Saudi Arabia is quietly telling oil market participants that Riyadh is comfortable with markedly lower oil prices for an extended period, a sharp shift in policy that may be aimed at slowing the expansion of rival producers including those in the U.S. shale patch.
Some OPEC members including Venezuela are clamoring for urgent production cuts to push global oil prices back up above $100 a barrel. But Saudi officials have telegraphed a different message in private meetings with oil market investors and analysts recently: the kingdom, OPEC's largest producer, is ready to accept oil prices below $90 per barrel, and perhaps down to $80, for as long as a year or two, according to people who have been briefed on the recent conversations.
The discussions, some of which took place in New York over the past week, offer the clearest sign yet that the kingdom is setting aside its longstanding de facto strategy of holding prices at around $100 a barrel for Brent crude in favor of retaining market share in years to come.
The Saudis now appear to be betting that a period of lower prices—which could strain the finances of some members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries—will be necessary to pave the way for higher revenue in the medium term, by curbing new investment and further increases in supply from places like the U.S. shale patch or ultra-deepwater, according to the sources, who declined to be identified due to the private nature of the discussions.
The conversations with Saudi officials did not offer any specific guidance on whether - or by how much - the kingdom might agree to cut output, a move many analysts are expecting in order to shore up a global market that is producing substantially more crude than it can consume. Saudi pumps around a third of OPEC's oil, or some 9.7 million barrels a day.
Asked about coming Saudi output curbs, one Saudi official responded "What cuts?", according to one of the sources.
Also uncertain is whether the Saudi briefings to oil market observers represent a new tack it is committed to, or a talking point meant to cajole other OPEC members to join Riyadh in eventually tightening the taps on supply.
One source not directly involved in the discussions said the kingdom does not necessarily want prices to slide further, but is unwilling to shoulder production cuts unilaterally and is prepared to tolerate lower prices until others in OPEC commit to action.