Tag Archives: Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)

The End of the Mindless Self-Indulgence: the Gulf States

Algeria needs the price of Brent crude, an international benchmark for oil, to rise to $157 dollars a barrel. Oman needs it to hit $87. No Arab oil producer, save tiny Qatar, can balance its books at the current price, around $40 (summer 2020)….The world’s economies are moving away from fossil fuels. Oversupply and the increasing competitiveness of cleaner energy sources mean that oil may stay cheap for the foreseeable future. 

Arab leaders knew that sky-high oil prices would not last for ever. Four years ago Muhammad bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, produced a plan called “Vision 2030” that aimed to wean his economy off oil. Many of his neighbours have their own versions. But “2030 has become 2020…” 

Still, some see an upside to the upheaval in oil-producing states. The countries of the Gulf produce the world’s cheapest oil, so they stand to gain market share if prices remain low. As expats flee, locals could take their jobs…

Remittances from energy-rich states are a lifeline for the entire region. More than 2.5m Egyptians, equal to almost 3% of that country’s population, work in Arab countries that export a lot of oil. Numbers are larger still for other countries: 5% from Lebanon and Jordan, 9% from the Palestinian territories. The money they send back makes up a sizeable chunk of the economies of their homelands. As oil revenue falls, so too will remittances. There will be fewer jobs for foreigners and smaller pay packets for those who do find work. This will upend the social contract in states that have relied on emigration to soak up jobless citizens….With fewer opportunities in the oil-producing states, many graduates may no longer emigrate. But their home countries cannot provide a good life. Doctors in Egypt earn as little as 3,000 pounds ($185) a month, a fraction of what they make in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. A glut of unemployed graduates is a recipe for social unrest…

For four decades America has followed the “Carter Doctrine”, which held that it would use military force to maintain the free flow of oil through the Persian Gulf. Under President Donald Trump, though, the doctrine has started to fray. When Iranian-made cruise missiles and drones slammed into Saudi oil facilities in September 2019, America barely blinked. The Patriot missile-defence batteries it deployed to the kingdom weeks later have already been withdrawn. Outside the Gulf Mr Trump has been even less engaged, all but ignoring the chaos in Libya, where Russia, Turkey and the UAE (to name but a few) are vying for control.

A Middle East less central to the world’s energy supplies will be a Middle East less important to America. ..As Arab states become poorer, the nature of their relationship with China may change. This is already happening in Iran, where American sanctions have choked off oil revenue. Officials are discussing a long-term investment deal that could see Chinese firms develop everything from ports to telecoms… Falling oil revenue could force this model on Arab states—and perhaps complicate what remains of their relations with America.

Excerpts from The Arab World: Twilight of the Petrostates, Economist, July  18, 2020

Leave No Oil Under-Ground: OPEC against US Frackers

In 2014-16, the OPEC waged a failed price war to wipe out American frackers. Since then the cartel and its partners, led by Russia, have propped up oil prices enough to sustain shale, but not enough to support many members’ domestic budgets. In March 2020 Saudi Arabia urged Russia to slash output; Russia refused, loth to let Americans free-ride on OPEC-supported prices. The ensuing price war was spectacularly ill-timed, as it coincided with the biggest drop in oil demand on record.  The desire to chasten American frackers remains, though. OPEC controls about 70% of the world’s oil reserves, more than its 40% market share would suggest… If the world’s appetite for oil shrinks due to changing habits, cleaner technology or greener regulations, countries with vast reserves risk having to leave oil below ground. 

Excerpts from Crude Oil: After the Fall, Economist, June, 13, 2020

The Division of Libya

Libya’s self-proclaimed prime minister [Omar al-Hassi] has warned that attempts by a rival government in the east to assert control over the oil industry could escalate the political conflict dividing the OPEC member state and force it to break in two.  Libya has had two governments competing for power since August 2014 when a group called Operation Libya Dawn, which opponents say is backed by Islamists, seized Tripoli and forced the elected Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni to flee 1,000 km to a small city near the border with Egypt.

The warning by Omar al-Hassi, prime minister of the rival government, came after Thinni’s government claimed air strikes on Tripoli’s Mitigate airport this week, escalating a confrontation that started with an attack by Libya Dawn on a rival force in Tripoli in July.  The new rulers in the capital are not recognised by the United Nations and world powers but have taken over ministries, oil facilities, airports and much of western and central Libya.

In a step to assert control over the oil industry, Thinni’s government said it had appointed a new chairman of the National Oil Corp. Thinni had initially retained the state oil firm’s previous head, Mustafa Sanallah, but he remains in Tripoli.  The conflict gripping Libya three years after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi poses a legal dilemma for oil traders, who are left wondering who owns Libya’s oil exports, worth more that $10 billion a year. The country sits on Africa’s largest oil reserves…

“There are attempts (by Thinni) to set up an eastern Supreme Court, there are attempts to launch a central bank in the east, there are attempts to establish a separate oil ministry in the east,” said Hassi, who said he was against partition.

Thinni’s government has sought to move heads of state-run institutions to the east as he is recognised by the international community, but he too denies any plans for secession.

But Hassi said Thinni’s government had shown it intended to control oil facilities in the eastern rump state by picking al-Mabrook Bou Seif as new NOC Chairman, since he was from the same tribe as Ibrahim Jathran, a former rebel leader who seized eastern ports for a year to press for regional autonomy.

Struggle over Libya’s oil risks breaking up country -rival PM, Reuters,  Nov. 28, 2014

The OPEC Cartel and the US

The OPEC often described as a cartel, it is better seen as an anti-glut group. When demand is weak, its members can curb production to prevent the price plummeting. But when demand is healthy, its ability to curb new producers is limited. And new producers abound.

America’s domestic production of crude (and gas, which displaces some oil) is rocketing. The IEA says the country will produce 14m barrels a day (b/d) next year, on a par with Saudi Arabia . That has reduced America’s imports, as well as boosting exports of fuels (exports of crude oil are mostly banned). That frees crude from other places, such as West Africa, to go to Europe instead. Similarly, Latin American and Middle Eastern oil that once would have gone to America now goes to Asian customers.

For the oil-rich, even worse is in store. Other factors that have propped up the price over the past decade are likely to wane in importance. Even the slightest easing of sanctions helps Iran, potentially a huge producer….The Economist Intelligence Unit…forecasts a “significant boost” in 2014 from 2.4m b/d last year. This assumes new investment pays off, and a deal with the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Libya could be another source of production: its exports have collapsed to only a few hundred thousand barrels a day, against 1.6m in June last year…

An alternative for Saudi Arabia would be to increase production sharply. That would send the price down: painful for the kingdom, but even more painful for higher-cost producers (not least America, where the “tight oil” now coming on stream requires prices of $50 and above to be profitable).  OPEC’s best hope is continued American protectionism. Any easing of the restrictions on the export of liquefied natural gas (LNG) or crude will exert more downward pressure on the oil price. That might be good for the world economy, but it is not a priority for American consumers, who would like cheaper petrol for cars and propane for heating…

OPEC and oil prices: Leaky barrels, Economist, Feb. 22, 2014, at 63