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Saudi Arabia is playing chicken with its oil

In August 1973, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat paid a secret visit to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, to meet with King Faisal. Sadat was preparing for war with Israel, and he needed Saudi Arabia to use its most powerful weapon: oil.

Until then, King Faisal had been reluctant for the Arab members of OPEC to use the "oil weapon." But as the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war unfolded, the Arab oil producers raised prices, cut production and imposed an embargo on oil exports to punish the United States for its support of Israel. Without Saudi Arabia, the oil embargo would not have gotten very far.

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Today, Saudi Arabia is once again using its "oil weapon," but instead of driving up prices and cutting supply, it's doing the reverse. In the face of a global slide in oil prices since June, the kingdom has refused to cut its production, which would help to drive prices back up. Instead, the Saudis led the charge to prevent OPEC from cutting production at the cartel's last meeting on Nov 27.

Employees work on an offshore oil platform in the Persian Gulf, off of Saudi Arabia.
Reza | Getty Images
Employees work on an offshore oil platform in the Persian Gulf, off of Saudi Arabia.

The consequences of Saudi policy are impossible to ignore. After two years of stable prices at around $105 to $110 a barrel, Brent blend, the international benchmark, fell from $112 a barrel in June to around $65 on Friday. "What is the reason for the United States and some U.S. allies wanting to drive down the price of oil?" Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro asked rhetorically in October. His answer? "To harm Russia."

That is partially true, but Saudi Arabia's gambit is more complex.

The kingdom has two targets in its latest oil war: it is trying to squeeze U.S. shale oil—which requires higher prices to remain competitive with conventional production—out of the market. More broadly, the Saudis are also punishing two rivals, Russia and Iran, for their support of Bashar al-Assad's regime in the Syrian civil war. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, regional and world powers have played out a series of proxy battles there.

While Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been arming many of the Syrian rebels, the Iranian regime—and to a lesser extent, Russia—have provided the weapons and funding to keep Assad in power.

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Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the traditional centers of power in the Arab world—Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states—have been nervous about the growing influence of Iran: its nuclear ambitions, its sway over the Iraqi government, its support for the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, and its alliance with Syria.

The conflict is now a full-blown proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is playing out across the region. Both sides increasingly see their rivalry as a winner-take-all conflict: if the Shi'ite Hezbollah gains an upper hand in Lebanon, then the Sunnis of Lebanon—and by extension, their Saudi patrons—lose a round to Iran. If a Shi'ite-led government solidifies its control of Iraq, then Iran will have won another round.

Today, the House of Saud rushes to shore up its allies in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and wherever else it fears Iran's nefarious influence. And the kingdom is striking back at Iran, and Russia, with its most effective weapon.

Russia and Iran are highly dependent on stable oil prices. By many estimates, Russia needs prices at around $100 a barrel to meet its budget commitments. Iran, facing Western sanctions and economic isolation, needs even higher prices. Already, Iran has taken an economic hit from Saudi actions. On Nov. 30, as a result of OPEC's decision not to increase production, the Iranian rial dropped nearly six percent against the dollar.

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The kingdom believes it can protect itself from the impact of the price drops. It can always increase oil production to make up for falling prices, or soften the blow of lower profits by accessing some of its $750 billion stashed in foreign reserves.

Still, Saudi Arabia is playing a dangerous game—there is little evidence that authoritarian regimes like Russia and Iran would change their behavior under economic pressure. Worse, the Saudi policy could backfire, making Russia and especially Iran more intransigent in countering Saudi influence in the Middle East.

With ongoing proxy wars in Syria and Iraq, Saudi Arabia risks instigating an oil war with Russia and Iran—a war that the kingdom can perhaps win in the short term. But like sectarian conflict, Saudi actions threaten a conflagration that can spin out of everyone's control.