Black gold steps up the tempo of Brazil's seductive samba

Now oil has been found in apparently industrial quantities off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. The girl from Ipanema may soon be wearing overalls and a hard hat.

I think it's time to turn one's attention to another region and an industry that I normally avoid.

It is always said that oil is something best left to the experts. One of the most frightening phrases is "let's leave this to the experts". After all, it was those who knew best who thought securitised mortgages and derivatives were marvellous things, until they threatened to blow up the entire financial world. The nuclear industry is perhaps another best not left to the boffins. On the radio over the past few days there has been a glut of well-spoken characters - are they all Oxbridge men, they certainly all sound like WH Auden? - all intoning that no, what is happening in Japan is perfectly safe and they have the means to deal with it, while television pictures show people fleeing the area and bits falling off the nuclear plant, as they spray it with nothing more sophisticated than water. Maybe the experts had already planned that.

Oil is another topic experts can normally agree on, although they are beginning to revise their views somewhat. It used to be accepted wisdom that oil would not be found too far away from the coast in deepwater. Apparently this is because of a lack of matter and pressure to convert the algae and other stuff into liquid gold. Now it has been found in apparently industrial quantities off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. The girl from Ipanema may soon be wearing overalls and a hard hat.

My interest was first prompted by a very good dinner at the Brazilian restaurant at the InterContinental in Abu Dhabi. If you haven't been there and like meat, I can recommend it. It helped that I was sitting across from a Portuguese engineer who knew the process well. Basically they keep coming with cuts of meat until you turn your green card over and the red colour signals surrender. They begin with sausages, chicken hearts, all matter of nonsense. The trick is to reject these, and wait for the picanha, a cut of beef from the best part of the animal. Once you've worked that out, you can sit back and discuss whether Brazil's massive oil find is a curse or a blessing, as the engineer and I did.

Pessimists would say that it threatens to derail what has been an amazing showing since the turn of the millennium. My first experience of Brazil was following its debt talks in the 1990s as it tried to appease its Paris Club creditors. It seemed ironic that we would gather in one of the swankiest embassies in London close to Hyde Park and the Dorchester, and well-dressed Brazilian men who looked like film stars would say the country had no money and couldn't repay its debts. Their efforts were successful: it received a level of debt forgiveness and rescheduling. Even so, nobody was expecting miracles. After all, this was the place cruelly dismissed by Gen Charles de Gaulle, the French president, as: "The country of the future, and always will be."

Well, now it looks like its time has come. If substantiated, Brazilian reserves could bump it up the pecking order, from the 15th largest oil producer to the fifth. Not bad for an economy that is already growing at 7.5 per cent on the back of iron ore, soybeans, beef, sugar and other agricultural exports. Not only that, but Brazil has a functioning democracy, an educated workforce, a history of tolerance and a relative lack of discrimination. Its restaurants are good - and even the football team is said to be not bad. All that, and the Fifa World Cup coming in 2014, followed by the Olympic Games in 2016.

So what's to worry about? The optimists say oil earnings will give the local population more time to samba. But the concern is that easy oil money will be inflationary. Its currency, the real, has already appreciated by about 40 per cent against the US in the past two years. A strong real makes it harder for the country to sell its exports.

There is another element that makes this intriguing. Ever since Franklin D Roosevelt, the then US president, sat on board the USS Quincy in 1945 with Saudi Arabia's King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al Saud, the US agreed to safeguard Saudi interests in exchange for access to oil. But now with Barack "flip-flop" Obama as president, the situation is less clear.

Now he might feel that US energy security might be better served by cosying up to the Brazilians. I am sure by complete coincidence, Mr Obama is in Brazil this weekend. Maybe one day we'll see the US Fifth Fleet bobbing in the water off the Santos Basin in Brazilian waters.

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