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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Why The Saudis Are Still Dominating Oil Markets

Bab El Mandeb Strait Tanker

Saudi Arabia is still clearly in control of the oil market.

The narrative that decisively took hold over the oil market in August was one of cracks in emerging market demand, concerns over the health of the global economy and fears over the fallout from the U.S.-China trade war. Turkey’s currency crisis set off a slide in emerging market currencies, which will likely undercut demand this year. The IMF warned earlier this summer that the downside risks to the economy were growing, a rather prescient prediction. On the supply side of the equation, outages from Iran loom large.

But when it comes to physical barrels on the market, Saudi Arabia is still in the driver’s seat. “While fears of trade wars will continue to influence sentiment and shape price outcomes, it is the recent shifts in OPEC, and particularly its dominant player Saudi Arabia’s, output policy which has had the biggest impact on physical balances, prices and the term structure to date,” The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies (OIES) wrote in a new report.

For the first few months of this year, Saudi Arabia maintained that the oil market was moving towards “rebalancing” with inventories in steady decline, but that there was more work to do. Saudi officials repeatedly stuck with the line that the OPEC+ agreement would not be altered before the end of the year and that they would continue to focus on bringing down inventories.

But the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the return of sanctions raised fears of a huge disruption in Iranian supply. Suddenly, the market looked very tight. Coming just a few weeks before the June OPEC+ meeting, the U.S.’ policy change was decisive. Related: Iran’s Warning To OPEC: No One Can Overtake Our Oil Quota

Oil prices rose sharply in April and May, and after a brief hiatus in early June over fears of a wave of fresh OPEC+ supply, prices rose to a high point at the end of the month. “The sharp rise in the oil price in April, the anxiety it created among key consuming countries, the change in the short-term supply outlook, Russia’s push to increase output, and US pressures on Saudi Arabia to act to put a cap on the oil price caused a revision in Saudi oil policy,” OIES wrote in its report.

Saudi officials stopped talking about the need to keep up with the supply curbs in order to rebalance the market and instead began sending signals market participants that Saudi Arabia would do “what is necessary” to fill any supply gap leftover from Iran, Venezuela and Libya.

The policy shift in Riyadh had a major impact on the market. Saudi Arabia ramped up production well before the OPEC+ meeting. In June, Saudi output jumped to 10.5 million barrels per day (mb/d), up 0.5 mb/d from a month earlier. Much of that increase came before Saudi Arabia knew what the outcome of the OPEC+ meeting would be. Some Gulf State allies, such as the UAE and Kuwait, plus Russia, added production in July.

“This increase in production from core GCC producers and Russia arrived at a time when the market

did not need additional supplies despite the rising concerns about outages,” OIES concluded. Iran supply had not yet declined and Libya restored some disrupted production. U.S. exports of light sweet crude also rose sharply in June. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia offered extra cargoes of extra light oil whereas Asian refiners were looking for heavier crude mixes. “The additional supplies overwhelmed the Atlantic basin, pushing Brent prices lower and flipping the term structure into contango,” OIES wrote.

The sudden rush of supply helps explain Saudi Arabia’s retreat in July. Saudi output fell from 10.44 mb/d in June to 10.387 mb/d in July, a decline of 52,000 bpd. More importantly, there were earlier press reports that suggested that Saudi Arabia’s initial plan was to continue to ramp up production to between 10.8 and 11.0 mb/d in July, which makes the decision to curb output all the more notable. “If Saudi Arabia were to have increased its output to 10.8 mb/d in July as indicated by various reports, the term structure would have weakened further and…prices would have fallen below $70/barrel.” Related: New Gulf Of Mexico Leases Raise Concerns

Some oil bulls thought that Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut output in July was a sign that it was aiming for higher prices, especially because the narrative about pending supply shortages was still making headlines. But OIES argues that rather than shooting for much higher prices, Saudi Arabia was merely defending the price floor by curbing production in July, recognizing that oil supply was much more robust than commonly thought.

The upshot is that as we sit here today, while demand fears have dragged Brent down into the low $70s and WTI into the mid-$60s, Saudi Arabia continues to exercise broad influence over the oil market. Saudi Arabia continues to calibrate its production levels so as to maintain price stability. More specifically, Riyadh seems to be aiming for a price range between $70 and $80 per barrel, OIES argues, and “its output policy will continue to be the major factor shaping price outcomes in the next few months.”


Saudi output will rise and fall depending on market developments. For all the talk about U.S. shale, Iran, the trade war, the currency crisis, or any other potential gamechanger, Saudi Arabia still exercises the most short-term control over oil prices.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh G Salameh on August 23 2018 said:
    Saudi Arabia is one of two countries in the world capable of starving or flooding the global oil market with oil. The other country is Russia. By 2021/22 they could be joined by Iraq.

    Still, Saudi Arabia was wrong to raise production in response to a request from President Trump in anticipation of a fall in Iran’s oil exports as a result of the sanction and also to keep oil prices relatively low. In so doing, the Saudi decision was counter to its own interests and the interests of OPEC members as it only added to a remaining glut in the market capable of taking care of outages in Venezuela, Libya and elsewhere. OPEC members need an oil price of $80-$100 a barrel to balance their budgets.

    It later transpired that President Trump’s request has nothing to do with US sanctions on Iran and everything to do with the November midterm US senate elections in which there is a risk of the Republican Party not faring well as a result of high oil prices offsetting his tax cuts.
    Still, Saudi Arabia couldn’t add more than 300,000-400,000 barrels a day (b/d) to the global oil supplies. This addition, however, comes not from actual production but from oil stocks stored on tankers and on land. Saudi oil production peaked in 2005 at 9.6 million barrels a day (mbd) and has been in decline since. Moreover, the 2 mbd spare capacity the Saudis claim to have comes from stored oil stocks and not actual production. Once these stocks are depleted, there will be no spare capacity whatsoever.

    Saudi Arabia’s oil decisions do affect the global oil market and also OPEC. If the Saudis continue the practice of imposing their will on OPEC, there will come a time in the not too-distant future when either OPEC will collapse or there will be an OPEC without Saudi Arabia. What might emerge is a Saudi-Russian oil partnership but this will not last long either because it will not be to the liking of the United States.

    The Saudi withdrawal of the IPO of Saudi Aramco is partly due to question marks about the actual size of its proven oil reserves. No investor would have considered buying into the IPO without independent auditing of Saudi proven oil reserves. Saudi Arabia claims proven reserves of 266 billion barrels (bb) when my own research and others’ has shown them to be in the range of 74-80 bb.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Jeffrey J. Brown on August 23 2018 said:
    Re: "Saudi Arabia is still clearly in control of the oil market."

    It’s instructive to compare Saudi Arabia’s net export response to two oil price doublings—from 2002 to 2005 and from 2005 to the 2011 to 2013 time period.

    As annual Brent crude oil prices approximately doubled from $25 in 2002 to $55 in 2005, Saudi net exports (total petroleum liquids, BP data base) rose from 7.1 million bpd to 8.7 million bpd, a 6.8%/year rate of increase.

    As annual Brent crude oil prices doubled again, from $55 in 2005 to an average of $110 for 2011 to 2013 inclusive, Saudi net exports averaged 8.0 million bpd (11% below the 2005 level), and so far Saudi annual net exports have been below their 2005 level for 12 years, through 2017.

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