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The Search for Oil in Yemen


Geological exploration of Yemen began in the 19th century but only gathered pace when Standard Oil of California gained an oil concession for eastern Arabia in 1933, triggering the interest of the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) in the region. IPC obtained an exploration licence for the Aden Protectorate in 1936. Early surveys were restricted by the ‘local objections’ of tribesmen. It was only after World War II that exploration began in earnest, with a series of IPC expeditions in southern Yemen between 1947 and 1960, which helped to establish the stratigraphic and regional geology. These early ventures epitomise the difficult conditions that oil explorers had to face in those days: a harsh environment, hostile tribes and rudimentary methods. An important figure is geologist Ziad Beydoun (1925–98), dubbed the “father of Yemeni geology”. As well as conducting a one-man survey of Socotra, Beydoun wrote extensively about the geology of south-western Arabia. In 1968, he co-authored a special report in which the geological nomenclature of the region was formalised. In 1994, the Geological Society of London awarded him the William Smith Medal for his “outstanding achievement in petroleum geology”. In the 1960s and 70s, the existence of some deep localised rift-related Jurassic basins was revealed. These were postulated to be associated with the breakup of the Gondwana supercontinent. The associated restricted basinal conditions had proved favourable for the development of good quality oil source rock. These in places had been buried sufficiently deeply to generate hydrocarbons which in turn had subsequently migrated into accessible reservoir rocks. Younger Tertiary rifts in the Gulf of Suez also proved interesting. In the early 80s, Hunt Oil instituted a seismic programme, predicated on aeromagnetic indications of a rift in the north-eastern part of North Yemen. Field surveys revealed Jurassic instability and the presence of petroliferous shales added significantly to the area's attraction. Based on an analysis of the seismic data, four prospects were drilled in the Ma'rib-Al Jawf Basin in 1984. Hydrocarbons were found in well-developed sands below a salt formation in three of those prospects. The Alif No. 1 well tested at 7,800 bopd, the first discovery of oil on a commercial scale. The future of oil exploration in Yemen is uncertain with a volatile political situation, but the region remains one of the most intriguing prospects of the Middle East.