The Egyptian oil industry, profiting from current world prices, has blossomed almost unnoticed into a major asset of the struggling economy and a vital guarantee against political pressure by President Anwar Sadat's Arab opponents.
Oil production, concentrated in the Gulf of Suez, is expected to bring Egypt more tnat $1 billion in hard-currency profits this year -- up 50 percent from last year's level -- while supplying the petroleum needs of Egypt's 40 million inhabitants, analysts here say.
Without these revenues, Egypt would find it substantially more difficult to keep its head above economic waters in the face of an Arab boycott. Moreover, Sadat's maneuvering room in his peace accords with Israel would be severely restricted if he had to rely on Arab oil powers such as Saudi Arabia for Egypt's requirements.
"If we didn't have our own oil, we would really be in a mess right now," said Mohid Abd, director of Egypt's Gulf Petroleum Co. handling Suez production. "Even if we had the money to buy oil, the Arab countries would have cut us off because of the boycott."
Development since the late 1960s and particularly since Sadat took power in 1970 increasingly is coming to bloom, however, and return of the Israeli-occupied Abu Rudeiss fields in 1975 combined with increased Gulf of Suez production have brought the current production to more than 500,000 barrels a day.
While small compared to Saudi Arabia's 9.5 million barrels a day, this still makes Egypt the second-largest Third World oil producer outside the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, behind Mexico. Egypt's oil production surpasses that of some OPEC members, such as Gabon and Ecuador.
Egyptian government forcasters and foreign analysts predict production will reach a million barrels a day by the mid-1980s. There are indications that the desolate area east of the Alma oil fields -- developed by Israel and scheduled for return next month -- promises more reserves that could boost production sharply.
The major reason for the swift rise to profitability is the steep climb of world oil prices. In addition to increases decreed by OPEC, Egypt has demanded increases of its own, making Egyptian oil at $32.50 a barrel the highest priced oil in the world.
Abd, chuckling about what he called "a bit of a boom," recalled that even the lowest quality Egyptian oil that sold for 60 cents a barrel six years ago now draws up to $14.
The high prices are the core of a dispute with Israel about sales of Egyptian oil to Jewish state. Sadat has guaranteed Prime Minister Menachem Begin that Egypt will sell Israel the equivalent of current production from the Alma fields, about 40,000 barrels a day or 2 million tons a year, after they return to Egyptian sovereignty next month. He has refused Israel's request to charge the going OPEC rate, however, and insists on maintaining the prices Egypt charges its other customers.
Aside from foreign exchange earnings, the Egyptian oil industry makes possible some of the subsisized prices that are a key to survival of Egypt's poor.