In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, one of the major economic consequences has been the substantial hit to the energy industry.
Ever since the virus began to spread in January, global markets have been tumbling. This set the price of oil in a downward spiral, reversing many gains that had accumulated over the last several months. Demand for oil dropped for the first time in over a decade and forecasters at the International Energy Agency assess the decline will continue. While natural gas and coal markets have also been hit, oil demand has dropped more pronouncedly given it supports the freight and logistics sectors that have ground to a halt in recent weeks. The lack of demand for oil in China alone has had a devastating impact – Beijing’s newfound hunger for the commodity was responsible for most of the price increases recently.
However, these unique phenomena have had effects far beyond the purely economic. Politically speaking, the oil market crisis has pitted two global energy giants against each other, producing very intriguing results.
In early March, a meeting took place between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and ten other oil-producing countries, known as “OPEC+”. During the conference ending on March 6, Saudi Arabia’s leader, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) reportedly pushed the idea of coordinating a reduction of output between Saudi Arabia and Russia. MBS planned to reduce output by over 1 million barrels per day, offsetting the major decrease in demand that had been triggered by the corona crisis to stabilize the market. The plan seemed like it was ready to go through until Moscow announced at the last minute that it would refuse. The Kremlin’s about-face came as a shock to OPEC and the international community who saw the move as an attempt to torpedo and politicize the oil sector.
Indeed, oil prices plunged by nearly 10% following the surprise move. It had been widely expected that the Russians would go along with the plan, simply because the alternative, i.e. leaving oil markets in a high-supply-low-demand frenzy, seemed much worse.
So what was at the heart of Russia’s bizarre decision? Revenge.
Washington imposed sanctions on Russia’s oil giant, Rosneft, a month ago over the company’s continued support in selling Venezuela’s oil. In an effort to retaliate, and perhaps prevent future American sanctions, Moscow was hoping to get Riyadh on its side in a plan to inflict economic pain on US shale producers. Moscow has for long felt American shale has been getting a free ride on the back of OPEC+ production cuts. For Moscow’s plan to work, it would still need the support of OPEC+ to ensure that price drops remained temporary and sustainable, since Russia’s oil economy cannot support its country playing oil politics for too long or for too much.
MSB on his part refused to take Russia’s actions lying down.
Almost immediately after Russia’s decision, Riyadh cut its official selling price for April down to $8, from a previous $14, in an effort to pressure Russia back into a deal. Days later, the Saudi government said it would begin increasing oil output to reach a record 13 million barrels per day. The decision came after authorities had already announced they were planning to increase output to 12.3 million. In a statement, Saudi Aramco, the largest energy producer in the world, stated, “it received a directive from the Ministry of Energy to increase its maximum sustainable capacity from 12 million barrels per day to 13 million.”
In essence, MBS has outmaneuvered the Russians in their attempt to hurt the global market and circumvent the effects of sanctions. In other words, MBS called Russia’s bluff by lowering prices even further so that the Kremlin could not dictate terms to OPEC. An impressive example of standing up to Russian manipulation, something that Western powers have been struggling to do for years.
Russia on its part has been reeling from the effects of the Prince’s decision.
On March 10, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak sought to project confidence, but acknowledged there was a decrease in prices and an increase in volatility. Novak also seemed to have admitted that his government made a mistake and had sought to reach out to the Saudis to “scheduled further meetings to estimate the situation.”
It is important to highlight that Russia was very likely thrown off balance by the Saudi reaction here. Moscow is not used to having its highhanded moves being responded to in kind, and almost certainly did not expect MBS to respond the way he did.
While the future of this fallout is still unknown, one thing is certain: MBS has demonstrated his country will not be another pushover to Russian aggression.