Why the Khashoggi crisis could finally start to affect oil prices

Key Points
  • The CIA is reportedly preparing to present President Donald Trump with an assessment that ties the Saudi crown prince to the death of Jamal Khashoggi.
  • This comes just two weeks before major oil producers will decide whether to cut output, a move that Trump opposes because it will boost the cost of crude.
  • Trump's ongoing support for the crown prince gives the Saudis an incentive to abandon or moderate the production cuts.
Putting MBS on a sanction list would make it harder for investors, says expert
Putting MBS on a sanction list would make it harder for investors, says expert

The oil market has largely shrugged off the killing last month of Washington Post columnist Jamal Kashoggi by Saudi agents. However, a new CIA assessment that reportedly links the slaying to the kingdom's crown prince could soon change that, according to a commodities strategist and former CIA analyst.

The assessment concludes that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi's killing, according to the Washington Post and NBC News.

The CIA is expected to present its report to President Donald Trump by Tuesday, just two weeks before major oil producers including OPEC and Russia meet in Vienna, Austria. The group has been coordinating oil policy since last year, and the members are now considering a fresh round of production cuts after a sharp pullback in the oil market.

New supply caps would boost oil prices and prevent financial pain in countries dependent on fossil fuel revenue, including Saudi Arabia. The kingdom expects to its crude shipments to drop by 500,000 barrels per day in December, and its energy minister recently said OPEC and its allies may cut output by about 1 million bpd next year.

But Trump, a populist focused on filling Americans' pocketbooks, opposes the output cuts because he wants prices to fall at U.S. gas stations.

@realDonaldTrump: Hopefully, Saudi Arabia and OPEC will not be cutting oil production. Oil prices should be much lower based on supply!

Despite reportedly being shown evidence that links Khashoggi's death to Prince Mohammed, Trump continues to cast doubt on the royal's role in the slaying. The Trump administration is closely aligned with Prince Mohammed, and the president wants to preserve billions of dollars in potential arms sales to the Saudis.

In this Feb. 1, 2015, file photo, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a press conference in Manama, Bahrain.
Hasan Jamali | AP

In an interview with Fox News Sunday this past weekend, Trump stressed that Prince Mohammed has repeatedly denied any involvement in the killing during the leaders' private conversations.

That gives the Saudis an incentive to hold off on cutting output, especially in light of growing pressure on the regime from Congressional Republicans, according to Helima Croft, the global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets and a former intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency.

"I think there is a corner of the market that says, 'Well wait a second, is Saudi Arabia really going to go forward with removing so many barrels in a situation where President Trump remains a stalwart ally of the Saudi government?" she told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Monday.

"Would they want to offend President Trump given the fact that he continues to stand by the Saudi leadership?"

Hadley Gamble on Saudi Arabia and Jamal Khashoggi's death
Hadley Gamble on Saudi Arabia and Jamal Khashoggi's death

On the other hand, Croft says there's a view that Saudi Arabia was led to believe the Trump administration would impose strict sanctions on Iran. That expectation played a role in the kingdom's decision to back an output hike in June.

The talk in the region is that the Saudis are not pleased that Trump is allowing some of Iran's biggest customers to continue importing crude, said Croft. Trump's decision to grant sanctions waivers, after pushing the OPEC alliance to boost output, is contributing to the looming oversupply that has sent oil prices plunging into a bear market.

"Some believe [the Saudis] were sort of tricked into putting so many barrels on the market in advance of those sanctions," Croft said. "It's going to be very interesting to see where Saudi Arabia comes down on this issue."

Ultimately, Croft believes Saudi Arabia will protect its own economic welfare and push through output cuts, rather than see oil prices fall even further.

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