Youngquist: the extraordinary geodestiny of Saudi Arabia and other gulf nations

Preface. I was fortunate enough to know Walter for 15 years. He became a friend and mentor, helping me learn to become a better science writer, and sending me material I might be interested in, and delightful pictures of him sitting in a lawn chair and feeding wild deer who weren’t afraid of him. I thought his book Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations and Individuals, published in 1997, was the best overview of energy and natural resources ever written, and encouraged him to write a second edition. He did try, but he spent so much time taking care of his ill wife, that he died before finishing it. I’ve made eight posts in Experts/Walter Youngquist of just a few topics from the version that was in progress when he died at 96 years old in 2018 (500 pages).

Other Youngquist Geodestinies Posts:

Alice Friedemann  author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy“, 2021, Springer; “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer; Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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The nations of the Gulf are Muslim countries, and all are Arab, except Iran. The national language of Iran is Persian or Farsi, with Kurdish, Turkic, and several other languages also spoken. Iran (named Persia until 1935) has long been a traditional enemy of the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula. For that reason, Saudi Arabia does not recognize the name Persian Gulf, but calls it the Arabian Gulf. I am told by geological colleagues who went to Saudi Arabia after its petroleum industry was launched, that one of their first tasks was to be sure that the term “Arabian Gulf ” appeared on all maps, not Persian Gulf.

The oil accumulation in the Gulf region has no world equal. It is truly extraordinary. The Gulf nations won the world oil sweepstakes!

The Gulf nations were endowed by geological events to have all these features on a huge scale. Saudi Arabia, the largest of these countries, got the largest amount of oil, and also was endowed with large structural upfolds in the Earth called anticlines. Oil in great quantities accumulated in these structures, which are easily discovered by surface mapping and by reflection seismograph methods. Because these oil traps are easy to find, exploration costs are low. Furthermore, the reservoir rocks are so porous and permeable that only a few wells can drain a large area. The result is that this area has the lowest production costs of any oil province, as low as two dollars a barrel

The future of our present petroleum-based industrial world will increasingly lie in the hands of the Gulf nations that geology endowed with 60 percent or more of the world’s remaining oil.

It was the GeoDestiny of these countries to become rich from petroleum. But since oil is finite, it is also GeoDestiny that these countries must eventually exist without the resource that made them rich. Beyond any other countries, the Persian Gulf nations demonstrate the vital role that Earth resources play in determining the course of nations and the lives of people…their GeoDestiny.


This is largely a desert country, with a land area equal to about a third that of the 48 adjacent United States. Ninety percent of it is too dry to be cultivated. In the past, it was a loose organization of tribes, many of which were desert nomads, together with some fishermen along the coast of the Gulf.

The first oil well was completed on March 3, 1938. By 1979, it produced more than 27 million barrels of oil and is still pumping today. At that time, the population of Saudi Arabia was approximately three million. It is now about 29 million.

Thanks to the immense wealth derived from oil, Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, grew in less than a century from a mud-wall city of no more than 20,000 people, to a metropolis of five million.

As late as 1954, Saudi Arabia had only 147 miles of paved roads. By 1986, Saudi Arabia had built more than 50,000 miles of pavement. The number of vehicles using these roads increased from 60,000 in 1970, to nearly four million in 2005.

Saudi Arabia came almost as far in 70 years in terms of its standard of living, and the use of modern technology and equipment, as the United States did in 300 years, or as the European nations did in thousands of years. In relative terms, the Saudis arrived in the modern world almost overnight,

It is true that money cannot buy happiness, but it can buy almost everything else.

Although Saudi Arabia has about 80 oil and gas fields, more than half its oil reserves are in eight fields including Ghawar, the world’s largest onshore field, which was discovered in 1948. Its remaining recoverable reserves are estimated at 70 billion barrels.

Some experts feel these reserve figures are too high.)

Whereas its population of today is expected to increase by nearly 70 percent by 2050, oil production by the Saudi’s own estimates cannot grow more than about 50 percent. Other estimates are for somewhat less (Duncan and Youngquist, 1999). Supporting 45 million people in 2050 will be a challenge because it is likely to be at or past the time when oil production begins to decline.

The rise in Saudi population has not been matched by employment opportunities. Unemployment is estimated to be as high as 35%, and this is having very negative effects. “Saudi Arabia’s deeply conservative Islamic society is coming to terms with a crime wave ushered in by a population boom, rapid social change, increased unemployment, and a reduction in oil revenue” (Bradley, 2005). Drug smuggling, theft, prostitution and murder, once rare in this Islamic state, are now becoming everyday events. Crime among young jobless Saudis rose 320% from 1990 to 1996 and is expected to increase.

Saudi royal family presides over the world’s largest and richest family business, and as previously noted, the country has been largely run as a family enterprise. At one time, each Saudi prince received a minimum monthly allowance of $20,000, even as the number of princes swelled to 6,000. To keep its increasingly restive society from upheaval, Saudi Arabia must pump all the oil it can sell without unduly depressing the price. But the demands of the generous social programs now in place, together with the rapidly rising population that receive these benefits, cannot be met by current oil revenues.

Reed and Rossant (1995) reported that: A population explosion has also helped sharply erode per capita gross domestic product from more than $12,000 in 1982 to little more than $7,000 today. Some 3 million Saudis, 44% of the labor force, work in the public sector where salaries have been frozen for almost a decade. This year, in a huge departure from traditional largesse, King Fahd is more than doubling the fees charged residents for electricity, water, and other services…. Such erosion of the desert welfare state sorely strains the paternalistic social contract between the ruling Al-Saud clan and the population.

In 2009, more than half the Saudi Arabian population was younger than 20 years old, and 42.6 percent were younger than 15. This portends a huge surge in population in the next two decades. It is very unlikely that Saudi Arabia’s oil income can increase to maintain the present standard of living for the projected population. The time when money was available for almost any social demand is past. Even the present generation sees that the time of subsidies, free services, and other elements of the affluence oil brought is coming to an end. This is having an unsettling effect. The unemployment rate among Saudi young people continues to rise. Disaffected youth are a fertile breeding ground for terrorism that has already reached Saudi Arabia (Waldman, 1995b; Waldman, et al., 1996). Saudi Arabia has long been among the most stable nations in the Middle East. But stability appears to be less certain in the future.

IRAN.   Even though Iran has additional areas for oil exploration, it appears that it passed its oil production peak in 1973 (Duncan and Youngquist, 1999), so even the current modest increase in population presents a standard of living challenge for the future.


Iraq’s oil reserves are estimated to be about 143 billion barrels, five times those of the United States. Unfortunately, much of Iraq’s excellent oil inheritance has been squandered in military misadventures. If Iraq can eventually unite the disparate ethnic and religious groups into a peaceful country, with a broadly stable civilian economy, the average Iraqi may yet benefit from their good geological fortune. Also in its favor is that Iraq has about 12% arable land, which is relatively good in the Gulf region. A negative is that, next to Saudi Arabia, Iraq has the highest annual natural population increase (2.5 percent) among the Gulf countries. The present population of 33 million is expected to reach 49 million in 2025, and 83 million in 2050 (Population Reference Bureau, 2011).

Because of Iraq’s difficulties getting back into production, with civil war raging at the time of this writing, and U. S. troops leaving, its projected oil peak in 2010 may be delayed a number of years.  A further positive factor is the possibility that Iraq’s undeveloped oil may be more than 200 billion barrels (Takin, 2004). Of all the Gulf nations, Iraq also appears to have the best prospects for more major oil discoveries.

KUWAIT.  This country is almost all desert. Agriculture is exceedingly limited with less than 10 square miles under cultivation. Almost all fresh water is obtained from desalinization plants dependent on local natural gas supplies for energy. Kuwait owes its existence almost entirely to oil and natural gas. Kuwait holds about nine percent of total world oil reserves including the second largest field in the world, the Burgan field discovered in 1938. It initially held an estimated 87 billion barrels of recoverable oil, but is now in decline with reserves estimated at less than 50 billion barrels.

One encouraging sign is that Kuwait’s natural population increase has declined from 2.7% in 1990 to 1.9% in 2003. However, even with this decrease, the present population of 2.8 million is expected to reach 3.7 million in 2025, and 5.2 million in 2050. Duncan and Youngquist (1999) projected a Kuwait oil production peak of 4.66 million barrels a day in 2018 with a 38% decline in production by 2040. Clearly these projected population and oil production figures are on a collision course as population grows and oil production declines.

OMAN has an area of about 81,000 square miles, approximately the size of the State of Kansas. Desert makes up approximately 82%, mountains 15%, and coastal plain about three percent of the land area.

Until the discovery of oil, Oman was the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula. As recently as 1970, it had only six miles of paved road (Range, 1995). A complete census has never been taken, but the population is estimated (2009) at about 3.1 million. Oman’s growth rate of 2.2 percent annually means the population will double in 32 years. Oman’s oil production appears to be slightly past its peak, but its gas production will peak considerably later.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES.  The total UAE area is somewhat uncertain due to disputed claims concerning some islands, but its land area is about 30,000 square miles, and stretches for about 300 miles along the southeastern end of the Persian Gulf. The UAE has estimated reserves of about 98 billion barrels, with a probable 41 billion barrels yet to be discovered.  The present population is 5.1 million and is estimated to reach 12.2 million by 2050. The projected peak year of oil production is 2017, the latest of all the Persian Gulf countries, except for Kuwait, estimated to be 2018 (Duncan and Youngquist, 1999).

Before the discovery of oil, the principal products of these emirates were fish and pearls. Arable land (0.48 percent) and fresh water resources is very limited. Income obtained for foreign trade was based on slaves who dove for pearls. The slave trade continued until 1945. Other occupations were mostly family or small enterprises, which hammered metals into pots, livestock herding, and limited date palm cultivation. A substantial part of the population was nomadic.  Oil dramatically changed their way of life. People began to work in the oil industry in various occupations. But the population was so small and unskilled that in order to take care of the rapidly developing petroleum economy, foreign workers had to be brought in. In 1993, the total population was estimated to be about two million. Of these, only about 12 percent were actually UAE citizens, and they constituted only about seven percent of the labor force.

QATAR is the second smallest country of the Persian Gulf nations, covering approximately 4,400 square miles.  It is controlled by a ruling family, the Al Thani. Qatar is a barren peninsula scorched by extreme summer heat. In addition to oil, Qatar sits atop the world’s largest-known gas field, the North Field, part of a large geologic gas-bearing structure shared with Iran. Initially, this was “stranded gas” — there was no way to export it. But with the technology to convert it to liquid natural gas that is shipped out by tanker and then allowed to warm up to a gas again at the receiving terminal, this gas is now in the world market.  Another advantage of possessing this huge gas field is the ability to use natural gas as the basic ingredient in the production of ammonia fertilizer, the world’s most widely used fertilizer. Seventy-five percent of state-owned Qatar Fertilizer Company is owned by Qatar Petroleum Company, while Norsk Hydro AS owns 25%. This is the world’s largest single-site urea producer, and also produces ammonia. This gas field and fertilizer production complex will be an increasingly valuable asset for many years to come. Qatar’s gas is also used locally to manufacture more than a half million tons of petrochemicals annually.


Beyond the internal strife, there is the broader problem of population growth. Thanks to the arrival of oil and gas money that brought sanitation, education, modern medicine, and the ability to both grow and import more food, and desalinate water, the populations of the countries bordering the Gulf have greatly increased. Subsidies of various kinds — for food, utilities, and housing — have been handed out so that the general population can have some share in the petroleum wealth. But as petroleum income gradually diminishes, painful adjustments will have to be made.

The demographics of the Gulf region present great challenges ahead. More than half the population is under the age of 25. In Saudi Arabia, 38 percent are younger than 15 years of age. The Gulf region will experience a huge population expansion. How can this oncoming wave of people be successfully accommodated without severe social disruptions? Oil income even now is not keeping pace with population growth. In Saudi Arabia, the per capita income in 1981 with oil at $15 a barrel was $28,600. Today with oil at about $90 a barrel, it is below $6,000. The House of Saud is politically vulnerable. The ever-expanding Saudi royal family now numbers 30,000, all of whom are supported by oil income. It is facing increasing criticism.

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