COMMENTARY:

TH*NK*NG ARABIA

by Fred Cederholm

There are growing concerns as to the long term viability of the Ghawar field given the vast and increasing volume of seawater injection required to maintain the current and increasing levels of output.
I’ve been thinking about Arabia. Actually I’ve been thinking about T.E. Lawrence, Oxford, Ghawar, King Fahd, and transitions. The recent death of King Fahd has stepped up the spotlight intensity on the Middle East - as if we needed any other reason for our geopolitical concerns there. If Arab oil interests sneeze, the world’s economies go on life support red alert!

You see, the Saudi’s provide 25% of the world’s oil and 55-60% of THAT is drawn from the Ghawar field alone. So much depends on the free flow of cheap oil. And yet, how much does the consuming public know, much less comprehend or even care about the Arab world—their culture, their religion, or their agendas—as long as the oil flows and the tanks are full? Were it not for their oil reserves and wealth afforded by it, would the West really care what happens there?

I confess that my initial exposure to the Arab world came via the 1962 film "Lawrence of Arabia." The American commentator Lowell Thomas had introduced Lawrence to the West via his 1924 book, With Lawrence in Arabia, and his narration of the Movietone Newsreels, but it was Thomas Edward Lawrence, himself, who really introduced the West to the pre-oil Arabia.

Lawrence knew the West was using the Arab tribes to defeat the Ottoman enemy and would betray them and then renege on all promises made to them. How different the Middle East would be had Lawrence’s vision materialized!

His epic Seven Pillars of Wisdom (the complete 1922 edition) remains perhaps the most insightful book by a westerner regarding the Arab revolt, Arab culture, and Arab philosophy. Lawrence saw the only solution to the ongoing chaos in the Middle East coming when freedom/ autonomy amongst the nomadic factions had evolved. He knew the West was using the Arab tribes to defeat the Ottoman enemy and would betray them and then renege on all promises made to them. How different the Middle East would be had Lawrence’s vision materialized!

My first personal contact with Saudi individuals came when I was attending Exeter College, Oxford in 1972 and 1973. I found them to be savvy/ intelligent, articulate, highly educated, and very private. Some had traveled with a companion/ protector/ servant, and I suspected those had royal connections. In one conversation at dinner, my pronunciation was corrected when I inquired about "sheik status." I was told that it was actually quite "chic" to be a "shake." There was laughter, but I have never made that mistake in pronunciation again.

I frequently took pre-dawn runs/jogs through Oxford. The first light of day gives the tan Cotswold limestone of the buildings the most incredible pinkish coloration. Upon returning to college, I’d shower in the locker room area beneath Stapleton Tower. Once I walked in on a Saudi personage as he was being groomed/ shaved by his white-gloved gentleman’s gentleman who was using a straight razor! All were startled, but there was no injury – and nothing was said.

Days later, the "shaver" summoned me to join the "shavee" for a private tea – he hadn’t been out since that encounter. My discretion and silence regarding the event witnessed was acknowledged and appreciated, but I was also informed that in his country I COULD have been blinded for what I observed. These incidents have made me both respectful and wary of Saudi’s.

Saudi Arabia's estimated oil reserves stand at well over 250 billion barrels with the largest onshore field being Ghawar and the largest offshore field, Safaniya, being in the Arabian Gulf. This gives them major global standing as the world looks to the Saudi oil production to pick up any slack and fill in any shortfalls. There are growing concerns as to the long term viability of the Ghawar field given the vast and increasing volume of seawater injection required to maintain the current and increasing levels of output. Has the world’s richest oilfield peaked?

Because the Saudi’s provide so much oil for the rest of the planet that gives Uncle $ugar the erroneous presumption that US/us is thereby entitled to suck up the lion’s share of the petro exports of Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela. The growing economies and prosperity of India and China and their escalating oil needs will heighten competition for this hemisphere’s oil reserves.

Thus far, the transition from King Fahd to King Abdullah has gone without any hitches. The signals from Arabia suggest that the policies, procedures, and production will continue. Abdullah has been functioning as the monarch since Fahd’s stroke 10 years ago. Fahd was 84, and Abdullah is 81. I’m Fred Cederholm and I’ve been thinking. You should be thinking, too.


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This story was published on August 4, 2005.