Oil markets were already on a knife’s edge before the controversy surrounding the Oct. 2 disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But if the chances of oil prices spiking to $100 a barrel was high before, it may be inevitable now with Saudi Arabia making thinly veiled threats to use its unrivaled oil production capacity as a political weapon as the Khashoggi matter keeps twisting and turning.
Reports out of Turkey that Khashoggi, a U.S.-based Washington Post columnist and Saudi government critic, was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul have the potential to roil oil markets that were already on the cusp of exploding because of imminent U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil sector and the continued meltdown in Venezuela.
Saudi Arabia, at the behest of President Trump, has been dutifully pumping more oil in recent months to keep a lid on oil markets, where benchmark Brent crude is about $76 a barrel. The kingdom planned to produce a near-record 10.7 million barrels a day this month and had indicated it was prepared to use its full capacity of 12 million barrels a day if necessary as the Trump administration seeks to bury Iran’s oil exports starting Nov. 5 when sanctions kick in.
Suddenly this no longer looks like a sure bet. Trump has warned that Riyadh could face “severe punishment” if it is implicated in Khashoggi’s disappearance or murder, while a group of U.S. senators has called for an investigation, triggering a process that could eventually require the White House to decide on whether to sanction members of the Saudi government.
The Saudi leadership, meanwhile, has denied any wrongdoing and says sanctions will be met by “even stronger measures.” Riyadh specifically notes that the “kingdom’s economy has an influential role in the global economy.” Given that the kingdom's economy is almost wholly dependent on oil revenues, this is a threat to use its oil supplies as a political weapon.
Confounding matters further, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih used a speech in New Delhi on Monday to try to soothe markets, assuring “petroleum consumers around the world that we want to continue to support the growth of the global economy, the prosperity of consumers around the world.”
Oil markets are left to make sense of this “good cop, bad cop” routine, amid Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman calling Khashoggi's killing a "heinous crime."
Trump meanwhile seems increasingly less inclined to take a hard line, downplaying the prospect of sanctioning Saudi Arabia or limiting U.S. arms sales to the kingdom, citing the potential for “rogue killers” after a phone conversation with King Salman.
How that position would play at home politically for Trump’s GOP, with the impending midterm elections, remains to be seen.
But the episode serves as a good reminder of the pitfalls of relying too heavily on Saudi Arabia and OPEC for affordable energy. It was not long ago the U.S. was the focus of global oil markets, with shale production growing so rapidly that experts believed there would be a $50-$60 a barrel cap on oil prices for the foreseeable future. But all that changed when Trump vowed to reduce the exports of Iran, some 2.2 million barrels a day, to zero after pulling the U.S. out of a nuclear deal with OPEC’s third-largest producer. Venezuela’s meltdown, also hastened by U.S. policy, has further stoked fears of supply shortages in the future.
The reality is that the U.S. now depends on Saudi Arabia to manage the global oil market. Lest it also not be forgotten that U.S. refiners still import more than 850,000 barrels a day of Saudi oil — a heavy, sour blend that shale formations don’t produce.
Despite Riyadh’s bold talk about economic and social reforms, the Khashoggi incident is another sign that change is often one step forward, two steps back in the kingdom. The Saudi leadership’s crackdown and shakedown of political opponents last December was an early red flag for investors contemplating participation in “Vision 2030,” Crown Prince Mohammed’s broad economic reform plan aimed at diversifying away from petroleum and bringing in more foreign investment. The subsequent decision to delay the IPO of state oil giant Aramco indefinitely was another hint Saudi Arabia is closed for business, and oil policy decisions would remain in the royal court.
The Trump administration can’t forget what kind of partner it has in Riyadh. It must get the diplomacy right while remembering that some things never change. The White House would be wise to focus on what it can control to keep energy prices under control in the near term. Taking Iran’s exports all the way to zero isn’t necessary to inflict severe economic pain on Tehran. Granting sanctions waivers to some Asian allies would keep some Iranian oil flowing and help keep prices in check.
Meanwhile, it’s time to put U.S. “energy dominance” back at the top of the agenda, particularly if countries like Russia and possibly Saudi Arabia will use it as a political weapon. U.S. oil and gas production and exports have grown to the point where infrastructure bottlenecks are slowing the pace of growth. Trump has promised a $1 trillion infrastructure program, financed by public-private partnerships, but has yet to deliver. Such a program could go a long way to unleash more U.S. energy into global markets, leaving America less vulnerable to power plays by Mideast states with poor human rights track records.
Dan K. Eberhart is CEO of Canary, LLC, a Phoenix-based drilling-services company and one of the largest private oiifield services companies in the United States.