Although Yemen is a single country today, it once consisted of three separate political entities.
- There was Yemen proper, an ancient country once under Turkish rule that became an independent country and was ruled by a succession of imams after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.
- The second element was the colony of Aden, established by the British in 1837 as a coaling station for the London-to-India route via Suez. Aden also would become an important military base until the British withdrew in 1967.
- The third element was the southeastern hinterland known as the Aden Protectorate, a loose conglomeration of small emirates.
‘There Is No Oil in Arabia’
The territory’s first geological survey took place aboard the HMS Palinurus in 1862, when Henry Carter of the Geological Survey of India made a series of observations of the coastline; but the region was rarely visited and was considered as a poor oil prospect in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Indeed, geologists were pessimistic about finding oil anywhere on the Arabian Peninsula, leading a Shell geologist to remark, “there is no oil in Arabia.”
In comparison with Iraq and Iran, Arabia had few oil seepages and its geology did not appear to reflect the oil-bearing structures of those oil-rich countries. And yet in 1921 rumors of oil seepages in Yemen led the British officials to report that there was evidence of petroleum at several points in the interior of the country.
Among those who believed that the region was worth investigating, the Qu’aiti Sultan of Mukalla and Ash Shihr on the southern coast showed a keen interest.
This resulted in surveys around the port of Al-Mukalla – in 1918, geologists Beeby Thomson and John Ball reported on coal and oil “prospects,” and in the following year Dr. O.H. Little of the Geological Survey of Egypt described the stratigraphic and paleontological features of the area.
Indeed, even Shell discussed a concession for Ash Shihr, only for their partners in the Turkish Petroleum Co. (the forerunner of IPC) to rule it out.
Attitudes changed in 1932, when BAPCO struck oil on Bahrain Island and Standard Oil of California acquired the oil concession for eastern Arabia a year later. A British-led consortium, the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), took an interest in Qatar, the Trucial Coast (today’s UAE), Oman and Yemen as part of an overall strategy to pre-empt American oil companies from obtaining concessions themselves.
In 1936 an associate company of IPC, Petroleum Concessions Ltd., obtained an exploration permit for the Aden Protectorates.
In 1937, an IPC survey party working in neighboring Saudi Arabia obtained the imam’s permission to survey to the north of Hodeida, but the results were unpromising.
In1938, geologists Pike and Wofford conducted aerial surveys for PCL. They also did some structural mapping of the Hadhramaut and around Al-Mukalla – but otherwise, tribal disturbances prevented full access to the territory.
Sultans, Siyarra and Surveys
The geographical challenges faced by the early geologists were formidable.
Yemen itself is largely a mountainous country, edging the great sand desert of the Rub al-Khali and fringed by the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. It also includes a number of islands, of which Socotra is the largest.
From a modern satellite picture, the most prominent feature visible is the Hadhramaut, a deep and wide river valley that was of immediate interest to geologists because they could easily access the rock formations that were exposed in its flanks.
In the early days of exploration, geologists had to rely on local transport (in other words, camels) to visit the remoter areas.
Local tribesmen provided security in the form of the siyarra system, whereby a tribe would provide a token number of escorts to guarantee safe passage through their tribal lands. To pay for this service, the geologists would use Maria Theresa dollars – a silver coin minted in Arabia that was derived from the eighteenth century Austrian thaler and used as a form of local currency well into the modern age.
In 1947, two IPC geologists – D.M. “Mike” Morton and René Wetzel – plus a doctor and wireless operator arrived in Aden with liaison officer Maj. Tony “Tadeus” Altounyan, who acted as interpreter and guide. They travelled in a wide circle through the heart of Mahra country before returning to the coast along the Wadi Masila.
Geological mapping was based on astro-fixes, and plane table mapping and rangefinders were used. The task was to gain enough knowledge of the stratigraphy and structure of the area in order to evaluate the local oil possibilities, and to form a broader view of conditions in the region as a whole.
They carried out detailed studies of the stratigraphy, which was accessed along the sides of deeply cut gorges and coastal cliffs. Their work would provide a valuable foundation for future investigations.
‘The Closer the Bullets …’
In late 1949, the appearance of an IPC survey party in the western protectorate triggered great excitement in neighboring Yemen.
News of the party’s arrival quickly spread – and a Yemeni radio station announced that a Nasrani invasion was under way.
In the field, driving along the dusty camel tracks, the geologists – isolated from the diplomatic storm that was gathering over the border – could do little more than tap the rocks and hope for the best.
They visited Shabwa and arrived at Beihan al-Qasab in November. Here they were met by the traditional feu de joie when rifles were fired in the air in welcome.
“The closer the bullets, the greater the affection,” observed one of the geologists.
Perhaps encouraged by stories of oil wealth emanating from Saudi Arabia, the Emir of Beihan and his entourage took a close interest in the geologists’ work, accompanying them on their outings.
However, Beihan’s granite surroundings did not offer an extensive work program and, after a brief tour, the survey party visited a salt mine at Leyadim. Here they witnessed an activity that dated back to ancient times: workers chipping away lumps of salt from the rock face and packing them into bags for camel caravans to transport elsewhere.
The geologists also visited a reporteded oil seepage exposed by an RAF bombing mission against the tribes the previous year. A salt mine hit by a bomb had given off an unpleasant and persistent smell, which the British authorities thought might have been a “gusher” of oil, but the geologists dismissed it as oil prospect.
In fact, the hinterland generally lacked enough rock exposures to justify further geological work, yet left open the possibility of geophysical surveys around the northern border.
Although the imam across the border in Yemen continued to denounce the foreign “incursion,” IPC carried on investigating the Aden Protectorate for several more years.
In 1953, Mike Morton established a geological base near the Bedouin well at Thamud. Ziad Beydoun led a series of geological surveys, which were complemented by geophysical surveys. Between 1953 and 1959, there were four seasons of gravity surveys and an airborne magnetometer survey, followed by a short seismic survey in April 1960.
Beydoun achieved many things – as well as conducting a one-man survey of Socotra, he wrote extensively about the geology of southwestern Arabia. In 1968, he co-authored a special report in which the geological nomenclature of the region was formalized. In 1994 the Geological Society of London awarded him the William Smith Medal for his “outstanding achievement in petroleum geology.”
He remarked light-heartedly that it was good to receive the award while he was still alive.
Also in recognition of his achievements, the AAPG created the Ziad Beydoun Memorial Award in his honor, presented annually to the author(s) of the best AAPG poster session paper presented at the AAPG International Conference and Exhibition.
Abandoned in the Sands
This was a time when borders – and therefore, concession areas – were ill defined, and this could and did lead to misunderstandings.
There were rumors of Aramco survey parties pressing further south in the Rub al-Khali towards the Aden Protectorate. In October 1955, a patrol of Arab levies led by a British officer challenged an Aramco party, claiming it was trespassing. After a brief contretemps, the party abandoned its camp and left its mobile rigs in the desert.
The equipment remained in situ for many years and provided a popular tourist attraction for visiting IPC geologists.
And the episode also had a humanitarian aspect – an abandoned bulldozer from the camp later found its way to the Hadhramaut Valley for use in irrigation projects there.
Although IPC geologists laid the foundations for later exploration, the company’s search for oil in southwest Arabia was ultimately fruitless.
In 1960 the company relinquished its concession areas. The low price of crude oil had made exploration of peripheral areas less attractive, and the IPC partners had decided to develop their interests elsewhere in the Middle East.
The two American partners had joined Aramco in Saudi Arabia, and IPC itself was on the verge of finding oil in Abu Dhabi.
The Discovery of Oil
By the mid 1960s, with the Trucial Coast and Oman producing oil, Yemen became the final frontier of Arabian oil exploration.
In time, exploration would reveal the existence of some deep localized rift-related Jurassic basins linked to the breakup of the Gondwana supercontinent. The associated restricted basinal conditions had produced good quality oil source rock that was buried deeply enough to generate hydrocarbons, which in turn had migrated into accessible reservoir rocks.
Younger Tertiary rifts in the Gulf of Suez also proved of interest to geologists, as did the NW-SE trending grabens that continue to the coast and across the rifted Gulf of Aden to northern Somalia, thus providing a geological link between Arabia and Africa.
The search for these hydrocarbons was a lengthy one.
In 1961, amid much local excitement, the Mecom group spudded in a wildcat well at Salif, a coastal town north of Hodeida. In 1964, Pan American (Amoco) drilled a number of dry holes in the Aden Protectorate.
In the later 1970s, Shell carried out a drilling program along the Red Sea shore. Algerian and Russian groups also showed an interest, with the latter making some promising findings in the Shabwa area.
In 1982, the Italian firm Agip made a marginal offshore discovery some 170 kilometers ENE of Mukalla. But, in the event, none of these efforts uncovered oil on a commercial scale.
The breakthrough came in the early 1980s, after Hunt Oil had instituted a seismic program. This was at the instigation of Syrian geophysicist Moujib al-Malazi, and predicated on aeromagnetic indications of a rift in the northeastern part of North Yemen.
Field indications of Jurassic instability, together with the presence of petroliferous shales, added significantly to the area’s attraction.
Based on al-Malazi’s 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 commercial oil.
Since Beydoun’s outcrop studies had described Jurassic outcrops on the western flank of the Al-Mukalla high, there was a good possibility that the Jurassic rifting extended farther to the east. This prompted CanadianOxy and its original partner, Consolidated Contractors International, to acquire the 37,200-square-kilometer Masila Block.
In 1991, the existence of a second petroleum basin, the Masila-Jeza basin, was confirmed when CanadianOxy struck oil at Sunah No. 1.
This was soon followed by more discoveries at Heijah, Camaal and Hemiar.
Yemen had proven oil reserves of around three billion barrels as of Jan. 1, 2014, and petroleum accounted for roughly 25 percent of GDP and 63 percent of government revenue.
However, the country’s infrastructure – particularly its pipelines – has suffered from sabotage, leading to serious interruptions to the flow of oil.
Piracy has curtailed offshore activity.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that Yemen’s crude oil production has dropped from a high of 440,000 bbl/d in 2001 to about 100,000 bbl/d in March 2014.
With a difficult political situation – and little prospect of stability in the near term – the immediate future of the oil exploration in the country looks uncertain.