As the world's top oil producing nations meet, here are 5 issues on everyone's mind

Key Points
  • The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries has to ask for cuts in output, which won't be easy as some members want – or need – to keep output up.
  • If OPEC cuts production as expected, it will face an angry American president.
  • It gets even more complicated because the Saudis are working hard to minimize the political fallout from the recent CIA report implicating Saudi Arabia's crown prince in the kiiling of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Alexander Novak, Russia's energy minister, left, speaks as Khalid Al-Falih, Saudi Arabia's energy and industry minister, listens during a news conference following the 173rd Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) meeting in Vienna, Austria, on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

From the lingering backlash over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to the collapsing oil price, this week's meeting in Austria of OPEC and other top oil producing nations is shaping up to be the most important, and most unusual, in years. There are many story lines. Here are the 5 to watch most closely.

A Cut Is Coming, But How Much?

What a difference a few months make. The June meeting was all about raising output to counter rising prices and the oncoming threat of Iran sanctions. Mission accomplished, and then some.

A bad combination of underestimating how much oil Iran would still be able to sell, along with continued record output from the U.S., sent prices tumbling. November posted the biggest monthly drop in a decade. Now the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries has to change its tune and ask for cuts, which won't be easy as some members want – or need – to keep output up.

The likely outcome is OPEC agreeing to a production cut of around 1.2 million to 1.4 million barrels per day. As always though, the hard part for the cartel is not figuring out a number, but rather how the group divvies up the cuts.

Trumping Trump

President Donald Trump answers questions from the press while departing the White House November 29, 2018 in Washington, DC. 
Win McNamee | Getty Images

OPEC has been on the President's mind lately, big league. After ignoring OPEC in 2017, Trump has tweeted at the cartel numerous times this year, pressing for lower prices. He's gotten his wish. And he was at it again on Wednesday, as the country prepared to watch the funeral for former President George H. W. Bush.

"The World does not want to see, or need higher oil prices!" the message on Twitter said.


But just like the U.S. Federal Reserve, OPEC needs to show it is immune to White House pressure and do what it feels is best given current conditions. If OPEC cuts production as expected, it likely knows it will face an angry American president. Which gets even more complicated because the Saudis are working hard to minimize the political fallout from the recent CIA report that implicates Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The question here is whether the Saudis will change their stance on production cuts and pricing in part to mitigate global anger over Khashoggi.

The Real OPEC?

Not only is Saudi Arabia dealing with the Khashoggi backlash, it's also facing increasing grumbling from other OPEC members that it may be getting a little too cozy with non-OPEC member Russia.

As Russia's oil production has grown over the years, it has sidled up to Saudi Arabia to coordinate output. The two countries discussed this at last weekend's G-20 summit meeting and will again try to formalize this side-deal on Friday after OPEC meets.

With production around 11 million barrels a day, Russia can alter OPEC's calculus. It simply needs to make sure its growing relationship with Saudi Arabia outside of the organization doesn't splinter the group.

Will Qatar Crack The Cartel?

The skyline of Doha, Qatar.
Tim De Waele | Corbis | Getty Images

Speaking of splintering, this week Qatar said it will quit OPEC at the end of the year.

The Gulf state can say it wants to focus more on natural gas than oil, but most suspect this move is more of a finger in the face of Saudi Arabia, which has been at odds with Qatar for years. The country isn't a major oil producer, but the message here seems clear: just because we've been in OPEC for 57 years doesn't mean we can't leave.

Other countries are no doubt taking notice and watching to see how this plays out. OPEC needs to show it remains a united, strong organization in the face of Qatar's exit. If it doesn't, OPEC risks losing more than just a member.

Wildcard Iraq

Iraq is OPEC's biggest wildcard, and it doesn't want production cuts. And it likely can't cut. Revenue from selling oil accounts for nearly all of the war-torn nation's available cash.

Iraq needs the oil money perhaps more than any other OPEC member other than Venezuela. It is now producing about 4.6 million barrels of oil a day, making it OPEC's second largest producer.

An OPEC deal to cut production without Iraq on board would ring hollow. Plus, there is some chatter that Iraq could "pull at Qatar" and be the next to quit the cartel, because its goals simply may not align with the rest of the group.

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