Does Trump control OPEC policy? A critical meeting of major oil producers is set to test the energy markets' 'biggest fear'

  • OPEC and non-OPEC members are gathering in Vienna, Austria, this week, with the aim of reaching an accord to deliver a fresh round of supply cuts.
  • But, even with the oil market near the bottom of its worst price plunge since the 2008 financial crisis, few external observers expect the energy alliance to engineer a succinct production quota that satisfies oil traders.
  • "The market's biggest fear is that it doesn't matter whether OPEC understands fundamentals, it is Trump that is controlling OPEC policy," Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at Energy Aspects, told CNBC's Hadley Gamble in Vienna.

Oil markets are deeply concerned about the power President Donald Trump has over some of the world's largest crude producers, energy analysts told CNBC on Wednesday, ahead of a much-anticipated meeting between OPEC and non-OPEC members.

The influential oil cartel and its allied partners are gathering in Vienna, Austria, this week, with the aim of reaching an accord to deliver a fresh round of supply cuts.

But, even with the oil market near the bottom of its worst price plunge since the 2008 financial crisis, few external observers expect the energy alliance to engineer a succinct production quota that satisfies oil traders.

"This is the first time I think we have come into an OPEC meeting that is so political. We literally don't know how they are going to message this," Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at Energy Aspects, told CNBC's Hadley Gamble in Vienna.

"Given how fragile the market is, the market's biggest fear is that it doesn't matter whether OPEC understands fundamentals, it is Trump that is controlling OPEC policy."

"And if they are unable to communicate what they are going to do very clearly — which I think there is a big risk that they can't — the market is going to sell-off because their biggest fears are going to get confirmed," Sen said.

Key oil producers deeply divided

Crude futures have fallen more than 28 percent since climbing to a four-year peak in early October, amid intensifying oversupply concerns and worries over slowing economic growth.

This collapse has ratcheted up the pressure on OPEC and its allied partners to orchestrate another round of production cuts at its final meeting of the calendar year.

International benchmark Brent crude was trading at $62.04 a barrel at around 10:50 a.m. London time (5:50 a.m. ET), down around 0.1 percent, while West Texas Intermediate (WTI) stood at $53.27, little changed from the previous session.

OPEC's technocrats have signaled that the alliance needs to cut between 1 million to 1.4 million barrels a day in order to deal with the looming oversupply. But sources recently told The Wall Street Journal that OPEC is wary of announcing cuts on that scale.

That is largely because de facto OPEC leader Saudi Arabia comes into the meeting badly bruised by revelations that agents of the kingdom murdered Washington Post columnist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi in October.

Trump is standing by his allies in Riyadh, but he's made it clear he wants the Saudis to keep a lid on oil prices in return for his loyalty.

Meanwhile, after weeks of non-committal statements, Russia is not expected to share Saudi Arabia's enthusiasm for further production cuts on Thursday. The non-OPEC heavyweight has warned the group must tread carefully to ensure it does not end up changing course by 180 degrees every month.

Trump will continue to be an 'agitator'

"There is certainly more division between key producers at this meeting, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Russia, but also within OPEC's own members too," Cailin Birch, global economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told CNBC on Wednesday.

When asked whether this OPEC meeting was more politically unstable than those in recent memory, Birch replied: "I would definitely say so."

"U.S. and Saudi tensions have become increasingly tense in recent months and we have reached a particularly volatile point now," Birch said, before adding: "Trump is much more visible in the oil price debate when compared with other U.S. presidents… And he is likely to continue being an agitator."

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US President Donald Trump line for the family photo during the G20 Leaders' Summit in Buenos Aires, on November 30, 2018.
Ludovic Marin | AFP | Getty Images
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US President Donald Trump line for the family photo during the G20 Leaders' Summit in Buenos Aires, on November 30, 2018.

Ahead of the much-anticipated meeting, Qatar abruptly announced Monday that it would withdraw from the 15-member group from January 1, ending a membership that has stood for more than a half-century.

In explaining the small Gulf country's decision to leave OPEC, Qatar's Energy Minister Saad al-Kaabi said the decision was not linked to the 18-month political and economic boycott of Doha.

Since June 2017, Saudi Arabia — along with three other Arab states — has cut trade and transport ties with Qatar, accusing the country of supporting terrorism and its regional rival, Iran.

Qatar denies the claims, saying the boycott hampers its national sovereignty.

— CNBC's Tom DiChristopher contributed to this report.