Saudi Arabia

Khalid A Al-Falih, Saudi energy minister

Khalid A Al-Falih, Saudi energy minister  © Getty Images

With less than 10 days to go until the next Opec meeting the gamesmanship goes on. Saudi Arabia has maintained its production at around 10.7m barrels a day while Iran has continued to increase output – opening three new fields which should together produce 220,000b/d. Iran’s public position is that it will continue to increase production from the 3.85mbd achieved in September to 4.2mbd, which it argues represents a fair share of the cartel’s total output.

Neither party seems ready to blink and there is little sign that the promised deal to make a co-ordinated cut in production, which was just about reached at the last Opec gathering in September, will be delivered when the cartel meets again on November 30. The optimism from then has evaporated. Perhaps an agreement will be reached in the next few days but there is little evidence that it would do more than dent the current surplus of supply over demand. Unsurprisingly, prices are falling – down from $52 a barrel in mid-October to below $45 last week. Read more

The new, pragmatic Saudi oil minister, Khalid al-Falih

The new, pragmatic Saudi oil minister, Khalid al-Falih  © Getty Images

Two years ago, the Saudi government put in place a strategy intended to protect its position in the world oil market. The plan was to increase their production to the point where prices fell. The aim was to squeeze other producers, in particular the US shale industry, and force them to cut output. The belief then was that the US industry needed a price of around $90 a barrel to keep going. Once prices fell below that level, the Saudis thought they would have protected their market share, and in the process, sent a sharp warning to others, particularly the Iranians who want to restore their production following the nuclear deal with the US.

The strategy has not only failed but has caused serious damage to the Saudis themselves. Prices fell much further than anyone anticipated because other participants in the market did not respond as expected. The Saudi increase in production has not destroyed the US industry – American output has fallen only marginally despite a 70 per cent drop in prices. The kingdom simply underestimated the resilience of the US producers and their ability to cut costs. Read more

Khalid al-Falih, the new Saudi oil minister

Khalid al-Falih, the new Saudi oil minister  © Getty Images

Are we on the verge of a real upturn in oil prices? Over the last 10 days, the price has risen almost 20 per cent. Is the talk of a sustainable upturn and a return to the situation of two years ago when oil was over $100 serious, or is the story just a silly season invention at a time when most traders are on holiday?

There are three potential explanations for the rise.

First, something could have changed in the physical market where supply meets demand. That can be dismissed very quickly. Supply is up and demand is flat. Iraq, Russia and Saudi Arabia have all increased supply this year. Iraq in particular, despite the continuing conflict with Islamist militants in the north and west, has managed to reach record production levels of 4.5m barrels a day. US production is slightly down but across the world most producers are maximising output to maintain much-needed revenue flows. Read more

Sampling crude oil at well operated by Venezuela's state-owned oil company PDVSA

Sampling crude oil at well operated by Venezuela's state-owned oil company PDVSA  © Getty Images

In strong contrast to the previous downturns in the energy market the sharp falls in prices seen over the last two years have not triggered a wave of restructuring in the industry. Merger and acquisitions activity has been minimal. But is that about to change? Could a wave of privatisation now reshape the business landscape?

Cyclical downturns in the oil and gas sector are relatively common and have occurred roughly once a decade since the 1980s. The response has traditionally followed a well-trodden path. Companies cut costs and postpone projects. They push for tax concessions and improved terms, while trying to maintain dividends. When that fails, heads roll and the stronger brethren take over the weak. Read more

Traders follow the market at the Kuwaiti Stock Exchange

Traders follow the market at the Kuwaiti Stock Exchange  © Getty Images

Why did the oil price fall 70 per cent during the two years from the spring of 2014? And why, after falling from $115 a barrel to $30, has it now risen to something around $45 over the last two months? What has changed to explain these big shifts ? I was asked these questions by a friend last week and they are worth an answer.

One thing is clear. Oil demand did not fall by 60 or 70 per cent in that period and has not risen by 50 per cent in the last two months. Demand has continued to grow modestly by about 1m barrels a day each year. Oil supply has increased — by a little more than the growth in demand but certainly not 60 or 70 per cent. In the real energy economy things change much more slowly.

At one level, the imbalance between the growth of demand and the growth of demand explains the fall in prices. Led by extra supplies from Saudi Arabia and Russia and lower than expected demand from China, it explains the context of the fall, but not the scale or duration. Read more

Deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman answers questions in Riyadh on Vision 2030  © Getty Images

Saudi Arabia is in a mess. That conclusion seems to be common ground — the view of serious outside analysts and of the country’s own government. The only question is whether the problems can be corrected by shock treatment of the sort announced in Riyadh last week.

The immediate challenge is clear. Last year, revenue from oil exports fell by 23 per cent. That matters in a country that is 77 per cent dependent on oil income. Unemployment is officially 11.6 per cent, not counting the millions who hold non-jobs in and around the agencies of the state. In total, 70 per cent of Saudis work for the government. In the first half of last year, according to Mohammed al-Sheikh, the chief economic adviser to the all-powerful deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known universally as MbS), the kingdom’s financial reserves were being drawn down at a rate that would have exhausted them by the end of 2017 — far earlier than had previously been estimated by outside authorities such as the International Monetary Fund. Read more

The prospect of a partial freeze on oil production at current levels. Some upbeat numbers from China. A couple of days of rising prices on the market.

These signals are enough, it seems, to make some traders excited and to produce headlines announcing the end of the downturn and a turning point in the global commodities cycle. The reality, however, is more complicated. Read more

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The Saudi oil minister, Ali al-Naimi   © Getty Images

The kingdom’s not for turning. There will be no production cuts. Oil will continue to be produced at unwanted levels until other suppliers are forced out of the market.

That was the unequivocal message delivered at the IHS Cera conference in Houston two weeks ago by the Saudi oil minister, the 81-year-old Ali al-Naimi. Mr al-Naimi tried to claim that the US shale industry was not his particular target but that did not seem to convince those involved in a sector which is beginning to feel the real pain of $30 oil.

For the Saudis such pain, along with the even greater suffering being felt by their former allies such as Algeria and Venezuela, may appear to be a necessary cost in securing the kingdom’s goal — a secure oil market share for itself whatever happens to anyone else. On this view, all the others just have to learn the harsh realities of life. Think of it as the application of sharia law to the oil industry. Read more

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Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi holds a press conference in Doha after meeting energy ministers from Russia, Qatar and Venezuela  © Getty Images

The Saudis blinked. The latest deal — an agreement with Russia to freeze oil output at January levels if they are joined by other large producers — won’t rebalance the oil market immediately and the early surge in prices last week was rather premature. But they blinked and that is all important. The myth of Saudi power is broken.

The real steps necessary to rebalance the market have yet to come. Saudi production must come down. Others may join in the process but an overall cut of 3m barrels a day is now necessary and most of that will have to come from Saudi Arabia. Stocks must be run off. That will take time. Iran must be welcomed back into the market. That process will be slow and even estimates of another 400,000 barrels a day during 2016 now look high. But they will come back and have to be accommodated. The interests of other Opec member states — such as Venezuela and Algeria — must be taken into account. The Saudi’s lack of respect for their fellow producers over the last year has shaken many traditional alliances. The kingdom does not have that many allies. Read more

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Iranians protest against Saudi Arabia after the hajj stampede  © Getty Images

Oil prices are now 50 per cent lower than they were a year ago, and less than 40 per cent of their peak in 2012. Worldwide, there is a continuing surplus of supply over demand of around 2.5m to 3m barrels a day. This is despite the loss of exports from Libya and two bloody wars – the first against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) in Syria and Iraq, the another against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Those two wars, which do not directly affect any significant oil producing areas, are proxy conflicts for the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Now, however, there is a growing risk of open war between Riyadh and Tehran. Oil facilities and exports would inevitably be primary targets and in those circumstances a price spike would be unavoidable. The question is whether such an escalation can be prevented.

Relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran have never been close. The conflict is partly religious, partly economic and territorial. Both want to be the clear regional leader. In recent months relations have deteriorated. The latest trigger is the death of 767 Islamic pilgrims at the annual hajj in Mecca. The dead included an estimated 169 Iranians. Since the tragedy – caused by a stampede at a bottleneck as about 2m took part in the journey – Iran’s leaders have used the event as a stick to beat the Saudi authorities in general and the royal family in Riyadh in particular. The failure of the Saudis to return the dead Iranians to their own country has provoked an unspecific commitment of “retaliation” from Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

The heightened language indicates the tension that pervades the region. The situation is comparable to Europe in the months before the first world war, and equally dangerous. Read more

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Oil sprays from a well at Tuba oil field in Iraq  © Getty Images

Oil is now clearly a cyclical commodity that is in a period of over-supply. According to recent commentaries from the International Energy Agency, the excess of production over consumption was as much as 3m barrels a day in the second quarter of this year, which is why prices have fallen. The question for producers, consumers and investors is: how long will it be before the cycle turns back up?

The initial caveat, of course, is that the “normal” oil market could be overturned by political decisions at any time. The Saudis, instead of greedily trying to maximise their market share and imposing huge losses on others, could decide that the stability of the region, and of their own kingdom, would be better served by cutting production and settling for a new equilibrium. There is a chance of that, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, and the Saudis are under huge pressure from other Opec members but there is a mood of rigid arrogance in Riyadh which suggests that the necessary climb down will not come easily. What follows assumes that King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and his son the deputy crown prince stick to their current policy.

What then drives the cycle ? Read more

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Of Saudi Arabia Visits Jordan

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visiting Jordan this month  © Getty Images

With the latest analysis from the International Energy Agency showing that oil production capacity continues to rise despite the sharp fall in prices, is Saudi Arabia ready to admit that its strategy of over-production designed to force other producers out of the market has failed?

Over the last year, Saudi Arabia has been pursuing what Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent, described last week as a policy of flexing its muscles – both in the region and in the oil market. The policy is obviously failing. The question now is whether the kingdom will keep going, doubling down on its current approach, or will step back and change course. The second option would involve a significant loss of face for the new king and his favourite son. The costs of simply ploughing on, however, could be much worse. The outcome will shape the future of the region and of the international oil market. Read more

Last week’s Opec meeting in Vienna confirmed that power has drifted away from the cartel that shaped the oil market for so long. The organisation was unable, as some wanted, to cut production which across Opec is running at about 1.4m barrels a day in excess of the official target. Equally, it was unable to increase production, as others favoured, in order to drive US producers of so-called “tight oil” – that is oil from shale rocks extracted through fracking – out of the market. The conclusion of the meeting was to do nothing. This means that prices will continue to be set by supply and demand. Over the last few weeks prices which had sunk in the spring appeared to be stabilising at around $ 65 a barrel for Brent with WTI five or 6 dollars lower. But such prices were not secure and now, short of a very dramatic development such as an attack by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Saudi Arabia, all the odds are that prices will now fall back again.

Brent Crude Oil Future twelve month chart Read more

Saudi Arabia's newly appointed King Salman meets with US President Barack Obama

Saudi Arabia's newly appointed King Salman meets with US President Barack Obama  © SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Having talked vaguely for many years about the possibility of developing nuclear power as an alternative source of energy, it seems that Saudi Arabia under its new leadership may finally be taking steps towards what would be one of the world’s largest nuclear building programmes over the next decade. Read more

  © Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images

There were two contenders for this year’s award. The most obvious, and certainly the man who has won the most coverage in this (and every other) publication, is Vladimir Putin. Mr Putin has certainly been highly visible, but he has actually changed very little in the energy market. Russian gas still flows to Europe and to Ukraine, helped by western payments of outstanding debts. Europe may be rethinking its energy mix and opening new and more diverse sources of supply, but any change will be very gradual. Russia will trade more with China and India, but that was coming anyway and is a natural and logical balancing of supply and demand. Read more

Conspiracy theories abound around the oil price fall. A 25 per cent drop in less than three months is certainly exceptional and the assumption is that in a politically driven market a political decision by someone, somewhere must have forced prices down. The most popular conspiracy theory is that the US and the Saudis have combined to take money away from their major enemies – Russia and Iran. In both cases, [the argument goes], a shortage of revenue could help to bring President Vladimir Putin and the Supreme Leader, the ailing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the negotiating table to sort out a deal on Ukraine and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In a complicated world anything could be true. I don’t happen to believe the conspiracy theory but I accept that it is a possibility. To me the interesting thing is what happens next, and that is down to the Saudis. The risk for the whole industry, and for many countries dependent on oil revenues, is that Saudi Arabia’s games have led them to lose control of the market. Prices could go a good deal lower with wide and mostly negative consequences, starting with more regional instability and a cutback in investment which can only feed the next cycle. Read more

The Brent oil price has now fallen by 15 per cent in less than three months and is now below the psychologically important figure of $100 a barrel. Last week I wrote about the reaction in the industry. But the fall is beginning to have political consequences as well.

Brent Crude Oil Future three month chart

Across the world oil producing and exporting countries have come to rely on high, and ideally rising prices. Some countries save the revenue for a rainy day, but most, especially those with rising populations, tend to spend. Circumstances vary, as do the realistic options for adjustment, but the current concern is real and will shape political actions well beyond the oil sector itself. Read more

Life in the Middle East never stands still. The inexorable progress of Iran towards some form of nuclear capability has not been halted by the negotiations which began at the end of last year and which have now run on for almost six months. In the absence of a deal others are assuming the worst. Unilateral direct action by Israel still cannot be definitively ruled out. Meanwhile, other countries are feeling the need to prepare their own deterrents. Having lost confidence in the umbrella of US security the Saudis are developing their own capabilities. The dangers for the region and for the world’s energy markets are enormous. Read more

Nowhere is the failure of the talks between the international community and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear programme more welcome than in Riyadh. A fudged deal would have given legitimacy to the government in Tehran and confirmed the weakness of the strategic alliance between Saudi Arabia and the US.

More important still, it would have raised the prospect of the Saudis having to make serious cuts in oil production and exports to support the price of the output from Opec, the oil producers’ cartel. These are cuts the kingdom can ill afford. But, sooner or later, Iran will be on its way back into the oil market. Read more

The Brent oil price has fallen by more than $10 – which means 10 per cent – in less than two weeks and now stands below $ 100. The precise number matters less than the trend. Now the question is how much further prices will fall.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world with the ability to cut production and to keep prices up. Some feel the Saudis are using the fall to discourage investment in high-cost projects including tight oil and some deep water ventures. I am not convinced. The Saudi oil minister, Dr Al Naimi looks tired and unsuited to such a high-stakes game. I expect the Saudis to pursue the tactic of making small incremental cuts in output in the hope that the market will stabilise. I doubt if this will work. Only a cut of 1.5m to 2m b/d will suffice to maintain prices and that would squeeze Saudi revenues too much. With growing domestic demand Saudi Arabia has little room for manoeuvre. As noted last week, the Saudis seem to be in process of losing control of the oil price. Read more