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Oil prices: The Saudis look to thread the needle

By Greg Priddy

Saudi Arabia faces a complex set of challenges in its role as leading member of OPEC amid ongoing economic and financial market volatility. After achieving an unprecedented level of compliance with OPEC production cuts from other members earlier this year, the kingdom now confronts a problem: compliance is beginning to fray, even as a weakening of the U.S. dollar and a surge in global equities markets push the oil market surging ahead.

If the breakout above $75 per barrel for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil is sustained and the momentum continues, it's entirely possible that Saudi Arabia will intervene to try to tamp down prices. If that happens, it wouldn't be as part of any understanding with the United States -- a relationship now under serious strain -- but from pure self-interest. With the global economic recovery still fragile, a rapid momentum-driven escalation in oil prices could weigh on consumer confidence and economic growth. That could produce a drop in oil prices. Saudi Oil Minister Ali al Naimi has spoken in recent months of a "goldilocks" range for crude oil at around $75 per barrel, and hinted at action to blunt any sustained push past $80 per barrel.

The Saudis also need to manage price increases to maintain pressure on Iran. Iran's nuclear progress has Gulf Arab governments on edge -- and the Saudis, in particular, would like to avoid taking any action that provides Iran's government with extra revenue. The Saudi government can balance its budget with WTI crude oil in the vicinity of the high $50s. That means they are now replenishing reserves at a rapid pace after running a deficit for the first half of this year. Despite spending cuts, Iran is still under financial pressure, and the Saudis would like to keep it that way.

Managing output levels and prices will be difficult, given that global inventories of crude oil and petroleum products remain well above their normal ranges. Any move by the Saudis to tamp down a surge in prices would likely involve a modest amount of increased exports -- say 500,000 bpd -- and could be pulled back once it has its intended effect of breaking the market's momentum. To bring inventories down, however, the leading Gulf Arab members of OPEC (Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Kuwait) will need to keep their own output well below pre-September 2008 levels through at least the end of 2010. Right now, compliance outside the Gulf Arab members has receded, particularly in Iran and Angola. Nigeria remains at its target, but that's a result of the continuing violence in the Niger Delta, not a policy decision to keep its promises.  

Greg Priddy is a Global Energy & Natural Resources analyst at Eurasia Group.

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