaining proved oil reserves for “ME Five,” according to the major assessors

Country Oil & Gas Journal [1] BP Statistical Review [2] Colin Campbell [3] Author’s range [4]
Iran 132.5 132.5 69.0 35-45
Iraq 115.0 115.0 61.0 80 – 100
Kuwait 101.5 99.0 54.0 45 – 55
Saudi Arabia 264.3 262.7 159.0 120 – 140
United Arab Emirates 97.7 97.8 44.0 40 – 50
TOTAL: 711.0 707.0 387.0 320 – 390


[1] & [2] As in Table 1.

[3] ASPO Newsletter #62, February 2006.

[4] February 2006.

Whereas O&GJ and BP mainly rely on published ‘official’ figures (which are usually bloated and highly political), Dr. Campbell has based his estimates upon geological evidence. Thus, he roughly cuts by half the ‘official’ figures. Overall, his estimates are the very best available worldwide and they proved their worth in my ‘World Oil Production Capacity’ (WOCAP) model.


In the special case of Kuwait, Dr. Campbell has lately been vindicated when Petroleum Intelligence Weekly (dated January 20) reported that a senior Kuwaiti oil official had hinted at national reserves of ‘only’ some 48 billion barrels [bnb] — in stark contrast to the official 99 bnb.
The fresh estimate came from adding up the following reserves:

  • Burgan field : 20 bnb
  • Northern fields : 17 bnb.
  • Western fields : 8.5 bnb.
  • Neutral Zone : 2.5 bnb [for 50% share].

Undoubtedly this halving of Kuwait reserves is a welcome revision, and all other ME producers should be encouraged to duly follow suit.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Arabian case has been masterfully exposed by Mr. Matthew Simmons in his “Twilight in the Desert” and Dr. Campbell’s 159 bnb estimate looks far more realistic than the official one of 260 bnb. My own opinion stands even lower than that — at roughly half the official figure.


As for Iran, the usually accepted official 132 bnb is almost one hundred bnb over any realistic assay. If the higher figure was for real, its oil industry would not be struggling day in and day out to keep output at between 3.0 and 3.5 million barrels per day (inclusive of Persian Gulf offshore).


To the contrary of my estimated range for Iran, which is lower than Dr. Campbell’s, the Iraqi one is markedly higher. The reasons behind this last divergence are twofold:
(1) The eleven Iraqi oil fields awaiting development spearheaded by the three supergiants of ‘Majnoun’, ‘West Qurna II’ and ‘Nahr Umar’.
(2) The almost untouched ‘Western Desert’ which could provide momentous surprises —based upon the ‘Golden Horseshoe’ theory I have written about in the Oil & Gas Journal (dated July 7, 2003).

Reserves’ Twilight

Notwithstanding the importance of conventional oil reserves, their days might now be numbered (both in the ME and elsewhere).

Oil reserve estimates were useful in the era before ‘Peak Oil’. But, in the aftermath of the mighty Peak (as, for example, in the present

‘Transition One’ period), they tend to become stale and rather useless, as field-by-field analysis and prediction takes over (eg., Ghawar, Cantarell).

So, it will not be long now before we will have to say goodbye to all these mesmerizing oil reserve figures and dump the whole reserves file into the all-encompassing ‘dustbin of history’…..

Dr. Samsam Bakhtiari is a senior expert with the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), with some 35 years experience in the international oil and gas industry. He is among the pioneers of the global ‘Peak Oil’ theory.

Tags: Fossil Fuels, Oil