Prices reached close to $60 a barrel on 5 December. However, figures released two days later showed distillate stocks rising strongly, by 2.1 per cent over the course of the week to 130.6 million barrels, 5.9 per cent up year on year. Crude supplies also edged up to 320.3 million barrels.

In spite of slightly easing prices over the past few weeks, any cut in the official production ceiling in Kuwait remains highly unlikely. Few analysts expect any movement in quotas. Delegates’ attention, given recent oil market turmoil and confusion as to the group’s intentions, is likely to be more strategic. The disarray was highlighted in early December by an unexpected statement from Kuwaiti Energy Minister and OPEC President Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah that stocks should be allowed to build to 56 days cover – a level generally considered excessive.

‘The questions about broad targets, objectives and downside price strategy remain ones that many ministers will want clarified, at least in private,’ says Paul Horsnell of Barclays Capital. ‘The one idea that several key ministers want to place quietly back in the deep freeze is the 56-day inventory target policy.’

Sheikh Ahmad was publicly pronouncing again on 2 December at the second ministerial meeting of the OPEC-EU Energy Dialogue, again blaming pressure on the most desirable light sweet crudes and downstream refining problems. On primary supply, he also pointed out that Iraqi output had failed to reach 2 million barrels a day (b/d) since October 2004 and was heading for an average of 1.8 million b/d in 2005.