What is the single most important business or trade issue that pertains to the Middle East?
Throughout the 20th Century, there is no question that oil was the most important commodity in the Middle East. With the industrial revolution, the importance of fossil fuels to provide essential lubricants for machinery and fuel for engines became paramount to all developing economies. Access to oil deposits was a major factor in the foreign policy calculations of all the great powers.
The end of World War II meant the end of the colonization as it had been practiced by countries like Great Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, and the Netherlands. The ascent of the Soviet Union to great power status following the defeat of Nazi Germany produced a potentially powerful ally for independence movements throughout the developing world. Combined with the decline of the colonial powers that resulted from the physical and financial destruction caused by the war, major oil producing countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran now found themselves in more favorable positions relative to their former colonial masters.
Recognizing their newfound importance, yet riven by internal divisions, the oil producing countries established their own cartel, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which would enable the member countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Venezuela, Qatar, Algeria, and others) to control the world's most important commodity. OPEC provided these countries the ability to establish the price of oil through control of the amount produced for export.
By the end of the 20th Century, natural gas deposits began to gain the kind of cachet previously held only by oil. With some of the world's largest natural gas deposits residing in the Middle East, especially in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar and in Iran, there is now increased attention focused globally on that commodity.
Recognizing that oil deposits will eventually dry up, Saudi Arabia in particular is investing hundreds of billions of dollars in alternative means of providing wealth. One such example is the creation of new cities on both the Persian Gulf and Red Sea coasts. These cities are intended to provide industrial capabilities that will enable the kingdom to survive the end of its oil reserves.