Let's try to take the measure of what exactly is at risk in the current tumult. As a start, there is almost no way to give full justice to the critical role played by Middle Eastern oil in the world's energy equation. Although cheap coal fueled the original Industrial Revolution, powering railroads, steamships, and factories, cheap oil has made possible the automobile, the aviation industry, suburbia, mechanized agriculture, and an explosion of economic globalization. And while a handful of major oil-producing areas launched the Petroleum Age -- the United States, Mexico, Venezuela, Romania, the area around Baku (in what was then the Czarist Russian empire), and the Dutch East Indies -- it's been the Middle East that has quenched the world's thirst for oil since World War II.
In 2009, the most recent year for which such data is available, BP reported that suppliers in the Middle East and North Africa jointly produced 29 million barrels per day, or 36% of the world's total oil supply -- and even this doesn't begin to suggest the region's importance to the petroleum economy. More than any other area, the Middle East has funneled its production into export markets to satisfy the energy cravings of oil-importing powers like the United States, China, Japan, and the European Union (EU). We're talking 20 million barrels funneled into export markets every day. Compare that to Russia, the world's top individual producer, at seven million barrels in exportable oil, the continent of Africa at six million, and South America at a mere one million.
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