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For Opec, the end of cartelisation nears

Updated December 23, 2018


Opec's control over the crude world is slipping and the organisation is beginning to look weaker and meeker. — File photo
Opec's control over the crude world is slipping and the organisation is beginning to look weaker and meeker. — File photo

The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) has lost some steam — and its clout. Its control over the crude world is slipping and the organisation, that once upon a time held complete sway over the energy world, is beginning to look weaker and meeker.

Already the Opec is no more the sole arbiter of the global energy equation. In the recent months, Saudi Arabia — the Opec kingpin — needed the support of non-Opec Russia to have a sway on the global crude dynamics. This is how the Opec Plus jargon got coined.

Take a look: Russia has the final say on global crude output

Early in December, the Opec Plus moved to put a floor beneath the oil markets. It announced cutting global crude output by 1.2 million barrels per day. Yet that doesn’t seem working — at least for now. Prices continue to go down. The US crude plunged 4.8 per cent on Thursday to $45.88 a barrel. Oil has now lost 40pc of its value in barely two months. And this is despite the output cut agreement. Indeed the growing clout of the US shale output is definitely behind the emerging scenario.

Yet another factor is coming into the equation. From within, the Opec is losing some of its cohesion. There seems a growing feeling within the group, especially among its smaller members, that the group is basically catering to the needs and requirements of Saudi Arabia and the non-Opec Russia and that in the process the interests of smaller members are being overlooked.

Explore: Opec’s crude balancing act amid Iran-Saudi tug of war

Qatar, though a smaller crude producer on the global map, is flexing its energy muscle. And this has political connotations too. After staying loyal to the organisation for almost six decades, it has opted out of the Opec. Although Qatar says the withdrawal reflects the nation’s desire to focus on plans to develop and raise its natural-gas production, yet, most are of the opinion that the move has just as much to do with its dispute with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Qatar leaving Opec is the “equivalent of getting a backbone fracture,” Naeem Aslam, chief market analyst at ThinkMarkets UK, told MarketWatch.

“The organisation may not be able to last,” Aslam underlined. “The message it has sent to other members is that they are better off without the organisation rather than inside it,” he emphasised.

Jeff Yastine, a senior analyst at Banyan Hill, told MarketWatch: “But these days, I believe there’s a gnawing sense that what’s in Saudi Arabia’s best interests … [is] not necessarily in the best interests of its Opec partners.”

He underlined there is a “possibility that Opec breaks up, especially if Saudi Arabia continues under the ham-fisted leadership of (Mohammed bin Salman).” Yastine also said Opec doesn’t necessarily have to “breakup in an active way, but instead merely drifts into irrelevancy.”

Ellen Wald, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center told Al Jazeera that Qatar’s decision to leave the Opec “could signal that smaller producers are growing disgruntled with the cartel’s dominance by Saudi Arabia and Russia.”

“The Qatari leadership is no longer interested in remaining an active part of an organisation that largely shuns it,” the Eurasia Group said in an analysis.

“The two individuals that markets focus on are Saudi Arabia’s energy tsar Khalid al-Falih and Russia’s Alexander Novak. Qatari energy officials are not consulted, at the very least not sufficiently, and its leaders are no longer an active part of the organisation’s machine.”

The timing of Qatari decision to quit Opec could also be seen in a different perspective. It came at a time when the US Department of Justice is reviewing the No Oil Producing and exporting Cartels (Nopec) legislation to rein in the group’s power. This could mean that the US pressure on Opec could grow in near to mid-term.

Earlier in November, The Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Arabia’s top government-funded think tank was studying the possible effects on oil markets of dissolution of Opec. The report however underlined that the research project didn’t reflect an active debate inside the government over whether to leave Opec in the near term.

With Iran and Qatar, both being shunned by their Gulf neighbours, amity between the two on energy-related issues could only grow. After all, Qatar’s offshore North Field, providing virtually all of Qatar’s gas, is shared with Iran.

Regional geopolitics appears a part of this ongoing re-engineering. With the clash of national interests getting intense, Iran, Qatar in association with some other, small oil producing countries could be planning to stand up to the Saudi controlled Opec. This may not be a good omen for the long-term future of the Opec, one can’t help conceding.

Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2018