What's more than a frenemy? How about a frenemesis? An unlikely, tense bromance has emerged between Khalid al-Falih, Saudi Arabia's minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources, and Alexander Novak, his Russian counterpart.and more »
Keeping the Boss Happy
MR. FALIH Mr. Falih has the unenviable job of catering to the whims of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s policymaker in chief. As chairman of the national oil company, Saudi Aramco, Mr. Falih has presided over what has been billed as the largest initial public offering in history, with an estimated valuation of $1 trillion (if it ever happens). Then when the crown prince, know as MBS, cooled on the plan, it fell to Mr. Falih to answer questions about why it was not moving ahead.
MR. NOVAK Mr. Novak, too, has to walk a line. With prices low, there was little question that cutting output was in Russia’s interest. Prices rose, boosting Russia’s income, and gave Mr. Putin, for the first time, a seat in OPEC councils, which can strongly influence markets. Higher prices open the way for the chiefs of Russia’s oil companies, like the formidable Igor Sechin of Rosneft, to argue that restraints are no longer necessary.
Steady as He Goes
MR. FALIH Mr. Falih has communicated the strength of the Saudi economy by declaring that “if prices continue to be low, we will be able to withstand it for a long, long time.”
MR. NOVAK Despite all the artificial pushes and prods in production and market share, Mr. Novak routinely remarks that “fundamentally the market is balancing out.”
MR. FALIH Iran’s OPEC governor, Hossein Kazempour Ardebili, and the Iranian oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, have openly criticized Mr. Falih’s push for greater output (and the cheaper oil that comes with it). Mr. Falih is motivated in part by United States interests; the Trump administration is looking to renew restrictions on Iranian crude exports by November.
MR. NOVAK In July, Mr. Novak met Mr. Zanganeh in Moscow to discuss cooperation between Iran and Russia, including the prospect of Russian oil companies actively participating in Iranian oil projects.
MR. FALIH Once again, the Saudis face a tricky problem as they try to keep prices in a range that is to their liking. By reimposing sanctions, the Trump administration is removing Iranian oil from the market, but how low Tehran’s exports will go is a big unknown. The Saudis want to compensate for lost Iranian barrels, but they don’t want to put so much oil on the market that prices crash. They also want to avoid unnecessarily antagonizing Iran, whose officials have already criticized the Saudis for being willing to sell additional oil at Iran’s expense.
MR. NOVAK The Russian minister is also conflicted when it comes to Iran. The two countries are neighbors and uneasy allies on the side of President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian conflict. The Russians won’t like to look as if they are siding with the Saudis and the United States against the Iranians. But in oil politics, self-interest usually prevails.
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