Saudi-Russia Oil Powerhouse Faces Test of Unity
(Bloomberg) -- The most powerful partnership in the global oil market, which rescued the industry from a deep slump, faces its toughest test yet.
Crude has collapsed by more than 30 percent and Saudi Arabia is urging Russia to collaborate in cutting production again. Their alliance successfully revived markets two years ago, but it’s unclear if Moscow -- now less dependent than the kingdom on high prices -- is on board this time.
“Whether or not the Russians have the appetite to cut back oil production, we have to wait and see,” said Rainer Seele, chief executive officer of OMV AG, an Austrian company with significant investments in Russia.
At stake is not just the price of oil, but the political bond between President Vladimir Putin and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Moscow will have to weigh bread and butter economic issues against the desire to keep expanding its influence in the Middle East.
It’s two years since Saudi Arabia and Russia first set aside decades of commercial rivalry and ideological differences to forge a 25-nation alliance of oil producers, now commonly called OPEC+. Through 18 months of joint production cuts starting in January 2017, the group cleared an oil glut and boosted prices, ending the industry’s worst downturn in a generation.
In June, with the cuts having done their job and U.S. sanctions threatening to remove a big chunk of Iranian oil from the market, they changed course. Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih and his Russian counterpart Alexander Novak guided their allies to an agreement for a sizable production increase.
Their partnership is under strain today because that decision backfired. As Moscow and Riyadh opened the taps, U.S. shale drillers also pushed their production to unprecedented levels. Meanwhile, Trump’s threat to send Iran’s exports to zero proved to be bluster and his administration unexpectedly granted sanctions waivers to buyers.
Since October, Brent crude futures have plunged $26 from a four-year high. The international benchmark is now trading at about $60 a barrel, below the level required to balance the budgets of most members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Trump remains a wild card for OPEC+ alliance. He’s still putting pressure on the Saudis to help consumers by pushing prices even lower. Facing a growing threat of antitrust legislation and other penalties after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the kingdom may choose to do the president’s bidding and keep the taps open.
For now at least, the Saudis do seem to favor higher prices. OPEC+ needs to cut supplies by at least 1 million barrels a day, Al-Falih said in Abu Dhabi on Nov. 12. The kingdom’s output has reached a record 11.2 million barrels a day this month, according to people familiar with the matter, but in December daily shipments will drop by about 500,000 barrels, the minister said.
Novak sounds less convinced. Producers “need to see how the situation develops in November and early December” before deciding whether to intervene, he said in Moscow on Nov. 19. Prices have since fallen below the comfortable range of $65 to $75 advocated by Putin in early October.
The Russian president may meet the Saudi crown prince and discuss oil markets at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires this week, according to the Kremlin. If they sketch out a deal, it would fall to Al-Falih and Novak to finalize it when OPEC+ gathers in Vienna from Dec. 6 to 7.
“Some issues limit further output coordination between Russia and OPEC,” said Ildar Davletshin, energy analyst at Wood & Co. Financial Services AS. “High oil prices are not as important for Russia as they used to be -- strong oil may even become a problem.”
Price gains earlier this year were a mixed blessing for Russia. The government will get about 45 percent of its budget revenue from oil and gas this year, but can cover spending next year even if its own crude benchmark, Urals, falls to $40. For the broader population, the jump in domestic fuel prices stoked inflation, squeezed struggling consumers and sparked scattered protests by drivers.
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