Even as the price war escalated with fresh salvos from both sides, former Saudi energy minister Khalid al-Falih was in talks with Mr. Novak in an attempt to reverse the production hikes and revive the collective OPEC-Russia output curbs, according to Saudi-government advisers and officials.
Mr. Falih, who negotiated the initial production cuts in 2016, is now Saudi Arabia’s minister of investments. His outreach to Mr. Novak is done with the approval of Saudi authorities, the advisers said. If Mr. Falih’s mediation succeeds, the advisers and officials said, OPEC and its allies including Russia will convene an emergency meeting in April.
Mr. Novak said Moscow isn’t ruling out further cooperation with OPEC, adding that the next scheduled meeting is planned for May or June.
“The doors are not closed,” he said.
Amid the escalating fight, President Trump called Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman on Monday to discuss global energy markets, the White House said Tuesday morning. The leaders also discussed “other critical regional and bilateral issues,” according to a statement.
Global GlutOil prices have fallen as demand from China has slowed and Saudi Arabia haspledged to pump more.
Saudi Arabia and Russia’s decisions to flood markets are surprising, as China—the world’s largest oil importer—has been hobbled by the deadly coronavirus, which has hurt its demand for oil after refineries and factories were forced to shut.
Saudi Arabia’s struggle for oil-market supremacy might earn it a sliver of market share at the expense of Russia and rival U.S. shale producers, but the cost of a price war might be too much for the kingdom to bear, analysts and oil officials say.
The combination of declining global consumption and rising supply pushed Brent crude, the benchmark for global prices, to its sharpest decline since the first Gulf War in 1991 on Monday. Some of these losses were recouped Tuesday as the Brent oil price gained 8% amid a broader revival in markets.
Saudi Arabia’s aggressive discounts are targeting some of Russia’s core markets in China and Northern Europe. The kingdom is also taking aim at U.S. oil producers, Saudi and OPEC officials said.
The Russian energy minister declined to comment and the Saudi energy minister didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Some oil officials say theystruggle to see the logic behind Saudi Arabia’s decisions. Others see the battle as tied to Prince Mohammed’s recent efforts to tighten his grip on power and raise his international clout, according to people involved in the OPEC talks.
Russia’s failure to find common ground with Saudi Arabia and OPEC on oil cuts was preceded by talks in early February between Riyadh and Moscow that focused on the possibility of forging a broader, long-term alliance. Under one scenario, Saudi Arabia would have sped up its investments inside sanctions-hit Russia and backed the Kremlin’s military efforts in Syria, according to people familiar with the matter.
Ultimately, the crown prince didn’t commit to a deal, say the people familiar with the matter, because he didn’t want to alienate the U.S. Weeks later, roughly at the same time that Russia was refusing to endorse the Saudi-backed plan to cut oil output, Mr. Putin was initiating a rapprochement with Turkey, a Saudi foe, the people said.
“It’s all about egos now, not about the oil market,” said a Saudi-government adviser.
Meanwhile, Prince Mohammed saw the OPEC debate as a way to assert his broad influence over the kingdom’s oil policies and to prove to his older brother, Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, that he could force Russia’s hand, according to people familiar with his thinking.
In a terse phone call to Prince Abdulaziz late Thursday, the crown prince overruled his brother, who had agreed to a three-month production cut with OPEC, and extended the proposed cuts through the end of the year, these people said.
The crown prince ordered the minister to force OPEC to adopt the decision—even if that meant risking any hope that Russia would join in, they said.
Now the kingdom is pursuing a strategy of undercutting its rivals by drowning markets with cheaper oil—a move that has a tendency to backfire, say longtime market watchers.
On Saturday, the Saudi energy ministry told Aramco officials that instead of cutting production, they should pump more oil and lower the price. Saudi Arabia soon spread the word throughout the market. “It was the Saudi declaration of war against Putin,” said a senior Saudi official.
Within hours, officials at the finance ministry were tasked with preparing a budget scenario that envisions benchmark Brent crude prices dropping into a $12-$20 a barrel range. All Saudi ministries were also asked to cut their spending significantly to prepare for this scenario.
But the strategy has backfired before.
In 2014, then-Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi persuaded OPEC to pump at will to compete with U.S. shale producers. His rationale was that the cartel’s members had the ability to produce at extremely low costs. But after the price of Brent crude fell below $28 a barrel in early 2016, the Saudi royal family fired him. His successor, Mr. Falih, negotiated a pact between OPEC and Russia to cut production in the first OPEC+ deal. Within months, oil prices more than doubled.
The move to depress prices also missed its mark in the 1980s and led to a period known in oil circles as the “Lost Decade.”In 1986, OPEC faced competition from rising North Sea production. Saudi Arabia’s delegation was so upset about OPEC members flouting the group’s production agreements that it unleashed a flood of oil that sank prices for a prolonged period.
Eventually, Saudi Arabia backtracked and cut production, but the move wasn’t a complete failure, as it helped score a political victory against the Soviet Union. Riyadh had been backing insurgents battling Russia in Afghanistan—many of whom would later found al Qaeda. As the oil price fell to around $30 a barrel, Russia faced a budget crisis that contributed to food shortages and an end to its war in Afghanistan. Its then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev retreated from Kabul and launched the restructuring of Russia under his perestroika policy.
Russia is better prepared to weather low oil prices than in the past. Oil is now accounts for less than a third of budget revenue. The country has also accumulated massive reserves. The Russian finance ministry said Monday that it could withstand 10 years of prices at $25 to $30 a barrel.
Still, some Russian producers say the oil-market war is excessive.
“I’m in shock. This is a very unexpected, irrational decision to put it mildly,” Leonid Fedun, vice president of Russian private producer Lukoil was reported as telling Russian newspaper the Bell. Russian oil companies would like to increase production, he said, but that won’t make up for losses from falling prices.
The mood is more somber in Saudi Arabia, which needs oil prices over $60 a barrel to balance its budget, according to Saudi officials. The kingdom is now contending with its own coronavirus outbreak, moving Monday to suspend all air travel with many of its neighbors.
Saudi Arabia’s national oil company Aramco fell about 7% to 27.95 riyals ($7.45) a share on the Saudi domestic exchange Monday. The Saudi price decrease has “literally burned all global energy investors,” said a Saudi official. “[Saudi Aramco] Won’t sell a share to foreigners again,” he said, referring to the Crown Prince’s plan to list Aramco internationally.
Putin has helped resolve conflicts within the cartel, giving the country considerable influence over oil markets
When the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries met in Vienna in December, it was in danger of imploding.
Oil prices had plunged. Member states Iran, Venezuela and Libya were refusing to cut production. Qatar had quit. And U.S. President Donald Trump was pressuring Saudi Arabia to keep prices low.
With negotiations teetering on the brink of failure, rescue came from an unlikely place—Russia, which isn’t even an OPEC member. President Vladimir Putin agreed to cut Russian oil production in league with OPEC, provided that Iran was allowed to keep pumping.
The degree of acrimony that pervaded that critical meeting, and the critical role Russia played in resolving the crisis, hasn’t previously been reported. What happened behind closed doors in December was a pivotal moment in Russia’s transformation from a nation that didn’t cooperate with OPEC at all to one that has become an indispensable partner.
Saudi energy minister Khalid al-Falih recently joked that he talks more with his Russian counterpart Alexander Novak than with some of his colleagues in the Saudi cabinet. “We met 12 times in 2018,” he said of Mr. Novak at a news conference in March.
At the next OPEC meeting, scheduled for May, Russia and Saudi officials will discuss whether to formalize what has been until now an temporary alliance.
For decades, the U.S. has embraced Saudi Arabia as one of its close geopolitical allies, selling it arms and encouraging its role as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. In exchange, Washington has come to expect a stable supply of oil to global markets to help damp price spikes and to prevent harm to the U.S. economy.
With its new ally in Russia, Saudi Arabia is no longer beholden only to Washington.
Under Mr. Trump, the U.S. has altered its longstanding, hands-off approach to the cartel. Mr. Trump has repeatedly tweeted for OPEC to boost output to drive oil prices down, and he has phoned the Saudi government directly asking the kingdom to open the taps.
“The United States-Saudi Arabia relationship plays a critical role in ensuring Middle East stability and maintaining maximum pressure against Iran,” said a senior Trump administration official. “The U.S.-Saudi relationship remains strong.”
The murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey last October created a fresh rift between the Saudi kingdom and the U.S.—and provided an opening for Russia to insert itself further into OPEC.
.. Oil prices had cratered in 2016 and didn’t look likely to rebound. The three men needed to orchestrate a deal to reduce crude output to lift global prices. Russia and OPEC agreed to cut production.
By the middle of last year, crude was soaring again, thanks to lower output from OPEC and Russia and renewed prospects for global economic growth. By the end of the year, however, amid a U.S.-China trade battle, the world’s economic outlook was dimming.
As the December OPEC meeting loomed, oil prices had plunged some 30% in six weeks. The Saudis needed unanimous agreement on proposed production cuts to shore up prices. Iran, already hobbled by U.S. sanctions that began in November, was reluctant to curb its output. Libya and Venezuela, with domestic troubles of their own, also were holdouts.
With the cartel about to meet in Vienna, Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s neighbor in the Persian Gulf, shocked global oil markets by announcing it was leaving OPEC. It was among a small group of member countries that felt overshadowed as the Saudi-Russia alliance grew stronger. OPEC has become “basically all about what [Prince Mohammed] and his buddy Putin want,” says a Qatari official.
.. When Mr. Falih asked Iran to join the collective production cut, Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh rejected the demand and blamed Persian Gulf countries for replacing Iran’s sanctioned oil. According to the people familiar with the conversation, he pointed his finger at Mr. Mazrouei, the Emirati minister in charge of the meeting, and said: “You are the enemy of my country.” Mr. Zanganeh then threatened to suspend Iran’s membership in OPEC, these people said. Spokesmen for the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s energy ministries couldn’t be reached for comment.
.. Mr. Novak acknowledged that Russia would benefit from the cartel’s cuts. “We need $60 a barrel and we are under sanctions” from the U.S., OPEC officials recall him saying.When Mr. Falih re-entered the OPEC meeting room, he was beaming.
The coalition began curbing output in January. Oil prices have risen 30% since the beginning of the year, their best annual start since the early 1980s.
Saudi Arabia says it has trimmed more than it promised. Russia had pledged to curb production by 230,000 barrels a day, but in March it had slashed daily output by just 120,000 daily barrels, according to OPEC and Russian officials.
Saudi officials say Riyadh is willing to overlook Russia’s shortcomings because it needs support on the international stage. “We cannot afford to lose them,” says one Saudi official.