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Oil war escalates as Saudi Arabia and UAE promise a flood of crude

Saudi Aramco’s stock market debut
Officials celebrate the stock market debut of Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company, in Riyadh in December.
(Amr Nabil / Associated Press)

The battle for control of the global oil market intensified Wednesday as Saudi Arabia promised to increase production capacity and the United Arab Emirates said it plans to pump as much as possible next month.

Saudi Arabia said it will boost capacity to an unprecedented 13 million barrels a day, doubling down on Tuesday’s pledge of extra output in April. The UAE, a close Saudi ally, then promised to push more crude to customers than it normally produces. These are fresh shots in an all-out war that has seen prices crash and the outlook for the market darken as nations prepare to pump as much as they can.

“Saudi Arabia is pulling the trigger of its oil bazooka,” said Olivier Jakob, managing director at consultant Petromatrix in Zug, Switzerland.

The moves come after an alliance between the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries cartel — in effect headed by the Gulf nations — and Russia collapsed acrimoniously last week. Russia has announced that it will retaliate by activating additional supplies of its own. Yet Russia has nowhere near the quantities of untapped production held by the Gulf states, and its government has also tempered its message, saying it remains open to resuming cooperation.

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Until Friday, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Russia had been part of a global coalition known as OPEC+, which for the last three years had restricted crude output to shore up prices against a relentless tide of American shale oil. As recently as July, Russia and Saudi Arabia touted their alliance as a marriage to “eternity.”

All of that has now spectacularly collapsed.

Oil futures sank by 31% in a matter of seconds after the open of trading Monday in Asia, the worst decline since the Gulf War in 1991.

The deadly coronavirus outbreak has played a part. Saudi Arabia had been insisting for weeks that the group needed deeper production cuts to tackle the decline in demand caused by the quickly spreading virus. Russia resisted, wanting more evidence of the effect on oil consumption.

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The standoff has drawn in President Trump, who spoke with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the nation’s de facto leader — by phone this week. That followed the U.S. Department of Energy denouncing “attempts by state actors to manipulate and shock oil markets.” The department didn’t name Saudi Arabia or Russia.

Saudi Arabia is showing no signs of relenting. The country’s Energy Ministry, headed by the crown prince’s half-brother, ordered Saudi Aramco to boost its output capacity by 1 million barrels a day, the first increase in at least a decade.

Saudi Arabia’s plan “isn’t the best option” in the current market, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak told reporters in Moscow.

Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. said Wednesday that it will provide customers with 4 million barrels a day next month. That country’s output capacity is 3.5 million barrels a day, according to the International Energy Agency. But the company can ramp up fields beyond their normal capacity to put more supply on the market, according to people with knowledge of its operations.

Saudi Arabia and its allies are also slashing prices for their oil in an attempt to push out Russian crude and secure market share. Iraq and Kuwait followed Aramco in cutting rates to customers all over the world.

A Russian response could come as early as Thursday, when Energy Ministry officials meet oil company executives. They will discuss output plans and the market situation, Novak said.

Oil prices resumed their decline Wednesday, sliding back toward the four-year lows they hit Monday. Brent crude fell 3.8%, or $1.43, to settle at $35.79 a barrel in London, less than half the level the Saudis need to cover government spending.

Smith, Ratcliffe and DiPaola write for Bloomberg.


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