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US, Western Diplomats See Political Motive Behind OPEC Oil Cut


A view of the meeting of oil ministers of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, at their headquarters in Vienna, Austria, Dec. 6, 2018.

Despite repeated calls by U.S. President Donald Trump for oil production to remain steady, the Saudi-led Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, along with Russia and its allies, announced Friday they would cut their pumping of crude to reduce oil flows onto the global market by 1.2 million barrels of per day, a bigger-than-expected cut.

OPEC officials say there was no political motive behind the decision, arguing an oil glut forced the move and that their decision was spurred by oversupply concerns and forecasts for lower demand next year — as well as a surge of shale oil production in the U.S.

Price slide

Oil economists agree that a reduction is needed to stem a further slide in prices, which fell 30 percent in October, and OPEC's decision was praised by many market analysts.

Harry Tchilinguirian, head of commodity markets strategy at BNP Paribas, told Bloomberg: "Given how much expectations were downplayed around the outcome of this meeting, this result comes as a welcome surprise. OPEC has given the oil market a rudder that appeared largely absent."

Oil prices surged following the announcement, with a barrel of Brent crude jumping nearly 6 percent, to $63.11.

FILE - Candles, lit by activists, protesting the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, are placed outside Saudi Arabia's consulate, in Istanbul, during a candlelight vigil, Oct. 25, 2018.
FILE - Candles, lit by activists, protesting the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, are placed outside Saudi Arabia's consulate, in Istanbul, during a candlelight vigil, Oct. 25, 2018.

But with the U.S. Senate determined to punish Saudi Arabia for the killing in October of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and prominent critic of the Gulf kingdom's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, some Western diplomats and analysts aren't so sure that the Saudi-led cut was without a political motive.

They argue Riyadh's determination to force through a larger-than-expected cut was partly a warning shot in line with thinly veiled threats by Saudi officials to jolt the global economy, if the U.S. moves to impose sanctions on the kingdom for Khashoggi's brazen killing.

Pledge on sanctions

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has vowed to sanction Saudi Arabia after a briefing by CIA Director Gina Haspel convinced them the Saudi crown prince ordered the killing, which took place Oct. 2 in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he wanted to "sanction the hell out of" the Saudi government.

"A cut in production is one thing, but this was much larger than was forecast; and the Saudis had to go out of their way to persuade Moscow to agree," a senior British diplomat said.

Initially, the Kremlin refused to scale back its own output at the meeting in Vienna, and Russian envoy Alexander Novak had to rush back to Moscow for talks. On Friday, the Saudi and Russian envoys haggled in Vienna for two hours, consulting their governments by phone during the bargaining, OPEC officials said.

Some analysts see the Russian agreement for the production cut as further evidence of the warming ties between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Saudi crown prince, who enthusiastically shared a high-five a hand slap at last week's Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires.

In the run-up to the meeting featuring the OPEC countries and a so-called Russia-led super cartel of 10 oil-producing countries, including Kazakhstan, analysts had forecast that a muddled middle course would be plotted, with Saudi Arabia likely to be more cautious about defying Trump while moving to bump up prices.

On Wednesday, the U.S. leader tweeted he hoped OPEC would "be keeping oil flows as is, not restricted." He added: "The World does not want to see, or need, higher oil prices!"

In October as sanctions talk flared in Washington, Saudi officials warned that the Gulf kingdom could exploit its oil status to disrupt the global economy, if it wanted. The Saudi government threatened to retaliate against any punishment such as economic sanctions, outside political pressure or even "repeated false accusations" about the Khashoggi killing, although it walked back the threat subsequently following signs that the Trump administration had no appetite for imposing sanctions on the long-term U.S. ally.

FILE - A worker hangs from an oil derrick outside Williston, N.D., where oil is taken from the Bakken shale formation.
FILE - A worker hangs from an oil derrick outside Williston, N.D., where oil is taken from the Bakken shale formation.

Saudi Arabia doesn't wield the same level of power on the oil market — thanks in part to U.S. shale oil production — as it did in 1973, when it triggered an oil embargo against Western countries for supporting Israel. However, it still wields enormous influence, analysts say. The U.S. is the third-biggest destination for Saudi crude. OPEC accounts for about one-third of global crude production.

If the U.S. Congress decides to impose sanctions, the Saudis could react by reducing oil exports further and force prices to rise to $100 a barrel, some market experts said.

Exemptions for importers

U.S. officials said they had expected that OPEC would decide to cut production. They said that is why U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo granted exemptions last month for eight oil-importing countries to continue to buy oil from Tehran when announcing details of the reimposition of sanctions against Iran.

This week, U.S. senators are due to take aim at the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen and will hold an unprecedented vote on ending U.S. support for the war.

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