Last Updated: July 10, 2018
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Business Trends

The world oil order is becoming dangerously more polarised and politicised. Fresh battle lines are being drawn across geographies and long-established political and commercial relationships are being dramatically redefined.

While a strong underlying bullishness from tightening global oil supply and thinning spare capacity persists, the bears are looking at potential economic headwinds from trade battles erupting almost daily between the US and the   rest of the world, and starting to unpick the oil demand growth story.

Even the unprecedented OPEC/non-OPEC cohesion of the past 18 months has wobbled. Under rising pressure to cool down prices, the group of 24 has split into the haves and have-nots of sustainable production capacity.

Iran and Venezuela asked that OPEC formally denounce US sanctions against them at its ministerial meeting in Vienna June 23, but failed to have their way.

US President Donald Trump once again demanded that OPEC act to cool down oil prices in a tweet on July 4, this time pointing out that the US “defends many of their [OPEC’s] members for very little $’s.”

Oil is also in the crosshairs of tit-for-tat tariffs between the US and China that took effect just past midnight Washington time, 12 noon Beijing time, on July 6. Though US crude is not on the initial list of the $34 billion worth of goods on which China imposed 25% retaliatory import tariffs, it has been included in the second round of an additional $16 billion worth of products that  will attract import duty, possibly in two weeks’ time. That would snuff  out  US  crude exports to its second largest market after Canada.

In March, the US levied 25% duty on steel imports that not only hurt China, but also its own oil industry, which needs the metal for new pipelines being built to carry the growing tight oil output to domestic refiners and export terminals.

The US-China face-off is drawing Venezuela and Iran, major oil producers targeted by US sanctions, closer into Beijing’s orbit. The China Development Bank this week threw Venezuela’s embattled state oil company PDVSA a $5- billion loan lifeline.

Beijing is digging in its heels over US demands to distance itself from Iran. Not only is China Iran’s largest crude buyer, but it is also a major investor in various sectors, including the giant South Pars gas development project.

Neighbouring South Korea, in contrast, Friday said it was suspending all crude loadings from Iran starting this month, as it negotiates a sanctions waiver with the US. It imported about 315,000 b/d of Iranian crude over January-April.

China’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, its largest crude supplier for decades until it was displaced by Russia two years ago, is under some strain. In a surprisingly audacious move, state trading giant Unipec slashed its term Saudi crude imports by 40% over May-July and went on to announce it publicly. It can’t be a mere coincidence that China is deepening its ties with Iran while re- evaluating its equation with the latter’s political arch-rival, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Aramco this week announced a change in its decades-old crude pricing marker for term sales into Asia to an average of Platts Dubai assessments and Dubai Mercantile Exchange’s Oman quotes, starting from October. The DME Oman component replaces Platts Oman. Aramco said it was “rebalancing [its] Asia marker to ensure that it is underpinned by a broad and vibrant marketplace.” Could it be that the Saudi switch was partly aimed at countering Chinese pressure on Middle Eastern producers to use the recently launched Shanghai crude futures contract for pricing their crude? It’s a possibility.

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