The oil price drop that has dominated the headlines in recent weeks has been framed almost exclusively in terms of oil market economics, with most media outlets blaming Saudi Arabia, through its OPEC Trojan horse, for driving down the price, thus causing serious damage to the world’s major oil exporters – most notably Russia.
While the market explanation is partially true, it is simplistic, and fails to address key geopolitical pressure points in the Middle East.
Oilprice.com looked beyond the headlines for the reason behind the oil price drop, and found that the explanation, while difficult to prove, may revolve around control of oil and gas in the Middle East and the weakening of Russia, Iran and Syria by flooding the market with cheap oil.
The oil weapon
We don’t have to look too far back in history to see Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and producer, using the oil price to achieve its foreign policy objectives. In 1973, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat convinced Saudi King Faisal to cut production and raise prices, then to go as far as embargoing oil exports, all with the goal of punishing the United States for supporting Israel against the Arab states. It worked. The “oil price shock” quadrupled prices.
It happened again in 1986, when Saudi Arabia-led OPEC allowed prices to drop precipitously, and then in 1990, when the Saudis sent prices plummeting as a way of taking out Russia, which was seen as a threat to their oil supremacy. In 1998, they succeeded. When the oil price was halved from $25 to $12, Russia defaulted on its debt.
The Saudis and other OPEC members have, of course, used the oil price for the obverse effect, that is, suppressing production to keep prices artificially high and member states swimming in “petrodollars”. In 2008, oil peaked at $147 a barrel.
Turning to the current price drop, the Saudis and OPEC have a vested interest in taking out higher-cost competitors, such as US shale oil producers, who will certainly be hurt by the lower price. Even before the price drop, the Saudis were selling their oil to China at a discount. OPEC’s refusal on Nov. 27 to cut production seemed like the baldest evidence yet that the oil price drop was really an oil price war between Saudi Arabia and the US.
However, analysis shows the reasoning is complex, and may go beyond simply taking down the price to gain back lost marketshare.
“What is the reason for the United States and some U.S. allies wanting to drive down the price of oil?” Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro asked rhetorically in October. “To harm Russia.”
Many believe the oil price plunge is the result of deliberate and well-planned collusion on the part of the United States and Saudi Arabia to punish Russia and Iran for supporting the murderous Assad regime in Syria.
Punishing Assad and friends
Proponents of this theory point to a Sept. 11 meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi King Abdullah at his palace on the Red Sea. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, it was during that meeting that a deal was hammered out between Kerry and Abdullah. In it, the Saudis would support Syrian airstrikes against Islamic State (ISIS), in exchange for Washington backing the Saudis in toppling Assad.
If in fact a deal was struck, it would make sense, considering the long-simmering rivalry between Saudi Arabia and its chief rival in the region: Iran. By opposing Syria, Abdullah grabs the opportunity to strike a blow against Iran, which he sees as a powerful regional rival due to its nuclear ambitions, its support for militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, and its alliance with Syria, which it provides with weapons and funding. The two nations are also divided by religion, with the majority of Saudis following the Sunni version of Islam, and most Iranians considering themselves Shi’ites.
“The conflict is now a full-blown proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is playing out across the region,” Reuters reported on Dec. 15. “Both sides increasingly see their rivalry as a winner-take-all conflict: if the Shi’ite Hezbollah gains an upper hand in Lebanon, then the Sunnis of Lebanon—and by extension, their Saudi patrons—lose a round to Iran. If a Shi’ite-led government solidifies its control of Iraq, then Iran will have won another round.”
The Saudis know the Iranians are vulnerable on the oil price. Experts say the country needs $140 a barrel oil to balance its budget; at sub-$60 prices, the Saudis succeed in pressuring Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, possibly containing its nuclear ambitions and making the country more pliable to the West, which has the power to reduce or lift sanctions if Iran cooperates.
Adding credence to this theory, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told a Cabinet meeting earlier this month that the fall in oil prices was “politically motivated” and a “conspiracy against the interests of the region, the Muslim people and the Muslim world.”
Some commentators have offered a more conspiratorial theory for the Saudis wanting to get rid of Assad. They point to a 2011 agreement between Syria, Iran and Iraq that would see a pipeline running from the Iranian Port Assalouyeh to Damascus via Iraq. The $10-billion project would take three years to complete and would be fed gas from the South Pars gas field, which Iran shares with Qatar. Iranian officials have said they plan to extend the pipeline to the Mediterranean to supply gas to Europe – in competition with Qatar, the world’s largest LNG exporter.