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Saudi Arabia may be ready to budge on its punishing 2-year oil price policy

Saudi Arabia may finally be willing to work with producer nations to put a floor under oil prices after allowing market forces to determine the cost of a barrel of crude since November 2014, according to Jan Stuart, global energy economist at Credit Suisse.

In fact, the nearly 2-year-old policy, which has sent benchmark crude prices as low as $26 a barrel and hammered the kingdom's competitors, is not incompatible with intervening in oil markets, Stuart told CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" on Monday.

Former Saudi Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Ali al-Naimi long ago indicated the world's largest oil exporter would consider adjusting production to prop up prices, he noted. But the requirements for that intervention haven't occurred until now, he explained.

"The Saudis have been terribly consistent. They have said all along in the last two years plus, that they need the market to correct the supply surplus. They need the cost curve to come into play. ... They need for the high-cost producers to throttle back their investments, and that's being done," Stuart said.

Workers drill at the Saudi Aramco oil field complex facilities in Shaybah, Saudi Arabia.
Reza | Getty Images
Workers drill at the Saudi Aramco oil field complex facilities in Shaybah, Saudi Arabia.

Global inventories of crude have begun to draw down in the third quarter, contributing to a flattening of oil's cost curve, he noted.

When the cost curve flattens, the gap between the current and future prices of crude futures is narrowing. In the current market, which is in contango, that means forward prices are coming down relative to the current price, signaling that oversupply is waning.

The current rally is likely due more to oil bears covering their short positions, than to bulls going long, Stuart said.

Brent crude rose about $48 a barrel and U.S. crude topped $45 on Monday, with both benchmarks hitting their highest levels in nearly a month on speculation that producers could cooperate to rein in supply and boost prices when they meet in Algeria next month.

In April, talks to enforce a production freeze at January levels broke down after Iran refused to participate, causing the Saudis to drop their support for the deal.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak on Monday confirmed his country has discussed stabilizing oil prices with Saudi Arabia and other producers. However, Russian news agency Interfax cited sources in Moscow who see no change in Iran's opposition to a freeze.

Tamar Essner, Nasdaq Advisory Services energy director, said traders should pay more attention this time around because Iran is closer to full production after an international coalition lifted sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear program. Further, Saudi output is at a record and its capacity is nearly maxed out, leaving them with little to lose, she added.

Still, Essner expects the September meeting to have little material impact on oil markets because Saudi Arabia has consistently prioritized defending its share of the market over propping up the long-term price of crude.

"They've continued to pump at record levels and they've continued to offer price discounts to their customers in Asia to get long-term customers. So I think that at the end of the day, it's not going to mean anything, but there's always that risk" the Saudis will agree to a deal, she said.

On Friday, Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS Markit and a closely followed commodity watcher, told "Squawk Box" he too believes market share is "pre-eminent" among Saudi policymakers.

Other analysts have said the Saudis now have a larger stake in higher long-term oil prices as Prince Mohammed bin Salman seeks to diversify the economy by selling a stake in state oil giant Saudi Aramco and turning the country's Public Investment Fund into a $2 trillion sovereign wealth fund.