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The Middle East is restless due to political troubles

The upheavals that began in late 2010 have not yet played out, leaving the world's most important oil-producing region on edge

Two and a half years after the fall of Egypt's dictator Hosni Mubarak, the crowds are back in Tahrir Square.

In early July, at least 1 million protestors swarmed Cairo's streets, demanding the resignation of President Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government. In the background, the army was threatening once again to impose its own kind of order on the country. Egypt's deep state may have decided that the experiment with people power is over.

Egypt's large population and cultural influence mean events there will ripple across the Middle East, as they did in 2011 when the Middle East and North Africa's upheavals, which first began in Tunisia, gained momentum in Cairo.

Under pressure

This time, the unrest probably will not be greeted with the same optimism. If the upheavals in the Arab world were ever about democracy and freedom - the rosy view taken by many in Western media at the time - that interpretation has taken a pasting in the past two years.

Next door, Libya is in chaos. Its oil industry, critical not just to the country's economy but to global oil markets, too, is now feeling the impact, as protests shut in output, expansion plans are inevitably put on ice and foreign investors shy away. In Syria, a bloody civil war drags on into its third year, with little hope of a speedy end.

Its refugees have streamed across the border into Iraq, where terrorists, sectarians and an increasingly authoritarian government are taking the country closer to another war. Iraqi oil exports fell again in June, dipping to their lowest level since early 2012.

Prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki's government is in trouble and despite upstream successes in the past two years, hopes for rapid growth in hydrocarbons output in the next two years - to 4.5m barrels a day (b/d), a 45% rise - look overly optimistic. The very unity of the country is under threat. Algeria, Jordan and Iran, all of which, for different reasons, avoided the kind of mass protests that brought down governments elsewhere in the region are struggling, too.

Algeria's upstream needs revitalising. But the deadly terrorist attack at In Amenas in January has frightened investors, who were already wary of the country's punishing contractual terms.

Jordan, like Egypt, faces an energy crunch that threatens to put more pressure on the Hashemite ruling family.

Embargo

Iran, wilting under a punishing international oil embargo, offers glimmers of hope, thanks to the surprising election of Hassan Rohani as the country's new president.

But his apparently moderate stance will, in the end, only bring sanctions relief if the US Congress is convinced that Iran is backing away from a nuclear programme its leaders believe is their inalienable right to develop. Bringing Iran in from the cold would rescue its struggling oil and gas sector and send more than 1m b/d of crude into global markets. But don't hold your breath.

With so much disruption in the Middle East and North Africa since 2011 - it has seen two bloody civil wars, the spread of Al Qaeda, bloody civil unrest in Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq, attacks on foreign diplomats and businessmen, and the overthrow of four governments - it is astonishing that the world's most important energy-producing region has been able to keep the oil flowing.

This is almost entirely thanks to the actions of the Gulf's big producers, especially Saudi Arabia. In 2008, as oil prices soared to their record-busting peak, many doubted the kingdom's ability any longer to act as a swing producer, plugging gaps when needed.

The past two years have ended those doubts. Saudi Arabia, with some help from other Gulf states and incremental supplies from Iraq, has helped the world cope with the loss of Libyan, Iranian, Yemeni, and Syrian crude. Along the way, these producers have been rewarded handsomely for their efforts, as oil prices, buoyed by the unrest, have remained high.

Click here to view events and oil timeline.

This year, the Saudi finance ministry expects national income will come in at 1.24 trillion riyals ($331bn) - 92% of which will be receipts from oil.

However, relying on the kingdom and its Gulf neighbours to keep the unrest elsewhere in the region from spiking oil markets and damaging an already-weak global economy is hardly a comforting thought.

As Robin Mills writes in our survey of the Middle East after the uprisings, each of the Gulf countries faces thorny economic problems, not least their profligate spending and consumption of energy.

Each of them, in varying degrees, must also keep at bay Islamist and restive minorities. This was obvious when Saudi military streamed across the causeway to Bahrain in March 2011 to quell a largely Shia uprising on the island.

Saudi security services have long been clamping down on such dissidents in the kingdom's oil-rich Eastern Province.

Nor are the Gulf states innocent bystanders elsewhere in the region. Qatar's funding of Muslim Brotherhood groups from Libya to Syria, and the relentless coverage of the uprisings by its TV network, Al Jazeera, has fanned the flames of the unrest. Others in the Gulf have backed Salafists and other more hardline Islamists, even while they fear those groups at home.

Worst of all for the stability of the oil market is that change could also come soon to the shiny cities of the Gulf. Qatar surprised many commentators in June when the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, abdicated, handing power to his 33-year old son, Tamim. No one knows how that will turn out. The young ruler has little experience and his father's powerful prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim, who was the force behind the country's adventurism around the region, is gone, too.

The new rulers can start by revising Qatar's natural gas marketing strategy, which has grown inflexibly reliant on securing high prices for exported liquefied natural gas, despite the shift in global gas market fundamentals everywhere.

Peaceful transition

But the peaceful transition of power - if it lasts - will stand out as an example to other Gulf monarchies, where dynastic succession is unlikely to be anything like as neat. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah is old and, by many accounts, frail, so the testing moment for the kingdom may come soon.

Meanwhile, demographic and social trends underway in the Middle East, and especially the Gulf, pose another risk. Large, fast-growing populations need jobs and increasingly want freedoms that their theocratic or plutocratic rulers presently don't offer.

Despite Saudi Arabia's vast oil fortune, 40% of the population live on less than $850 a month; one of every three people in the kingdom is a foreigner; and two of every three jobs is held by foreigners, who account for 90% of the private-sector workforce.

As Karen Elliott House wrote in a brilliant book on the kingdom (On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future), it is not unimaginable that Saudi Arabia's deep tribal, regional and religious divisions will erupt into conflict: "Libya writ large."

That isn't imminent. But nor, in a region that supplies 30% of the world's oil, is stability.

The latest upheavals in Egypt show that the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa is far from over. If the uprisings of 2011 were the first phase of a big regional transition, and the civil wars of Libya and Syria their second, new and equally dangerous phases could be on their way. 

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