Today’s stubbornly-low oil prices are standing in the way of Saudi Arabia’s grand ambitions.
The OPEC kingpin wants to balance its massive budget and simultaneously pull off a $2 trillion valuation for Saudi Aramco, the country’s crown jewel. Both of those challenging efforts require much higher oil prices.
Saudi Arabia’s surprise decision over the weekend to install a new oil minister, its third in just over three years, reflects a sense of urgency about boosting prices ahead of the planned Aramco IPO. The listing would be the largest in history and is at the heart of the sweeping Vision 2030 plan to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy.
“The Saudis are inevitably frustrated. They have gone above and beyond” to lift prices, said Ryan Fitzmaurice, energy strategist at Rabobank.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, did not divulge a reason for the switch. But the elevation of Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud marks the first time that the oil ministry will be run by a member of the royal family. Abdulaziz is both the son of Saudi King Salman and the half-brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the nation’s de facto ruler.
“It’s completely unprecedented,” said Ellen Wald, author of the book “Saudi, Inc.” and president of Transversal Consulting. “It’s possible the monarchy may be more involved in carrying out policy” now, she added.
The new energy minister downplayed the significance of the personnel shuffle, even as it instantly made him one of the most important people in the oil industry.
“We all are civil servants. We work for the government. We fulfill our duties. One person comes and one person goes,” Abdulaziz told CNN’s John Defterios at the World Energy Congress in Abu Dhabi on Monday. “There is nothing radical about it at all.”
Abdulaziz, who has deep experience at the ministry, replaces Khalid al-Falih, the chief architect of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to rebalance the oil market. Al-Falih organized an agreement between OPEC and other major oil producers such as Russia to hold back production. Saudi Arabia took the brunt of those output cuts.
Abdulaziz signaled support for the agreement to continue.
“With the will of everybody yes it will survive,” he told CNN on Monday.
Saudi Arabia needs $80+ oil to balance budget
Although the cooperation between oil-producing nations successfully put a floor beneath prices, crude has yet to return to the lofty levels Saudi Arabia had been hoping for.
After crashing to $26 a barrel in early 2016, US oil prices briefly topped $75 last October. However, crude is currently sitting below $60. Brent, the global benchmark, is trading at $62 a barrel, well below the $80-$85 that Saudi Arabia requires to balance its budget.
“Clearly they need high prices for the IPO and on a fiscal basis to support military plans and social programs,” said Michael Tran, director of global energy strategy at RBC Capital Markets. “The entire country is intertwined with oil prices.”
The problem is that, rather than oil fundamentals, cheap crude prices are a byproduct of forces mostly outside of Riyadh’s control.
“The oil market today is being ruled by speculation about future demand weakness and by these concerns of a global recession and the US-China trade war,” said Wald. “I don’t think making a change at the top will change that.”
Aramco IPO looms
Another knock against Al-Falih was his reluctance about the Aramco listing. Crown Prince bin Salman is aiming for a $2 trillion valuation — a lofty figure that has been met with skepticism from analysts and requires far higher oil prices.
A senior OPEC source told CNN Business last week that Al-Falih had “never been enthusiastic about an IPO for Aramco.”
Aramco CEO Amin Nasser told reporters Tuesday that the company was ready to list right away.
“As you heard from his Royal Highness Prince Abdulaziz yesterday, it’s going to be very soon so we are ready, that’s the bottom line,” Nasser told reporters.
By removing Al-Falih from Aramco and installing a new oil minister, Saudi Arabia has put some distance between the oil behemoth it owns and the government agency overseeing energy policy. Assuming that continues, it would mark a shift from a previous policy of close coordination.
“Aramco kind of took over the oil ministry in 1995 and it has been that way since then. It seems they want more separation,” said Wald.
That distance could help shield Aramco from potential antitrust scrutiny in the United States or elsewhere, Wald said.
Will Saudi launch another oil price war?
The switch at the top of Saudi Arabia’s energy ministry has raised speculation that the kingdom could shift course by restarting the market share war it waged in 2014 under former oil minister Ali al-Naimi. By ramping up output then, Saudi Arabia sought to limit the growth of high-cost oil producers, namely shale producers in the United States.
But analysts doubt the kingdom will return to that strategy, which proved painful for many parties, including Saudi Arabia itself.
“You can’t go back to a market share battle. You can’t afford oil prices to move materially lower,” said RBC’s Tran.
Besides, US shale producers have only gotten stronger over the past five years, bolstered by new technology, lower drilling costs and the belated entry of oil giants ExxonMobil (XOM) and Chevron (CVX). The United States didn’t just survive the last battle with OPEC; it is now the world’s largest oil producer.
“We think US shale has become the anti-fragile: something that once shocked comes back faster, stronger and more resilient than before,” said Tran. “Saudi Arabia, and the rest of OPEC, know this.”
Instead of ditching al-Falih’s strategy, Saudi Arabia is more likely to try to improve on it. That includes cracking down on OPEC nations like Iraq that are pumping too much oil and by considering even deeper production cuts to offset demand jitters.
“The Saudis will be looking to double down on their policy,” said Tran. “The Saudis are in do-whatever-it-takes mode.”
CNN’s Nada Altaher and Mark Thompson contributed to this report.