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Cyril Widdershoven

Cyril Widdershoven

Dr. Cyril Widdershoven is a long-time observer of the global energy market. Presently, he holds several advisory positions with international think tanks in the Middle…

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The Saudi Crown Prince’s Final Option

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been making headlines again these last few days. After giving an interview to CBS in which he admitted the mistakes of the Khashoggi murder last year, a media frenzy followed, with a vast lineup of reports linked to the 1 year remembrance day of the brutal Khashoggi murder, mainly intended to weaken the position of the Saudi Crown Prince. Unnamed sources are being quoted stating that MBS’s position is being attacked from all sides, including within the Kingdom.

Since the emergence of MBS as a main power player in the Kingdom, the Crown Prince has been under fire from his ultra-conservative religious opponents inside Saudi Arabia. More recently, liberal voices such as former minister of energy Khalid Al Falih have been criticizing some of the Crown Prince’s policies. MBS has responded to this dissent, first with the Ritz Project and then with the removal of Khalid Al Falih and several other major power players. The strategy currently being implemented is designed to support the long-awaited Aramco IPO, an event that MBS sees as solidifying his power in the Oil Kingdom.

The consolidation of MBS’ power all seemed to be going as planned until the recent drone attacks on Abqaiq. The severity of these attacks seems not to be fully understood by media and analysts as most are still taking the word of Aramco and the Saudi minister of energy as gospel when it comes to the impact. To call the updates coming out of Saudi Arabia optimistic is an understatement. An attack of that size cannot be undone in a matter of days.

And even if the damage done to Abqaiq is technically restored, and Saudi oil is flowing at the same rates as before, the world has changed. We now know that with a small amount of low-intensity advanced weapon systems, the heart of the global oil sector can be significantly disrupted. Saudi Arabia’s pivotal position as the main stabilizer of the oil markets has been at best dented or worst, destroyed. No repair shop will be able to bring back the unquestioned confidence in Saudi Arabia as the eternal swing producer upon which the security of energy supply can depend. With less than 30 drones and cruise missiles, Saudi’s spare production capacity was removed from the market. And, contrary to what many analysts believe, it is yet to come back online. Related: Markets Fear Oil Price Collapse: Should OPEC Cut More Production?

The Iran-Saudi conflict has entered a new phase, with the real threat of a full-scale conflict. The situations in Iraq and Libya will also suffer from the instability created by this stand. And despite this instability, Saudi Arabia’s important ally, the United States, has refused to be fully drawn into the conflict. The link between Trump and MBS appears to be weakening as the geopolitical pressure cranks up. U.S. analysts and policymakers don’t seem to understand that this stance not only weakens U.S. influence in the region but directly opens the doors for opposition to MBS inside of the Kingdom.

Western and Arab media sources have published several stories recently about the growing opposition to MBS inside the Al Saud Royal Family. These reports are undoubtedly true, and MBS is heading for crunch time. The Crown Prince’s future is to be decided in the next couple of months, so very little time remains for opposition players. After the Yemen War quagmire and the damage done in Abqaiq, some royals will undoubtedly try to weaken MBS' position. The main issue currently is that there is no real contender available, as most Saudis are still supportive of MBS. The old guard, such as the brother of King Salman, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz (77), is not favored by the young. Still, MBS has to speed up his passion projects as success is everything when it comes to winning power in Riyadh. Related: Rig Count Falls For Seventh Straight Week

It is not surprising that the recent positive media reports emerging from Saudi Arabia come just before the Davos in the Desert or FII2019 meeting is held. A possible Aramco IPO presentation at FII2019, followed by a 1% listing at the Saudi Tadawul, would put MBS firmly back in the spotlight and weaken any opposition. With the current stalemate in the region, more than 4000 investment funds, sovereign wealth funds, and corporations will be sitting in the conference halls of the Ritz, willing to hand over the much-needed cash and multibillion projects to solidify MBS’ position.

Open support for MBS will be in place very soon, with Russian President Vladimir Putin expected to head to Riyadh very soon. In stark contrast to the waning Trump-MBS friendship, Putin is openly a big supporter of the Crown Prince’s strategy and dreams. Russian sovereign wealth fund RDIF and others are flocking to Riyadh’s hotels as further evidence of Russian support. Moscow appears set to capitalize on Washington’s weak response to the recent attacks in Saudi Arabia, and MBS will be eager to take advantage. A closer Saudi-Russian relationship may end up helping to restrain Iran, as the Islamic Republic is heavily dependent on Moscow’s support.

By Cyril Widdershoven for Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on October 07 2019 said:
    Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has many options to bolster his power in Saudi Arabia but he has to accept a few realities and exercise statesmanship and the will to act upon.

    The realities are many. The first is that the former Saudi Aramco IPO is dead and buried. It will never see the light of day again. A smaller petrochemical IPO could go ahead since would-be investors can see petrochemical assets like refineries and petrochemical plants but they can’t judge the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia without a truly independent audit.

    The second reality is that the devastating attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure have demonstrated very clearly how vulnerable Saudi oil installations are to similar attacks by the Houthis of Yemen. In effect, the entire Saudi oil industry has become hostage to the Houthis. This has diminished the world’s image of Saudi Arabia as the bulwark of the global oil market. The Saudis can rectify this situation by ending the quagmire they find themselves in Yemen, save their budget billions badly needed somewhere else and accept that the Yemeni war is unwinnable.

    The third reality is that it is far better for Saudi Arabia to extend a hand of friendship to Iran and build bridges of confidence between them. That will save Saudi Arabia and countries of the Gulf region a devastating war that will leave their economies in tatters. To achieve this goal, the Saudis have to disentangle themselves from the US-Israeli axis. By keeping the war fever with Iran alive, the United States is blackmailing the Saudis unashamedly for money. Were a war with Iran to take place, the Saudis are the ones who will foot the bill for it and they are the ones who will end up clearing all the mess. Moreover, a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran will enable them to exert far bigger influence on oil policies, the global oil market and prices to the benefit of both and also OPEC producers.

    The fourth reality is for the Saudi Crown prince to realize that Iran has already won the war for the Middle East without even firing a shot in anger. The reason is that Iranian foreign policies are in tune with the majority of the Arab people. The United States will soon be forced to abandon the whole Middle East to Iran and its allies.

    The fifth reality is that the global balance of power is undergoing drastic changes with the US losing its dominance to the Chinese-Russian strategic alliance. In other words, the globe is headed towards a multi-polar power away from the uni-polar power (the United States) that prevailed since the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

    These are Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s options to remain in power.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London

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