Saudi Arabia says $30 oil is ‘irrational’

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Saudi Arabia has described the collapse in oil prices to below $30 as "irrational" and expects the market to recover in 2016 even as the country continues to keep production high.

Khalid al-Falih, chairman of state oil company Saudi Aramco, told the World Economic Forum in Davos that current prices would not last, with many smaller producers facing financial difficulties.

"The market has overshot on the low side and it is inevitable that it will start turning up," said Mr Falih, predicting higher prices by the end of the year.

He reiterated that Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, would not cut supplies unilaterally or make way for rival producers.

A surge in US shale output over the past five years has contributed to a global supply glut that has pushed oil prices down 75 per cent in 18 months. The sell-off has accelerated this year, with crude dropping 30 per cent as Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival, prepares to re-enter the market after the lifting of sanctions.

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The latest downward lurch in oil prices comes as fears of a wider global economic slowdown have rattled financial markets and placed further strain on the budgets of Opec's financially weaker members.

While he called the short-term oil outlook "bleak", Mr Falih said Saudi Arabia, which is considering a stock market flotation of part of Saudi Aramco, would weather the downturn better than many of its rivals.

US shale producers are pumping flat out in an attempt to generate enough cash to pay down large debts built up during rapid expansion, as prices averaged near $100 a barrel between 2010 and 2014. Many are predicted to go bankrupt this year if prices do not rise above $30 a barrel.

Saudi Aramco has little debt and pumps almost one in every nine barrels of oil in the world. "If prices stay low we will be able to withstand [it] for a long time," said Mr Falih. "Obviously we don't hope for it."

Several Opec members — including Venezuela and Iraq — are keen to see action to support prices.

On the panel Emmanuel Kachikwu, head of Nigeria's state oil company, called for an emergency meeting of Opec ministers. "The price today is not the right price," he said.

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Saudi Arabia has said it would consider production cuts if other Opec members participated and if the cartel was joined by the largest producers outside the group, such as Russia.

Mr Falih said, however, that in contrast to events such as the global financial crisis, which led Opec to cut its production, the advent of US shale oil had been a structural supply shift.

His comments suggest Saudi Arabia believes cuts may not be able to influence the price even with the help of other countries.

"Saudi Arabia has never advocated that it would take the role of balancing market against [the] structural imbalance that was emerging," said Mr Falih, adding he had always believed $100 oil was too high a price, incentivising rival oil producers and alternative energy sources.

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Highlighting the challenge of managing supply with non-Opec members, Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan, told the panel his country was in principle in favour of cuts but he said these should fall on the largest producers.

"We are not a big producer," he said. "But I think that if we have more co-ordination between Opec members and large non-Opec members with respect to reduction of production then maybe we can have results."

Azerbaijan pumps about 800,000 a barrels a day — less than 1 per cent of global supply.

On Thursday Brent rose $1.46, or 5 per cent, to $29.31 a barrel.