The power struggle between Saudi Arabia’s royalty and the technocrats is hurting oil prices.
Prince Mohammed is young but as the favoured son of King Salman he has been building influence since his father came to power in January 2015.
He’s championed a policy of diversifying Saudi Arabia’s economy away from oil and heads the defence ministry and economic council.
As a result, as the Financial Times puts it, he has become the “unpredictable new voice of the kingdom’s energy policy.“
This is causing headaches for Saudi Arabia’s technocratic oil minister Ali al-Naimi, who has held that position for more than two decades, and in turn is causing ructions in the oil market.
How oil prices are hurting Saudi Arabia — even though it caused the slump
Oil prices are already low and volatile. They have fallen from triple-digit highs reached in the summer of 2014. This is because Saudi Arabia, which is a swing producer because it produces so much oil that it can shift market prices on its own, has pumped out so much oil it is flooding the market.
It wanted to kill off competition — from the US and others — by preventing them from stealing market share from it in places like China.
On top of that, since demand is lower, it has meant oil prices have tanked, hurting Saudi Arabia’s finances and economic situation.
The country reported in December 2015 that its budget deficit — the amount in which expenditures exceed revenue — for 2015 hit $98 billion (£65.7 billion). Oil prices have dropped from triple-digit highs in June 2014 to around $40.
Oil revenues make up 77% of the country’s total revenue. Because of the severe drop in oil prices, revenue is down by 23% from the previous year. As a result, for the second time in four months ratings agency S&P has downgraded Saudi Arabia’s debt rating — which makes it more expensive for Saudi Arabia to borrow money. It is reportedly also asking banks for a loan of up to $10 billion.
Saudi Arabia is ready to make changes but the power struggle between Prince Mohammed and Saudi’s oil minister is causing a problem.
The significance of a Doha deal — or the lack of one
Saudi Arabia, Russia, Qatar, and Venezuela to freeze oil production at January levels and while al-Naimi said that this would be enough to improve the oil market, analysts said that this agreement was pretty pointless without Iran on board.
And now, according to the FT report, the power struggle between al-Naimi and Prince Mohammed is directly affecting the oil price.
Around 3am on Sunday morning — just hours before the talks were due to begin — Prince Mohammed called the Saudi delegation, according to people briefed on the matter, and ordered them to come home. The Saudis ultimately remained, but the talks were effectively dead.
The episode has left Ali al Naimi, the kingdom’s technocratic oil minister for the past 21 years, looking increasingly sidelined. While the Saudi royal family has always had the final say on oil policy, rarely has a member spoken so publicly — or freely — on its direction. Delegates from other countries had been assured Mr Naimi was there to deliver a deal.
“Almost everyone was under the impression that within an hour a deal would be signed,” said one delegate.
Prince Mohammed’s move is suggested to be based on political grandstanding rather than economics.
Another delegate told the FT that “my understanding is that this was purely political. How can they go from agreeing to everything on Saturday and turning everything upside down on Sunday?”
Iran snubbed Saudi Arabia when it didn’t agree to a deal and it looks like Saudi Arabia’s royalty retailiated — even though technocrat al-Naimi was poised to do what was best for the market.
The market reacted badly and oil sank by 7% on the news.
There is no love lost between Iran and the Saudis. And the Iranians are going to put their own economy before the interests of the Russians and the Venezuelans. Iran has only just had its sanctions lifted and it is not looking at reducing the amount it can produce while it is trying to rebuild its battered economy with lucrative oil reserves. Oil production constitutes 23% of Iran’s wealth, according to Trading Economics.
But Saudi Arabia could still alleviate some of the downward price pain by going it alone with some of the countries by its side. That’s what some of the OPEC countries want and that’s what the Saudi oil minister wants.
However, it looks like oil prices will remain low for some time if the power struggle between Prince Mohammed and his oil ministry continues.