If protesters, now or in the future, are looking to bring additional pressure onto the ruling elites and the security forces, they will have to either coopt some segment of both or target the sources of their power and revenue, including the oil sector. It seems a long fuse has been lit.
Over the last few days, Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, has arrested or detained individuals
under the charge of corruption. Yet, these efforts are intended to consolidate his power before he becomes
King. Perhaps this consolidation is essential to the successful execution of his Vision 2030, but it does fly in
the face of projecting a transparent, increasingly liberal economy worthy of foreign investment.
King Salman is the last of the Sudairi Seven to rule Saudi Arabia before the next generation (grandsons of King Abdulaziz ibn Saud) takes power. If Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, ascends the throne in the next one to two years, he will rule – absent medical issues or political upheaval – for decades. This will include the period when judgment will be rendered on his Vision 2030 for diversification of the Saudi economy. The oil market’s focus on the Saudi Aramco IPO and its perceived connection to Saudi oil policy should be seen within the context of larger issues related to internal stability.
On Thursday, President Trump will make a speech on Iran in which he is expected to not certify that Iran is in compliance with the Nuclear Deal, as required every 90 days. This will give the Congress 60 days to take up the issue of putting sanctions back in place. At this juncture, a return to the status quo ante “the Deal” is impossible given the positions of the other P5+1 countries. But, Congress may take other steps to turn up the heat on Iran.
The autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq voted for independence last week in a resounding – but non-binding – referendum. Baghdad has dismissed the vote. Turkey and Iran, with large Kurdish populations themselves, have threatened a blockade. Turkey’s threat to shut the Kirkuk-Ceyhan crude oil pipeline puts Kurdistan’s nearly 600,000 b/d of crude exports at risk. Ongoing tensions have already encouraged a temporary run-up in Brent prices, and will keep a small geopolitical premium on the price of crude.
Even as President Trump continues to oppose the Nuclear deal with Iran, we expect him to certify the Nuclear Accord on October 15th (i.e., keep it as is) while increasing pressure on Iran in other ways. But certification comes up every 90 days, so this will be an ongoing issue.
Saudi denial of oil tankers entering a Yemeni port brought the Yemeni conflict to the fore in the oil sector. While the oil implications are negligible, the movement of the conflict towards the sea raises the potential for an accidental incident leading to direct conflict between the Saudi coalition and Iran, and the U.S.
This is more than a diplomatic row among GCC members. Perhaps emboldened by President Trump’s visit, Saudi Arabia and its allies have declared if you are with Iran (or specific radical Sunni groups), you are against us. This effort to delineate sides in the region cannot be easily reversed without substantial outside pressure. Expect a geopolitical premium to creep into energy prices as this dispute continues.
Notwithstanding the pageantry of the U.S. President visiting Saudi Arabia and the enthusiasm of young Iranians hailing their moderate President’s reelection, little changed in terms of the region’s political stability, the battle with ISIS or oil policy this weekend. The clearest signal from the weekend was the public and forceful assertion that the U.S. has allied itself with the Saudis versus Iran, which can only have stoked the age-old rivalry. This should not impact OPEC dealings this week as Iran’s production is near a top, but it is likely to have repercussions down the road when (and if) Iran’s productive capacity rises.
A victory on May 19 by the moderate incumbent, President Hassan Rouhani, would improve the outlook for Iran’s oil sector. Economic growth jumped after the nuclear deal and the lifting of the oil embargo, but Iran will have to pursue both higher production and higher prices to realize the economic recovery Rouhani has promised.
Trump Administration statements after the missile strike on Syria indicated a broad change in policy regarding the future of the Assad regime in Syria. Whether this is followed by other military, economic, or political actions remains to be seen. But, we have entered a new era in the Syrian civil war, which signals a subtle but important change in the new Cold War in the Middle East.
At the end of 2014, Saudi Arabia, with its OPEC partners, opted to lift crude oil production and
pursue greater market share in the face of rising U.S. shale production and the expected removal of
sanctions on Iran. By the end of 2015, crude oil prices had tumbled under $40, Saudi and Iraqi
production had risen by 1.5 million b/d, a nuclear deal was indeed struck, and Iran was gearing up to
raise exports. U.S. shale producers had worked furiously to cut costs and stay in business, but their
production had finally crested and was declining. Ironically, in this market of low oil prices and
falling U.S. production, the U.S. government lifted the ban on crude oil exports.
The conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, by the Obama Administration, was indicative of a subtle
shift in U.S. positioning vis a vis the Saudi-Iranian rivalry for hegemony in the Gulf. In a reversal, President
Trump is shifting the U.S. position back in favor of Saudi Arabia under the guise of fighting ISIS.
Anticipating that the Trump Administration may try to ease sanctions on Russia through executive order, a
bipartisan group of senators has introduced a bill that would expand Congressional oversight of any such
Early indications from the Trump Administration hint at efforts to tip the balance back towards the Saudis.