Saudi Arabia Oil Policy – More than Meets the Eye?
The sharp drop in the oil price between June 2014 and January 2015 turned the world’s attention to Saudi Arabia’s role in the oil market and the determinants of its oil output policy. Initial hopes that Saudi Arabia would come to ‘rescue’ and ‘balance’ the market and put a floor under the oil price were replaced by stories of ‘price wars’ and ‘conspiracy theories’ aimed at pushing prices down to achieve some wider geopolitical objectives. This raised a set of fundamental questions: has there been a shift in Saudi Arabia’s oil policy? And if the answer is yes, what are the implications of this shift in policy on the short and long run dynamics of the oil market? Has the role of ‘swing producer’ shifted from Saudi Arabia to the US shale producers? Is Saudi Arabia still relevant in the ‘new oil order’? This paper argues Saudi Arabia’s oil policy should not be analysed in isolation of the evolution of global oil market dynamics. It is also fundamentally rooted and shaped by some salient features of its political, economic, and social systems. Given Saudi Arabia’s multiple objectives, some of which are short term while others are long term, and also given the limited number of tools available to policy makers (essentially: adjusting output and signalling to the market in the short term, and determining the pace of investment in its energy sector in the long term), Saudi Arabia faces trade-offs with regards to its oil output decisions. One key trade-off is between the objective of revenue maximization vis-à-vis that of maintaining market share and production volumes above a certain level. With the advent of US shale, Saudi Arabia has entered uncharted territory where it is still learning about a new source of supply and its responsiveness to price signals, which has made the calculus of the trade-off more uncertain. It is in the context of ‘second best’, trade-offs, imperfect information, internal constraints, and wide uncertainty introduced by a new source of supply, that this paper attempts to explain the behaviour of Saudi Arabia in the current price cycle.