Saudi power struggle means oil prices will hit '$70 before $50,' analyst says

Key Points
  • Oil prices are more likely to rise toward $70 a barrel than fall back to $50 a barrel after a purge of Saudi princes and ministers, one energy analyst told clients Monday.
  • The crackdown is a sign that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is consolidating power as he attempts to reshape the Saudi economy.
  • Others say little has changed in Saudi oil policy following the crackdown.
Saudi Arabia's economic reform plans are behind anti-corruption crackdown: Gamble

Oil prices are more likely to rise toward $70 a barrel than sink back to $50 in the wake of the biggest political shakeup in Saudi Arabia in decades, according to Roberto Friedlander, head of energy trading at Seaport Global Securities.

Crude futures rose to highs going back to mid-2015 overnight after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman orchestrated the arrest of several princes and ministers over the weekend. The Saudis framed the purge as a crackdown on corruption, though some analysts said it was likely a move by bin Salman to consolidate power as he embarks on an ambitious effort to reshape Saudi Arabia's economy.

Following three years of soft oil prices, the Saudis have drained budget surpluses and now need to return to economic growth in order for the crown prince to survive, Friedlander said in an email briefing on Monday. The purge of powerful figures such as Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the former head of the National Guard, appears calculated to remove opposition to bin Salman's plans, he said.

"The Saudi Situation means $70 before $50," Friedlander wrote.

Bin Salman, who is widely expected to soon become king, is trying to generate growth by transforming the Saudi economy. Selling off a stake in state oil giant Saudi Aramco next year is the cornerstone of the plan, called Vision 2030.

Saudi Arabia arrests powerful royals and businessmen in corruption crackdown

Steady oil prices are seen as critical to the share sale. Saudi Arabia is spearheading production cuts among OPEC and other oil exporters in order to shrink global crude stockpiles, which supports prices.

"The Saudis CAN'T afford a renewed decline in prices or a decline in oil revenues," Friedlander said, adding "they would certainly prefer to risk tightening the oil market too much and see prices hit $70, rather than risk letting them slip back to $50," Friedlander said.

International benchmark recently topped $60 a barrel on signs the oil market is tightening. Brent rose as high as $62.90 on Monday, while U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude peaked at $56.28 — both highs going back to July 2015.

A Brent crude price of $60 a barrel provides the optimal conditions for many of bin Salman's initiatives to overhaul the economy, according to Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC. She expects little to change immediately in terms of Saudi oil policy following the weekend's events.

"MBS seems strongly committed to anchoring the OPEC agreement deep into 2018 and moving ahead with the Aramco sale," Croft said, using the initials of Mohammad bin Salman.

This scholar says the Saudi corruption crackdown is about economic reforms

Prior to the crackdown, Barclays said Brent crude appears to be consolidating around $60 a barrel and could make a move toward $70 a barrel. However, the bank said on Friday that the move would be unsustainable based on the fundamentals of the oil market and investor positioning.

Barclays raised its price target for Brent crude to $60 a barrel in the fourth quarter and $55 a barrel in 2018, based on improved economic growth and unexpected disruptions due to conflict in Iraq and powerful storms in the United States.

Michael Cohen, head of energy markets research at Barclays, believes the consensus that OPEC will agree this month to extend production cuts past the expiration of the deal in March is premature. While bin Salman says Saudi Arabia is ready to extend the agreement, Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested Moscow could wait to assess the market in March, he notes.

"The decision to extend OPEC/Non-OPEC cuts is not a decision for OPEC or Saudi Arabia alone," Cohen wrote. "Neither the OPEC Secretariat nor Riyadh will commit to an extension without Russia's participation, in our view."