WASHINGTON – Saudi Arabia and Russia are the leading world oil producers and exporters. Energy Ministers from both countries met in Qatar to discuss a possible agreement leading to production cuts. They were joined by Qatar and Venezuela.
But nothing really happened. The only “agreement” reached by the two oil exporting giants, (the other two participants are not very consequential), is to freeze their production at January levels, an all time high. So this does not mean much.
Besides, the agreement is contingent on Iran and Iraq not raising their production beyond this level. And this is almost impossible. Iran wants to ramp up its production to pre-sanctions levels. This translates into adding another one million barrels a day beyond the 400,00 it has already added. Iraq desperately needs cash to finance its counter-insurgency efforts against ISIL in the North West of the country. So, expect no production freezes from these two key OPEC members.
Too much oil
The current oil production glut, intentionally allowed by Saudi Arabia when it refused to cut production when confronted with lower prices in 2014, is hurting both Russia and Saudi Arabia. And, as noted above, the situation is about to get worse. With the lifting of international sanctions, Iran is now free to export more to Europe and elsewhere. We can expect more than 1.4 million barrels of additional Iranian oil to hit already saturated markets in the near future. For sure, this over supply will keep crude prices down. They are around $ 30 right now, down to just 1/3 of what they used to be before this glut began.
Saudi Arabia can tolerate the financial pain caused by the huge oil revenue loss, for now, but not indefinitely. Likewise, the Russian government has been forced to cut spending, repeatedly, while dipping into a reserve fund to cover the substantial revenue shortfall. Depressed crude prices are really bad for both countries.
While no breakthrough took place in Qatar, may be it is time for the Saudis to get a deal with Russia. The problem is that Saudi Arabia is also concerned with retaining market share. If it cuts production, it will lose some customers. And others who are not cutting may end up benefiting. (Think Iraq and Iran, among others).
Can they agree?
Hence the importance of a deal with Russia, the other giant exporter. The two of them combined control 20 millions barrels of production. Still, is such a deal really possible?
In theory, yes. In practice, we would be entering uncharted territory. This has not been done before. Russia is not an OPEC member. Besides, Russia is not viewed as a friend by the Saudis. Moscow is on good terms with Iran, while it heavily supports Assad in Syria.
Can the two countries go beyond these major political differences, and strike a deal that would benefit both of them financially, in a major way?
As we are getting closer to what begins to look like an emergency situation caused by oil revenue collapse, a production cut agreement between Moscow and Riyadh is just possible.
The meeting in Qatar was inconclusive. Still it counts as an exploratory talk between two critical players that until today had no established venue for bilateral energy talks.
Will there be more meetings? Can the two sides get a real deal, a deal that will cut production, and therefore lift oil prices? I would not rule this out. Both Russia and Saudi Arabia badly need more cash.