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Goodbye Qatar: What next for OPEC?

And so it came to pass, with one of OPEC’s members’ smallest producers – Qatar – making its surprise announcement that, effective January 2019, it would leave the organization.

The announcement came just days before the group meets in Vienna and when the oil markets were looking for signs of OPEC and non-OPEC producer cohesion and price stability.

While the Qataris put out statements to justify their decision to leave the OPEC family which they joined as one of the founding members in 1961, their exit has opened up some debate on the long term viability and structure of OPEC in the face of multiple threats.

The official Qatar announcement to exit OPEC – which has 15 members including Qatar – was couched in terms that this was a purely business driven decision and was not driven by politics.

But in an oblique reference, without naming Saudi Arabia, Qatari Minister of State for Energy Affairs Saad al-Kaabi said, “We are not saying we are going to get out of the oil business but it is controlled by an organization managed by a country.”

So why the sudden Qatar surprise decision? According to the Qatari minister this was because it was not practical “to put efforts and resources and time in an organization that we are a very small player in and I don’t have a say in what happens.”

Instead, Qatar would focus on gas production. By all accounts, Qatar is indeed a minnow, producing around 650,000 of barrels of oil a day, compared with Russia’s 11.37 million barrels a day, and Saudi Arabia’s 11.1 million barrels a day in November.

In the natural gas and LNG domain, it is a different story and explaining Qatar’s decision, Energy Minister al-Kaabi said, “We don’t have great potential (in oil), we are very realistic. Our potential is gas.”


LNG market

But Doha is an influential player in the global LNG market with annual production of 77 million tons per year, based on its huge reserves in the Gulf, and shared gas field with Iran.

The Qataris apparently want to become “the Saudi Arabia” of gas production and the decision to focus on gas was part of a long-term strategy and the country’s plans to develop its gas industry and increase LNG output to 110 million tons by 2024.

It was a purely strategy and business decision said Qatar. Doha plans to build the largest ethane cracker in the Middle East. Ethane crackers break gas down into ethylene, the main chemical used in plastics, resins, adhesives and synthetic products.

Qatar’s withdrawal from OPEC may not have any lasting impact on the price of oil but while its departure might not mean much for OPEC’s influence over the oil market.

According to some analysts, it is important to see the decision within the broader geopolitical climate in the Middle East, especially Qatar’s relationship with OPEC’s de facto leader Saudi Arabia which has been leading a regional blockade on Qatar that has seen trade and travel links severed since June 2017.

While Qatar’s energy minister insists that the decision was not political, the withdrawal from OPEC after 57 years in the club is just another way that Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbors are growing further apart as relations deteriorate but offers a historic turning point of the organization toward Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States, the three mega oil producers with roughly 33 million barrels per day of production between them or more than a third of global output.

The key issue is whether other smaller or disgruntled OPEC members who feel marginalized in a new unofficial super producers club between Saudi Arabia and Russia, who now make key production decisions, would follow Doha’s move.

Should this happen then in that scenario OPEC would have no major influence, as control is too strong a word to use given rampant US shale production, over supply or demand as each individual country could just do what they like causing market uncertainty and more price volatility.


Major ‘leavers’

But this assumes that more “leavers” are major players and an OPEC existential crisis would certainly be more realistic if countries like Iraq, Libya, Venezuela or Nigeria decided to go the Qatar route.

There is no indication that any of these countries are considering this although a primary candidate is Iran, which has been fretting at the ever closer Saudi-Russian energy partnership and the proposed new consensus decision making process to make and execute production quickly based on changing market conditions, as opposed to the laborious and discredited cumbersome unanimous OPEC voting that Iran prefers.

For now, however there is optimism that Saudi Arabia and Russia are committed to keep the supply under control and have been increasingly deciding output policies together, under pressure from US President Donald Trump on OPEC to bring down prices but deciding when it is also right to try and stop a downward spiral in oil prices deemed to be harmful to oil dependent economies.

Qatar’s exit or divorce from the OPEC family is probably a blessing in disguise for that organization to try and reassess its future role in a far more complicated energy and geopolitical world than when it was first established in a period of fervent resource control nationalism.

The organization is facing challenges on many fronts, whether from environmental lobbying against fossil fuel and the increasing use of renewable energy, to continuing accusations that it is a cartel that acts in monopolistic fashion and sets prices, which is not patently true given the extraordinary surge in US shale production from a multitude of private sector companies, entering and exiting the sector depending on oil prices, availability of finance, technology break through and geology.

Such accusations whether driven by presidential tweets, but more seriously by US Congressional threats such as the proposed NOPEC Act ensures that OPEC members have to take such legal action seriously and some have made the observation that Qatar has decided to leave OPEC so as not to face such future litigation against it if it remained within the organization.

However, in a perverse way, should Qatar ever become the equivalent of Saudi Arabia in the LNG and gas sector in the future and dominate that market, then that country could conceivably one day may also be faced by legal anti-trust lawsuits on the ground that it dominates the gas market and sets monopolistic prices.


Scenario analysis

The news that one of Saudi Arabia’s leading energy think tanks – KAPSARC – is undertaking various scenario analysis on whether the Kingdom should leave OPEC, associate with OPEC in a different format or remain as is.

The Saudi Energy Minister denied that the Kingdom is considering leaving OPEC and rightly said that think tanks by their very nature have to conduct such “what if” scenarios.

But Qatar’s exit will spur this debate, as one consideration would be an association with OPEC like Russia once the Aramco IPO has been completed, especially of Aramco is listed in litigious domains where investors could take action if Aramco’s post IPO production decisions are based on sovereign decisions and not on market forces to the detriment of shareholder value.

This is the constant argument put by Russian semi privatized energy companies when the Russian state asks them to join in OPEC mandated production decisions based on higher national political interests.

In the medium term, OPEC could re invent itself, ensuring that OPEC countries carry out joint energy investment projects such as co-mingling and refining different crude oil products, developing and sharing technology among members, especially poorer ones to enhance capacity, establishing professional market assessment experts on the ground in key consumer nations so that the organization has first hand information on demand trends instead of depending on secondary sources, and, above all, in re-visiting the archaic establishment by-laws that gives an equal vote for each OPEC member whether they are producing 50,000 barrels a day or 10 million barrels a day.

This is inequitable and no international organization like the IMF or World Bank adopts such an equal voting system. No wonder then that the Kingdom feels that the time for unanimous voting is over.

In the final analysis, OPEC will survive the Qatar jolt but how it evolves and adapts is going to be a key question to its survival to ensure its continued relevance.

 

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