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The 2020 Oil Crash’s Unlikely Winner: Saudi Arabia

It’s a year of carnage for oil nations. But at least one will emerge from the pandemic both economically and geopolitically stronger.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh on Oct. 24, 2018.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh on Oct. 24, 2018. GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images

With 4 billion people around the world under lockdown as the coronavirus pandemic grows, demand for gasoline, jet fuel, and other petroleum products is in freefall, as are oil prices. The price of a barrel of crude has been so low in the United States that sellers recently had to pay people to take it off their hands. As a result, oil-dependent economies are reeling. In the United States, the largest oil producer in the world, the number of rigs drilling for oil has plummeted 50 percent in just two months, almost 40 percent of oil and gas producers could be insolvent within the year, and 220,000 oil workers are projected to lose their jobs. Around the world, petrostates from Nigeria to Iraq to Kazakhstan are struggling and their currencies tanking. Some, like Venezuela, face an economic and social abyss.

While 2020 will be remembered as a year of carnage for oil nations, however, at least one will most likely emerge from the pandemic stronger, both economically and geopolitically: Saudi Arabia.

First, Saudi Arabia is proving that its finances can weather a storm such as this. Low oil prices are, of course, painful for a country that needs around $80 per barrel to balance its public budget, which is why Moody’s cut Saudi Arabia’s financial outlook last Friday. Saudi Arabia ran a $9 billion deficit in the first quarter of 2020. Like other nations, the kingdom has also seen tax revenues fall as it imposes economic restrictions to halt the pandemic’s spread. Last week, the Saudi finance minister said that government spending would need to be “cut deeply” and some parts of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 economic diversification plan would be delayed.

Yet unlike most other oil producers, Saudi Arabia has not only plump fiscal reserves but also the demonstrated capacity to borrow. On April 22, the finance minister announced the kingdom could borrow as much as $58 billion in 2020. Compared to most other economies, it has a relatively low debt-to-GDP ratio: 24 percent as of the end of 2019, although lately that figure has been rising. The finance minister also said Saudi Arabia would draw down up to $32 billion from its fiscal reserves. With $474 billion held by the central bank in foreign exchange reserves, Saudi Arabia remains comfortably above the level of around $300 billion, which many consider the minimum to defend its currency, the riyal, which is pegged to the dollar.

Second, Saudi Arabia will end up with higher oil revenues and a bigger share of the oil market once the market stabilizes, thanks to production cuts and shutdowns forced by the global economic collapse. The current oil bust lays the groundwork for a price boom in the years ahead—and burgeoning revenues for Saudi Arabia. While the outlook for future oil demand is highly uncertain, once you look beyond the immediate crisis, demand is likely to grow faster than supply.Saudi Arabia will end up with higher oil revenues and a bigger share of the oil market once the market stabilizes.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects world oil demand to return to its pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2020. The International Energy Agency is almost as optimistic, projecting demand to be only 2 to 3 percent below its 2019 average of 100 million barrels per day by the end of the year. If measures to contain the pathogen last longer than expected or there is a second wave of the virus, the recovery will take longer, but most scenarios still expect demand to eventually recover.

Lifestyle changes could lower future oil demand, but the data suggests one should be skeptical of predictions of permanent shifts. In China, for example, car travel and shipping by truck is already nearly back to last year’s level, although air travel—which together with air freight accounts for 8 percent of world oil demand—remains down sharply. Oil demand could actually get a boost if more people decide private cars make them feel safer than crowded mass transit. Expectations that oil demand would be throttled by climate policy will likely be disappointed. The economic distress imposed by the pandemic risks undermining environmental policy ambition, as does the current shift to isolationism and away from the kind of global cooperation required for effective climate policy.

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Oil supply, by contrast, will take longer to return as shut-in production is lost, investment in new supply is scrapped, and the U.S. shale revolution slows. With the oil glut pushing global oil storage to the limits—land-based storage will be full as soon as this month—an unprecedented number of producing oil wells will need to be shut off. Doing so risks damaging the reservoirs. Some of that supply will never come back, and some will take substantial time and investment to bring back online. Energy Aspects, an oil consultancy, projects 4 million barrels per day of supply could be at risk of semipermanent damage.Many U.S. companies struggling with uneconomical production only managed to stay afloat with infusions of cheap debt.

Major oil companies such as Chevron and Exxon Mobil have also slashed their capital expenditures in response to the price collapse. Even without any growth in oil demand, around 6 million barrels per day of new oil supply must be brought online each year just to offset natural production declines. Moreover, oil is already out of favor with investors concerned with the industry’s poor returns and rising political and social pressures.

U.S. shale oil, in particular, will take years to return to its pre-coronavirus levels. Depending on how long oil demand remains depressed, U.S. oil production is projected to decline by 30 percent from its pre-coronavirus peak of around 13 million barrels per day. To be sure, recovering oil prices will raise U.S. production again. Shale oil production remains economical, especially for the better-capitalized companies that will emerge once the assets of bankrupt companies change hands and the industry is consolidated.

Yet shale’s heady growth in recent years (with production growing by about 1 million to 1.5 million barrels per day each year) also reflected irrational exuberance in financial markets: Many U.S. companies struggling with uneconomical production only managed to stay afloat with infusions of cheap debt. One-quarter of U.S. shale oil production may have been uneconomical even before prices crashed, according to Citigroup’s Ed Morse. Without that froth, shale will grow more slowly, if at all. Former Goldman Sachs analyst Arjun Murti estimates that even with U.S. oil prices recovering to around $50 per barrel, annual U.S. output growth will be somewhere between zero and 500,000 barrels per day, a shadow of its former self.

Indeed, as COVID-19 sets the stage for tighter oil markets and higher prices, Saudi Arabia, along with a few other Gulf states and Russia, will not only benefit from higher prices but actually find opportunities to grow market share and sell more oil. Even now, with prices severely depressed, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are discussing bringing more oil to market from a jointly held field straddling their border. More economically vulnerable OPEC members may find it harder to invest in restarting and maintaining (let alone increasing) supply and will thus see output growth slow. This is exactly what happened in Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, and Venezuela following the 1998-1999 oil crash. By shoring up its alliance with the United States and reestablishing itself as the swing oil producer, Saudi Arabia has strengthened its geopolitical position.

Finally, by shoring up its fraying alliance with the United States and reestablishing itself as the global oil market’s swing producer, Saudi Arabia has strengthened its geopolitical position. As the major producers and consumers scrambled to prevent the oversupply of oil from overwhelming the world’s storage facilities, they finally turned to Saudi Arabia to lead OPEC and other key producers in a historic production cut. For all the talk of oil production quotas in Texas or creating a new global oil cartel through the G-20, calling Riyadh was the only real option available to policymakers at the end of the day—as it has long been. That is because Saudi Arabia has long been the only country willing to hold, at significant cost, a meaningful amount of spare production capacity that allows it to add or subtract supply to or from the market quickly. This singular position—which it just made plain once again to the world—gives the kingdom not only power over the global oil market but also significant geopolitical influence. In a global market, that will remain true until nations use much less oil, which continues to be an important goal of climate policy.

By leading the effort to craft an OPEC+ production cut, Saudi Arabia also reminded Moscow that Russia cannot go it alone, as it attempted to do when it walked out of OPEC+ negotiations in March and set off the price war. Moscow is more dependent on Riyadh in managing the oil market than vice versa, strengthening Saudi Arabia’s hand in their relationship—with likely repercussions in the Middle East, where Moscow has a growing military presence and cultivates allies including Syria and the Saudis’ archenemy, Iran.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia has improved its standing in Washington. Following intense pressure from the White House and powerful senators, Saudi Arabia’s willingness to oblige by cutting production will reverse some of the damage done when Saudi Arabia was blamed for the oil crash after it surged production in March. Saudi Arabia may also have undermined U.S. lawmakers’ plans for anti-OPEC legislation—It’s difficult to argue OPEC is a harmful cartel when both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue just begged it to act like one.it’s difficult to argue OPEC is a harmful cartel when both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue just begged it to act like one. U.S. vitriol will flare up again in the coming weeks, when a flotilla of Saudi tankers sent off during the price war two months ago will dump triple the normal level of deliveries onto an already saturated U.S. market. But this only means that U.S. politicians will once again have to beseech Riyadh to extend or deepen supply cuts at the next OPEC+ meeting in June.

Only a few weeks ago, the outlook for Saudi Arabia seemed bleak. But looking out a few years, it’s difficult to see the kingdom in anything other than a strengthened position. COVID-19 may end up doing what Saudi leaders failed to do once before, when they let oil prices crash in late 2014 in a misguided attempt to debilitate U.S. shale. Beyond the immediate crisis, the pandemic will end up bolstering Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical position, reinforcing its pivotal role in oil markets, and sowing the seeds for higher market share and oil revenues in the years ahead.

Jason Bordoff, a former senior director on the staff of the U.S. National Security Council and special assistant to President Barack Obama, is a professor of professional practice in international and public affairs and the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

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