Saudi Arabia's lust for US$100 ($139) oil looks like self-harm. The kingdom needs higher prices to pay for economic reforms and its war in Yemen but its strategy also brings with it big risks for the global markets it provides. A return to the cursed boom and bust commodity cycles of previous eras could be equally bad for both producers and consumers.

Just over a year of production cuts have almost restored balance to the market. Opec's own estimates suggest that OECD commercial inventories have fallen to around 50 million barrels above their five-year moving average, down from 340 million barrels three years ago when prices first started to sink. The turnaround has come from unprecedented co-operation between Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Joined by the rest of Opec and a collection of smaller producers circling the wagons, these two energy superpowers have reduced the world's supply of crude by 1.8 million barrels per day (b/d) since last January.

Few experts expected their alliance to last this long. Previous attempts to work together had failed and Opec's own track record of sticking to quotas was patchy at best. Some analysts also feared that once he was re-elected Russia's president, Vladimir Putin would quickly tire of his "entente cordiale" with Saudi Arabia and the 13 other members in the oil producer group.

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But instead of breaking up, their unity is stronger than ever with their mission almost accomplished. The foundations are now even being laid for a new "timeless" energy alliance controlling almost half the world's supply of oil. Pushing crude prices back to US$100 per barrel serves both their interests.

The kingdom needs crude above US$70 a barrel to balance its budget and replenish its reserves, according to the International Monetary Fund. Crucially, its desire to raise US$100 billion from the sale of shares in state-owned oil producer Saudi Aramco probably hinges on higher prices boosting its valuation.

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Meanwhile, the bill for fighting its protracted war against Houthi tribesmen in the mountains of Yemen is getting higher. However, the return of higher oil prices could be a pyrrhic victory for Riyadh as it derails the need for social and economic reforms, which are the cornerstone of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's grand vision for his future kingdom.

Oil at US$100 would also cure Russia's economic malaise. The world's largest producer of oil and gas wants higher prices to prevent slow and painful economic strangulation from tougher sanctions imposed by the West.

Two years of economic stagnation has forced Moscow to be more prudent with its oil riches. Any revenue from crude trading above US$40 per barrel will now be siphoned off and ring fenced in a national welfare fund instead of being squandered to fund the state budget.

However, the Kremlin's tightening grip over the world's energy supplies combined with its Saudi alliance is a big potential worry for Putin's enemies in the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) greets King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia at the Grand Kremlin Palaceon in Moscow, Russia. Picture / Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) greets King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia at the Grand Kremlin Palaceon in Moscow, Russia. Picture / Getty Images

Riyadh's closer relationship with Moscow is awkward for the kingdom's major Western allies, especially given fears of a new Cold War with the former Soviet state.

Britain, the US and France have historic political ties with the kingdom, essentially guaranteeing its security since the end of the Second World War in return for secure supplies of oil to world markets.

Although Russia, which is the largest supplier of oil and gas to Europe, maintains it won't use energy as a weapon, the risks cannot be ignored by consumers. All these geopolitical tensions following US-led military strikes in Syria have pushed crude to levels not seen since November 2014.

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The danger is that a return to triple-digit prices could also be self-defeating.

S&P Global Platts Analytics expects world demand to surpass 100 million b/d this year for the first time, while the oil industry has been starved of investment for far too long.

Higher energy prices will add to inflationary risks already bubbling in major markets at a difficult time for central banks, and undermine strong oil demand.

A return of boom and bust commodity cycles could add to the economic problems facing the custodians of the financial system. Prices hitting US$100 could also trigger a race to pump. US oil output is expected to average 10.9 million b/d this year, up by more than 1.5 million b/d from 2017.

A return to the cursed boom and bust commodity cycles of previous eras could be equally bad for both producers and consumers. Picture / 123RF
A return to the cursed boom and bust commodity cycles of previous eras could be equally bad for both producers and consumers. Picture / 123RF

Meanwhile, international oil companies will come under pressure to loosen their vice-like grip on investment and start ploughing billions into mega upstream oil projects, which have the greatest potential to generate free cash flow.

Discipline with Opec to abide by quotas could also come under pressure. With prices above US$70 per barrel, smaller producers may try to squeeze out every last drop of crude.

However, starved of investment, many are already pumping at full choke even with current supply restrictions. Some like Venezuela and Iran may also struggle to maintain output. Tehran - Opec's third-largest producer - could be hit at any moment by tougher US sanctions.

If Saudi Arabia is positioning itself as a price hawk then its regional rival Iran is a dove. Tehran has gone along with Riyadh's plans in Opec but the country's oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, has warned that oil prices may already be too high for markets to absorb.

Meanwhile, harsh military rule in Caracas has resulted in workers quitting Venezuela's oilfields in droves. Major General Manuel Quevedo - the country's inexperienced oil minister - is also scheduled to take over the revolving presidency of Opec next year when the group is widely expected to begin tapering its current policy.

"We have had three years of strong Opec leadership from the revolving presidency but with Venezuela now taking over next year we could be heading towards a chaotic period," says Helima Croft at RBC Capital Markets.

Top Russian and Opec officials were to gather this weekend in Saudi Arabia for key technical meetings. The summit comes as industry insiders let it be known to Reuters that oil prices trading between US$80 and US$100 would be a good outcome for the kingdom. But by setting its aspirations so high Riyadh could be playing Russian roulette with oil markets.