The US represents globalisation, market liberalisation and so on, while Saudi Arabia represents the principal anti-market, anti-competitive factor in the world. They have conspired, these two giants, and have an understanding. The Saudis supply the world with oil. The US protects them and the sea lanes, and it turns its back to ‘market manipulation’ as long as the Saudis keep oil prices under $30 a barrel and US gasoline prices under $2 a gallon.
The structure has numerous Cold War elements to it. The common interests of the two giants came in part from their common desire to keep the Soviet Union out of the Middle East.
Even at its heyday in 1988 when it was producing 12.5 million barrels a day (b/d) of oil, the USSR was a price-taker and a small party in world markets. It used oil to keep the Soviet empire together, but it never exported more than 2.5 million b/d, virtually all of it to Europe.
The Russian recovery is real, especially the recovery of its oil sector. And the recovery is now coming on with a vengeance. Russia is exporting more than 5 million b/d of crude oil and petroleum products. It is easily the second largest oil exporter in the world.
The Saudis have been wooing the Russians, trying to co-opt Moscow into playing its game. But Russia is a would-be major power. As an exporter it is less and less finding the rules of the game as set out by others to be acceptable. It, being a fractured government trying to control competitive companies, wants its own rules, not Washington’s or Riyadh’s. It is a new element that will have a seminal impact on the structure of the global oil market and oil industry.
The Cold War is over and many in the US are cutting away at the foundation of the US-Saudi partnership and looking for ways to integrate Russia into a global system. The EU is doing the same, dangling at least as many carrots as Washington – its markets are Russia’s markets and it could replace all suppliers to Europe from the Middle East.
Who speaks for Russia? It depends on the hour of the day, and the day of the week. The Russian government looks a great deal like Washington when it comes to fragmented power. You cannot understand Russia as though it were a centralised machine. You cannot do Kremlinological readings of who said what and when to get a grip on politics in Moscow. There is a president who, as in France, is separate from the legislature, and a government that reports to the Duma, not to him, as well as lots of supporters on the outside who favour this or that minister. Don’t expect coherence.
There’s lots of anti-Semitism sparked by the oligarchs in the Russian oil sector. It is easy for Russian nationalists to see in the largely Jewish oil oligarchs international conspirators against the state. But the state has really been overthrown in terms of the Russian oil industry. It cannot readily be put back together again.
Thus far, while the attacks on Yukos’ shareholders have affected the investment climate and the value of all oil company shares, the Russian government has painstakingly separated alleged illegal activity by shareholders from the interests and rights of companies. It will be interesting to see how that evolves.
Whatever happens inside of Russia, on pure energy policy grounds the overlapping but distinctly separate interests of Russia and the Gulf states will have a large role to play in the creation of a new set of ground rules. This is made all the more complicated by the historical ties between the Russian and Iraqi oil industries.