How an Arab oil field operates
Das Island, United Arab Emirates — From 6,000 feet up, a Gulf oil field doesn't look like much: A few scattered drill rigs, each capped by a flat helicopter pad. The occasional larger structure, with pumps and electronic wizardry controlling the extraction of crude. Some small boats plying between the wellheads, trailing their white wakes through the blue of the Gulf waters.
Such an oil field in Zakum, which this correspondnet flew over to come here to Das. Every day, Zakum field and its sister, Umm Shaif, each pump 250,000 barrels of crude to Das. Here a tangle of towers, tanks, and tubes stabilize the oil, leaving it ready for export to world markets.
That adds up to half a million barrels per day (b.p.d.), 85 percent of it going to Japan, the rest to West Europe and India. Revenue generated from exports of crude and the liquefied gases released during stabilization amounts to nearly $17 million a day -- or almost $200 each second as I stand talking to the Das manager, Ken Allison.
Das Island clearly is one of the key installations referred to by President Carter when he defined the Gulf region as "strategically vital to the West," and security here is formidable. Access is by company-controlled charter plane from Abu Dhabi airport after a tortuous process of security permits has been negotiated or through the small harbor on the island.
When we toured the harbor, ragged fishermen were landing the catch they contract to supply daily to the island's 4,000 residents, and a few traditional Gulf dhows were bringing in other supplies. No harbor officials were evident, but Dr. Allison assured me they were on constant guard.
Eighty policemen are stationed on the less-than-one-square-mile island, along with officers from the special "oil protection unit."
But to an outsider, the island still looks awfully vulnerable. One Japanese gas carrier waits out at sea as another loads up at the gas jetty. A Japanese crude-carrier meanwhile is loading at the offshore oil mooring, which can accommodate tankers up to 330,000 tons, Dr. Allison, a British scientist, says.
Small groups of Indian laborers make their way between the island's congested residential, industrial, and leisure facilities.
The multiplicity of nationalities working here is one factor making internal security difficult. Only about 10 percent of Das's all-male population are nationals of the Emirates. The rest are made up of 35 percent other Arabs, 10 percent each of Britons and Iranians, 5 percent Somalis, and the rest indians.
Government policy of "Emiratizing" the staff of key installations is earnestly followed here, but is hampered by the small size of the entire Emirati population, and by the many attractions of life back home for Emiratis.
As a result, Egyptians, and Palestinians occupy many key posts in the island's two major installations.
Speaking in his brand-new headquarters office overlooking the crude mooring (many of the 4,000 workers here are employed in upgrading the island's facilities), Dr. Allison explains that production levels at oil fields within the Emirate of Abu Dhabi are within narrow bands decreed by the Abu Dhabi petroleum department.
Zakum and Umm Shaif fields could produce more than 250,000 b.p.d., he says, but the petroleum department's conservation policy limits them to that average. With the new desalting and dehydration processes under construction on Das, the existing complex of facilities could maintain the current level of pumping till the end of the century. Dr. Allison reports.
But he says the petroleum department at any stage could restrict the pumping to below present levels.
Back in Abu Dhabi, the petroleum department chief and oil minister for the whole United Arab Emirates, Mana al-Otaiba, earlier had given warning that this might well happen.
"I think world oil production is now around 2 or 3 million b.p.d. over world market needs," he told a group of foreign journalists.
"We will keep our present production level of 1.7 million b.p.d. until the end of the year," Dr. Otaiba said. "But after that we could even reduce it if world production remains too high."
Dr. Otaiba's warning came in the context of mounting pressure for reduced production levels within several oil-exporting states, including giant neigbor Saudi Arabia.
Here on Das Island, the concerns are much more mundane. A new sewage system is being installed before the summer heat sets in. A few British expatriates gather in a British-style pub for a spot of lunch. An off-duty shift worker negotiates the 13-hole golf course that winds between the industrial and residential ends of the island.
And a new mosque is being built to accommodate at least one of the numerous Muslim mullahs (teachers) who, Dr. Allison says, keep springing up among the island's population.