Saudi Arabia's 30-year-old deputy crown prince may have already tanked any hope of an oil deal.
Oil-producing countries from inside and outside of OPEC hope to strike a deal this weekend to freeze production in order to stabilize the price of crude. Since Saudi Arabia, Russia and others first agreed to a meeting in February, oil prices have been supported at somewhat higher levels.
Other than Russian President Vladimir Putin, there's no single individual seen as having more sway over the world oil market, and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is critical to the success or failure of this weekend's meeting in Doha, Qatar.
While there still could be a deal, some analysts see the chances of a meaningful agreement as slim. The reason is that bin Salman stated the kingdom's position and is unlikely to change his mind, barring a dramatic about-face in behavior from Iran.
"This could be the mother of all buy-the-rumor, sell-the-news," said John Kilduff, partner at Again Capital.
In a five-hour interview with Bloomberg, bin Salman recently laid out his position on a freeze deal, saying Saudi Arabia would participate only if major producers, including Iran, also participate.
"Actually I think nothing is going to happen there. I think the likelihood is that the Saudis will continue to say the conditions are not right for a freeze in production," said Edward Morse, global head of commodities research at Citigroup. "It's a combination of factors. They have the excuse that Iran is not part of it, but I think overall Saudi strategy has been a function of recognition that there's oversupply in the market, and if they don't take the market share, someone else will."
Iran has said it would participate in the Doha meeting this weekend, but it will not freeze production. Iran is working to return oil to market, now that it is no longer under sanctions for its nuclear program, and its goal is to bring back 1 million barrels in a year.
"If all countries including Iran, Russia, Venezuela, OPEC countries and all main producers freeze production, we will be among them," bin Salman told Bloomberg. He also said that Saudi Arabia was not threatened by the drop in oil prices. Analysts say that comment signaled a willingness to persevere with low prices as long as it takes to end the supply glut.
"I think he's the biggest wild card factor," said Helima Croft, chief commodities strategist at RBC Capital Markets.
Croft said she expects the producers will still try to get a deal, as they all are feeling the pain of lower prices. They face budget shortfalls and possible debt downgrades.
In order to get a deal, Iran would need to come to the table with some sort of production agreement that would be viewed as acceptable to Saudi Arabia, but that could prove difficult, she said.
"It's going to require creativity this week. I think the effort will be made ... you have the Kuwaitis out there, saying 'We're going to get a deal.' You have these other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries still holding out hope. I think they're invested in trying to get this thing done," said Croft. "I think what they're looking to do is close their fiscal gap ... they are all concerned about increased borrowing costs."
Francisco Blanch, Bank of America Merrill Lynch's head of global commodities and derivatives research, said he sees a slight chance Iran could agree to something, possibly a production cap just slightly above its current 3.2 million barrels a day output.
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"The downside risk is the Doha meeting ends up being another big disappointment, like the previous OPEC meetings have been. There is risk of that. We know there's a proposal on the table. We know the market has bounced somewhat on that proposal. It's also somewhat on the back of other seasonal factors that are driving prices higher. I still think even if we get some kind of freeze agreement and OPEC stops talking the market down, that leaves us where we are," said Blanch.
However, if there is no deal, oil could trade lower immediately. West Texas Intermediate crude futures settled just above $40 per barrel Monday, and Brent was just under $43. Blanch expects Brent to trade at around $47 per barrel this summer and above $50 at year-end.
The final decision on Saudi participation is up to bin Salman and the kingdom is the key to the deal. "This prince is a son of the king, who looks like he's the heir apparent to the king and he seems to be calling the shots," said Morse. The son of King Salman, bin Salman is deputy to his cousin, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, but is seen as more of a rival.
Bin Salman has the support of young Saudis and dresses in traditional attire. "There are a lot of people worried about him in that he appears to be a radical who wants to transform the country and he's gained a lot of power," said Morse. "If you reform a country that's very conservative, you're going to provoke a lot of people who are interested in a slower approach to reform than he appears to be taking, from that interview."
The young prince heads both the energy sector and the military, while his cousin rose up the ranks as an intelligence official. Bin Salman is also set on diversifying the Saudi economy, and has plans to build a giant sovereign fund, starting with the sale of a stake in Saudi Aramco.
"He's the first person of that stature who takes seriously the move to diversify the economy, not as a long-term goal but something that requires action in the short term," said Morse.
Croft said the message from Saudi Arabia has changed, with more conciliatory comments previously from Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi, now overshadowed by bin Salman's remarks. But Morse said Naimi left the door open to disagree when he said the Saudis would supply any customers who are looking for oil.
"This is a clear and present danger, if they don't get oil prices higher. Maybe Mohammed bin Salman doesn't care, but these other GCC countries care," said Croft.
She said Russia is also looking for a deal. "I think the Russians, they're incentivized to get this done from the standpoint of a fiscal position," she said. "Russia's been pretty adamant about getting this done."
If Saudi Arabia does not agree to a freeze, the prince could find himself at odds with Putin. Russia has said it would support a freeze, and it is reported to be interested in brokering a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but Morse said a deal could have come over Syria but that could prove elusive since the Russians have pulled out of Syria.
Bin Salman may also have more leverage to endure the oil downturn. "He has about $600 billion and the Russians have about $60 billion, and he smells weakness," said Morse. He said the Saudi sovereign wealth fund has about $580 billion.
Bin Salman, in the interview with Bloomberg, also discussed his vision for the kingdom's Public Investment Fund and the sale of a public stake in the Saudi oil giant Saudi Aramco. The proceeds of the stock offering, expected next year or later, would help fund the PIF which ultimately could control $2 trillion and help diversify Saudi Arabia away from oil, according to the report.
"Transferring its shares to PIF will technically make investments the source of Saudi government revenue, not oil," said the prince. He said that after diversifying investments, Saudi Arabia, within 20 years, would become an economy that does not depend mainly on oil.
Bin Salman said Saudi Arabia is working on spending more efficiently, noting the government used to spend up to 50 percent more than allocated in its budget but that was cut to 12 percent last year. For that reason, he said he does not believe Saudi Arabia has a problem with low oil prices.
Educated in Saudi Arabia, bin Salman is unlike many members of the royal family that have been educated in the West.