Saudi Arabia

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.