What the Saudi royal reshuffle means for oil

Saudi Arabia's royal reshuffle causes oil market tension
Saudi Arabia's royal reshuffle causes oil market tension

Uncertainty hit oil markets on Wednesday, with analysts contemplating what a major reshuffle of Saudi Arabia's ruling elite might meant for the commodity.

On Wednesday, it was announced that Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz had appointed a new heir and rotated some of the top ministerial jobs, accelerating the personnel changes set in motion when he took the throne in January.

As Saudi Arabia is the world's top oil exporter and the dominant force in OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), any change to its power structure is of major interest to energy markets. This is particularly the case given OPEC's maintenance of oil production at high levels—in order to retain market share—which is viewed as exacerbating the 40 percent price decline seen since last June.

However, analysts said that Wednesday's personnel changes, which include the promotion of the Deputy Crown Prince to Crown Prince and a new Foreign Minister and Economy Minister, were unlikely to affect Saudi oil production policy.

Eugen Weinberg, head of commodity research at Commerzbank, said that although it was too early to tell, production cuts were unlikely given hints about supplying extra oil to Asia.

"The focus should remain on its (Saudi Arabia's) market share and the latest talk by (Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi) seems to support this view along 'we stay ready to supply more to Asian clients thanks to their stronger demand'," he told CNBC via email.

"I think the market is way too optimistic now and the big price correction might be around the corner."

In a move that could directly affect oil, well-known Saudi businessman Khalid Al-Falih has replaced Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi as chairman of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco) and has also been appointed health minister. Saudi Aramco is the state-owned petroleum and natural gas company.

"I don't think it (the management change) will have much impact," Thomas Pugh, commodities economist at Capital Economics, told CNBC via email.

"The country is unlikely to change its policy of maintaining production as long as Al-Naimi is still oil minister and OPEC delegate. To be fair, even if he were to be changed, it would have to be for someone with a radically different point of view to instigate a change in policy and I'm not sure anyone in Saudi Arabia wants that."

Richard Mallinson, a geopolitical analyst at Energy Aspects, told CNBC that Al-Falih was seen as a natural successor to al-Naimi as the next oil minister.

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"He has been the most commonly associated with the role...but it's by no means certain," Mallinson said via telephone.

The eventual appointment of Al-Falih as Oil Minister would fit with previous practice, according to Mallinson, as both Al-Falih and Al-Naimi were appointed Chairman of Saudi Aramco after previously being CEO. Al-Falih would have a similar strategy to al-Naimi and would likely allow market forces to rebalance the oil price, he added.

Other appointments announced on Wednesday included the appointment of Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef as heir to the throne, according to Reuters, and his son, Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, is now second in line to succeed.

Saudi Arabia is not only the world's biggest exporter of oil but also one of its largest producers. It is the main "swing producer" within OPEC, meaning it is viewed as the most likely member to be able to respond to global oil prices by curbing or increasing production.

OPEC decided to keep oil production steady at the end of the last year despite a dramatic drop in global oil prices. The next meeting is due in June and some OPEC nations—other than Saudi Arabia—have been publicly calling for a cut in production to help boost the commodity's price and restore government revenues that have been hit.

Saudi Arabia, therefore, is watched-closely by oil analysts and market participants. However, oil prices were relatively unchanged on Wednesday, despite the reshuffle. Brent crude futures traded higher at around $66.13 a barrel in late London trading and U.S. WTI crude was higher at $58.77.