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Simon Watkins

Simon Watkins

Simon Watkins is a former senior FX trader and salesman, financial journalist, and best-selling author. He was Head of Forex Institutional Sales and Trading for…

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Trump Could Use ‘Nuclear Option’ To Make Saudi Arabia Pay For Oil War

US Saudi flags

President Donald Trump is considering all options available to him to make the Saudis pay for the oil price war as the crash that followed has done significant damage to the U.S. oil industry

With last month having seen the indignity of the principal U.S. oil benchmark, West Texas Intermediate (WTI), having fallen into negative pricing territory, U.S. President Donald Trump is considering all options available to him to make the Saudis pay for the oil price war that it started, according to senior figures close to the Presidential Administration spoken to by OilPrice.com last week. It is not just the likelihood that exactly the same price action will occur to each front-month WTI futures contract just before expiry until major new oil production cuts come from OPEC+ that incenses the U.S. nor the economic damage that is being done to its shale oil sector but also it is the fact that Saudi is widely seen in Washington as having betrayed the long-standing relationship between the two countries. Right now, many senior members on Trump’s closest advisory circle want the Saudis to pay for its actions, in every way, OilPrice.com understands.

This relationship was established in 1945 between the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Saudi King at the time, Abdulaziz, on board the U.S. Navy cruiser Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake segment of the Suez Canal and has defined the relationship between the two countries ever since. As analysed in depth in my new book on the global oil markets, the deal that was struck between the two men at that time was that the U.S. would receive all of the oil supplies it needed for as long as Saudi Arabia had oil in place, in return for which the U.S. would guarantee the security of the ruling House of Saud. The deal has altered slightly since the rise of the U.S. shale oil industry and Saudi Arabia’s attempt to destroy it from 2014 to 2016 in that the U.S. also expects the House of Saud to ensure that Saudi Arabia not only supplies the U.S. with whatever oil it needs for as long as it can but also that it also allows the U.S. shale industry to continue to function and to grow. Related: Could Brent Crude Oil Prices Ever Fall Into Negative Territory?

For the U.S., if this means that Saudi Arabia loses out to U.S. shale producers by keeping oil prices up but losing out on export opportunities to U.S. firms then that is just the price that the House of Saud must pay for the continued protection of the U.S. - politically, economically, and militarily. As U.S. President Donald Trump has made clear whenever he has sensed a lack of understanding on the part of Saudi Arabia for the huge benefit that the U.S. is doing the ruling family: “He [Saudi King Salman] would not last in power for two weeks without the backing of the U.S. military.” Trump has a very good point, as it is fair to say that without U.S. protection, either Israel or Iran and its proxy operatives and supporters would very soon indeed end the rule of the House of Saud.

Aside from just withdrawing all such support from the Saud family right now, there are other options available to the U.S. as interim measures, although some are more practical than others. Early in the oil price war, Trump stated that “I will do whatever I have to do... to protect... tens of thousands of energy workers and our great companies,” and added that plans to impose tariffs on Saudi Arabia’s oil exports into the U.S. were “certainly a tool in the toolbox.” From a practical volumes perspective, putting tariffs on Saudi oil rather than Russian oil would make sense from two key perspectives. First, the U.S. imports around 95 per cent more oil from Saudi than it does from Russia, so sanctioning Russian oil would have little effect on the U.S.’s supply glut that is overhanging its already-stretched domestic storage facilities. Second, Russia is in much better economic shape than Saudi to handle any shocks to its oil-related streams of revenue, with a budget breakeven oil price of US$40 per barrel of Brent rather than Saudi’s US$84 per barrel point.

Second, there is also the fact that Saudi currently provides one of the few large-scale sources of sour crude (including the benchmark Arab Heavy) that is available to the U.S., which is essential to its production of diesel, and to which purpose WTI is less suited. Certainly much of the U.S.’s Gulf Coast refinery system is geared towards using sourer crude, having invested heavily in coking systems and other infrastructure to better handle heavier crudes from the Middle East in recent decades. The other major historical sources of this for the U.S. are not in a position to fill the gap, with U.S. sanctions still imposed on oil imports from Venezuela, Mexican flows unreliable, and Canada’s pipeline capacity to the U.S. not able to handle any more more exports south until the long-delayed Keystone pipeline is up and running at some point in 2023.

In a U.S. presidential election year, the last thing that a U.S. president wants is increasing diesel prices or shortages making a coronavirus-hit economy even worse. It is a fact that since the end of the First World War, the sitting U.S. president has won re-election 11 times out of 11 if the U.S. economy was not in recession within two calendar years ahead of an election whilst presidents who went into a re-election campaign with the economy in recession over the same time-frame won only once out of seven. Related: Oil Prices Crash 24% As Storage Fears Mount

This said, it may be that Trump will use the threat of such tariffs on Saudi Arabia, as his mercurial reputation may work to convince the Saudis that he is unpredictable enough to impose such taxes, regardless of the short-term economic consequences. Even as it stands, he needs to do something as around 44 million barrels of Saudi crude are expected to reach the U.S. over the next four weeks, according to oil industry and shipping data. This is around four times the most recent four-week average, according to EIA records, and it is mostly due to be delivered to the already overwhelmed Cushing delivery point. Republican Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, who has advised Trump on energy issues, has been calling on the White House to take action to stop the very large crude carriers from unloading, and several senators and congressmen have threatened to vote to withhold military aid to Saudi Arabia. Trump, for his part, has so far only said that he will “look at it,” referring to stopping these new imports.

Given the burgeoning ill-feeling towards the Saudis amongst the U.S.’s two legislative houses – from an already high base – sources in the Presidential Administration say that a forceful, but private, reiteration of the threat of the ‘No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act’ (NOPEC) Bill direct to King Salman, circumventing his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, might do the trick in convincing the Saudis to dramatically increase the contextually paltry output cut last agreed with the Russians. As highlighted by OilPrice.com, the pressure for Trump to finally sign off the NOPEC Bill has been growing from the second that the Saudis began the latest oil price war.

Specifically, the NOPEC Bill would make it illegal to artificially cap oil (and gas) production or to set prices, as OPEC, OPEC+, and Saudi Arabia do. The Bill would also immediately remove the sovereign immunity that presently exists in U.S. courts for OPEC as a group and for each and every one of its individual member states. This would leave Saudi Arabia open to being sued under existing U.S. anti-trust legislation, with its total liability being its estimated US$1 trillion of investments in the U.S. alone. The U.S. would then be legally entitled to freeze all Saudi bank accounts in the U.S., seize its assets in the country, and halt all use of U.S. dollars by the Saudis anywhere in the world (oil, of course, to begin with, is denominated in U.S. dollars). It would also allow the U.S. to go after Saudi Aramco and its assets and funds, as it is still a majority state-owned production and trading vehicle, and would mean that Aramco could be ordered to break itself up into smaller, constituent companies that are not deemed to break competition rules in the oil, gas, and petrochemicals sectors or to influence the oil price.

The Bill came very close indeed to being passed into law when in February of last year, the House Judiciary Committee passed the NOPEC Act, which cleared the way for a vote on the Bill before the full House of Representatives. On the same day, Democrats Patrick Leahy and Amy Klobuchar and – most remarkably – two Republicans, Chuck Grassley and Mike Lee, introduced the NOPEC Bill to the Senate. Its progress was only halted after President Trump stepped in and vetoed it when the Saudis did what he told them to do (at that point, to produce more to keep oil prices under US$70 per barrel of Brent), but the option is still available for a relatively quick turnaround on turning it into law.


By Simon Watkins for Oilprice.com

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  • Gerard Remy on April 27 2020 said:
    I find that Mr Watkins article is alluding to the Saudis obligation to bow to the dictates of America in how they must trade their oil to allow the survival of the unprofitable shale industry. Why not take the same approach to Russia????
  • Joe Blow on April 27 2020 said:
    Yeah, with massive unemployment that's what the world needs right now, higher oil prices. Yeah, exactly what we need to drive the planet into a global economic depression. The stupidity and greed of those involved in the oil sector never ceases to amaze me.
  • Bo Vro on April 27 2020 said:
    First off I like the fact that writer of this article is advising war free option to pressure the Saudis

    The question is what happens when it doesn’t work, we all know US could then decide for a proxy war that could become a direct conflict if Saudis retaliated.

    There is a way better solution to all this

    Time for the mighty pentagon to go ahead a release classified power technology they been keeping since the 80s

    Time for electric cars and trucks and even planes powered by old classified technology

    Stop the oil wars
    Time to grow up
  • Wayne Briggs on April 27 2020 said:
    Really Simon I expected more from you, after reading several of your previous posts that have been quite good.

    You must be sitting beside Tom Kool as you used his last comment on one of his past posts as your title to this post.

    Not Kool Simon the US would never drop a nuclear bomb on Saudia Arabia to make them pay. Your article was a good read and had some merit, but your "Trump could use nuclear option" title killed it.
  • Bill R on April 28 2020 said:
    Last I saw, Saudi Arabia's wealth fund was over 320 billion dollars, while Russia's is 150b. And Saudi Arabia has a fraction of the population to take care of. And regardless of what else they do, oil is Russia's biggest money maker by far. Russia is the one that is hurting.
  • Martin German on April 28 2020 said:
    The Saudis don't want oil at $-40. They have a lot of debt. And it's not that simple to shut down oil wells. The shale oil industry was about to destroy itself anyway as it couldn't even make a profit at $60 oil. The sooner you get rid of a wasteful industry the better.

    The Saudi's are at fault for the low oil prices, the Chinese are at fault for the virus. The only ones not at fault are US corporations taking on excessive debt and not having a nickel saved for a rainy day.
  • peep rada on April 28 2020 said:
    Trump must be out of his mind. Blame Saudi Arabia in oil price crash while 1/3 of oil consumption is removed by virus.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on April 28 2020 said:
    The Saudis should have the guts to frustrate President Trump’s blackmailing tactics. Since the discovery of oil in their territory in 1938, the Saudis have always behaved in a slavish way towards the United States by appeasing its addiction for oil, financing its wars and doing its bidding. It is high time for the Saudis to rebel against Trump’s blackmailing tactics.

    A year ago President Trump claimed that he is protecting Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States and their oil in a blatant and crude way to blackmail them to pay protection money like the Mafia when in fact it is the United States that is the source of threat to these countries by its overwhelming support of Israel. The Saudis succumbed to the threat and spent a few hundred billions of dollars on buying American weaponry they don't need.

    Now he is accusing the Saudis of causing the collapse of the WTI oil price and the virtual bankruptcy of the US shale oil industry by starting an oil price war. And while it is true that the Saudis did start an oil price war, it was directed against Russia although US shale oil producers became a collateral casualty.

    But then the collapse of US WTI oil price is a unique American failure story. US shale oil producers have been facing unusual problems, namely rising outstanding debts almost reaching one trillion dollars, inability to export their oil or selling it at home because of the current circumstances and lack of their own storage. Renting storage outside would have cost them far more the contract price for their oil in the current situation. So they had to either give it away or sell it at any price.

    US shale oil producers have been for years taking advantage of OPEC+’s production cuts to enhance their market share at the expense of OPEC+ members by producing excessively even at a loss and undermining OPEC+ efforts to support oil prices by trying to cap them. Shale oil producers didn’t even spare a thought for other oil-producing nations of the world whose livelihood they have trampled on for years with the full knowledge that US tax payers will bail them out even when their outstanding debts are heading towards $1 trillion. They had a chance recently to redeem themselves by agreeing to cut production and join OPEC+ efforts to stabilize oil prices but they adamantly refused. They continued to show the ugly face of capitalism. They paid for their greed and obstinacy by the recent collapse of the WTI crude oil price to less than $1 a barrel.

    President Trump is toying with the idea of imposing a tax or a tariff on foreign oil exports to the United States in order to rescue the US shale oil industry from collapse at the expense of foreign exporters. Saudi Arabia doesn’t export more than 450,000 barrels a day (b/d) to the United States with all this oil going to its refineries in the US. Moreover, other exporter would rather shift their exports to the Asia-Pacific region rather than pay the tax.

    President Trump also threatened to invoke the NOPEC bill to force Saudi Arabia to end the price war. Under NOPEC, the United States could sue OPEC for alleged price fixing. However, this is an empty threat as OPEC is not a cartel and has never been one throughout its history. It won’t stand scrutiny in a court of law. Moreover, it is the United States who has been manipulating oil prices for years.

    It is high time the Saudis have learnt how to deal with a bully like President Trump eve if they have to change their strategic alliance. One immediate measure they can take is a rapprochement with Iran. Another is leaning towards the China-Russia Strategic alliance.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Dan Pearson on April 28 2020 said:
    So, help me understand where we are with world & US oil prices. OPEC & Russia get into oil war sending oil futures & prices low & to negative since no one wants future contracts. As result of oil war, 44 mm bbl of oil are heading toward US now which would fill our already surplus crude inventories.

    Yes OPEC+ has made cuts of 9.7 mmbopd after the oil war. But cuts of 9.7 mm bbl is not enough to help world crude prices to increase due to world drop in demand to about 75 mmbopd from the COVID-19 lockdown. Trump tells KSA to increase production in 2018 to keep oil from going to high over $70/bbl to keep prices in check to help the US economy. And $70 is enough to help US shale oil producers from going under since shale oil needs high prices to exist.

    Now with 44 mm bbl driving US WTI prices to low to allow US shale producers to survive. So US's NOPEC Bill is used to force KSA to drop prices to levels low enough for the US economy, but also keep prices high enough to support US shale oil Producers.

    To prevent 44 mm bbl to reach US, US threatens KSA to not unload 44 mm bbl under threat of NOPEC Bill & associated tariffs on KSA crude. So US is controlling KSA to keep crude prices high enough for US Shale oil producers, but not to high for the US economy.

    US accuses KSA/OPEC of fixing crude prices, but the US is controlling crude prices up & down as needed for US economy & US shale oil producers. This is price controlling/fixing by the US, yet we condemn KSA/OPEC of controlling crude prices.

    The threat of tariffs by US on KSA crude is to raise US crude prices for shale producers. But not to high for the US economy. US is the price fixer, not KSA as we accuse them. Also we threaten KSA to control prices or lose US military support & also US threatens KSA by freezing KSA's assets in US, along with Aramco. US threatens to break up Aramco.

    So, US is fixing crude prices much more than KSA is. US shale oil should be able to survive on its own, but it cannot due to Shale oil being to costly to compete. Again shale oil is only able to exist due to US crude price controls. Thus US is price fixing yet we accuse OPEC of doing the same????
  • A Person on April 28 2020 said:
    I'm confused. The US is threatening SA with a bill to punish their use of production caps...in order to get SA to cap production!? WTF?

    I'm 110% in favor of NOPEC as well as withdrawing all US troops from the middle east, but this 'Nuclear Option' seems self-defeating.

    It should seem clear now that US's energy policy, has been a complete disaster, and that US's so-called energy independence has been nothing but smoke and mirrors.
  • Jonas Christiansen on April 28 2020 said:
    The only problem is that the Saudis arent to blame. This so-called oil price war of producing around two million barrels extra pr day is insignificant to the slump in demand caused by the virus. The WTI would crash no matter if the saudis produced 8 or 12 million barrels pr day, but i guess it is good to have someone to blame.
  • Scott Dorgan on April 28 2020 said:
    It's hard to say that US Shale is a failure unless you are absolutely lying. It forced the price of oil down from black mail levels of $125 a barrel. It unlocked so much natural gas that it's price too is now dirt cheap. All of this is great for the economy as a whole. So the Sauds and russia and OPEC are the ones who can no longer get away with THEIR greed. Even if they successfully wipe out shale, they can't raise prices up to the $70+ mark ever again because the shale industry will come back. Good for America, energy security is real. Marxists have predicted the collapse of capitalism since the the dawn of Marxism, yet it keeps on trucking.
  • Leif Harmsen on April 28 2020 said:
    All roads lead to Russia. Russia started the price war. SA just poured oil on it rather than allow Russia to take unilateral control of the market. When Russia complies with OPEC the price war will be over. Trump likes to blame SA because he is a Russian tool. If the US wants to bouy oil prices it should side with SA and OPEC against Russia.

    In the longer term let this be clear warning: oil is a loser investment. Oil is inherently worse than useless. Time to move on rather than throw good money after bad.
  • Yoshiro Kamamura on May 01 2020 said:
    It seems like the USA do not know who to blame first. China for the virus pandemic president Trump has been ignoring for months? Saudi for the oil price war? No, wait, why not blame Russia, they have been evil all along? And what about Iran, it's true that USA and Britain "sweetened" its life by the 1953 anti-Mossadek coup, how about keeping its life miserable? Don't forget about Cuba, a defenseless little island, that could absorb some blows too! It's sad to see an empire that used to build, inspire and lead reduced to a treacherous, unpredictable bully personified by a narcissistic psychopath. The greatest fear is, of course, that on its way down from world's undisputed hegemon, it will start throwing around its nuclear arsenal.
  • Aziz Albakr on May 03 2020 said:
    The US can’t do anything to Saudi Arabia!
    I find that Mr. Watkins article is alluding the viewers and talking nonsense and just hoax no real reference or solid theory, the US should be very thankful to Saudi Arabia for trading in US dollars, without Saudi Arabia pushing that Wagon the US economy would taking economic hits from China, Russia, & Europe.
    Also what about the free market you always chant about, with free-market you will get a crushed shale oil business, I am amazed actually that Oilprice.com would publish an article full of nothing!
    The last point where is the Nuclear option in your article, since you used it as a heading, unfortunately, after Obama period we have seen a rise of shallow writers that just promote cowboy attitude, while they can’t do anything ! because Saudi is actually adding strength to the US economy, the US should be grateful.
  • jr hawk on May 09 2020 said:
    The saudis, dont need our forces.they have enough money to purchase their own army. our president thinks he can dictate to any and all what he wants. its about time the world sees there is no reason to have gas prices at 3.00 per gallon. the only real people its hurting is the rich in america that have gotten richer on working americans backs.we could have taken the oil we exported and used it in america but we got greedy.

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