The rumblings of revolt against Saudi Arabia and the Opec Gulf states are growing louder as half a trillion dollars goes up in smoke, and each month that goes by fails to bring about the long-awaited killer blow against the US shale industry.
Algeria’s former energy minister, Nordine Aït-Laoussine, says the time has come to consider suspending his country’s Opec membership if the cartel is unwilling to defend oil prices and merely serves as the tool of a Saudi regime pursuing its own self-interest. “Why remain in an organisation that no longer serves any purpose?” he asked.
Saudi Arabia can, of course, do whatever it wants at the Opec summit in Vienna on December 4. As the cartel hegemon, it can continue to flood the global market with crude oil and hold prices below $50.
It can ignore desperate pleas from Venezuela, Ecuador and Algeria, among others, for concerted cuts in output in order to soak the world glut of 2m barrels a day, and lift prices to around $75. But to do so is to violate the Opec charter safeguarding the welfare of all member states.
“Saudi Arabia is acting directly against the interests of half the cartel and is running Opec over a cliff. There could be a total blow-out in Vienna,” said Helima Croft, a former oil analyst at the US Central Intelligence Agency and now at RBC Capital Markets
The Saudis need Opec. It is the instrument through which they leverage their global power and influence, much as Germany attains world rank through the amplification effect of the EU.
The 29-year-old deputy crown prince now running Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman, has to tread with care. He may have inherited the steel will and vaulting ambitions of his grandfather, the terrifying Ibn Saud, but he has ruffled many feathers and cannot lightly detonate a crisis within Opec just months after entangling his country in a calamitous war in Yemen. “It would fuel discontent in the Kingdom and play to the sense that they don’t know what they are doing,” she said.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the oil price crash has cut Opec revenues from $1 trillion a year to $550bn, setting off a fiscal crisis that has already been going on long enough to mutate into a bigger geostrategic crisis.
Mohammed Bin Hamad Al Rumhy, Oman’s (non-Opec) oil minister, said the Saudi bloc has blundered into a trap of their own making - a view shared by many within Saudi Arabia itself.
“If you have 1m barrels a day extra in the market, you just destroy the market. We are feeling the pain and we’re taking it like a God-driven crisis. Sorry, I don’t buy this, I think we’ve created it ourselves,” he said.
The Saudis tell us with a straight face that they are letting the market set prices, a claim that brings a wry smile to energy veterans. One might legitimately suspect that they will revert to cartel practices when they have smashed their rivals, if they succeed in doing so.
One might also suspect that part of their game is to check the advance of solar and wind power in a last-ditch effort to stop the renewable juggernaut and win another reprieve for the status quo. If so, they are too late. That error was made five or six years ago when they allowed oil prices to stay above $100 for too long. But Opec can throw sand in the wheels. More