Oil, oil, oil.
It was on everyone’s lips following news that Saudi Arabia — home to one-fifth of the world’s proven oil reserves — had detained 38 of its wealthiest and most prominent citizens over the weekend as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman flexed his grip on power.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long been considered a bulwark of stability in the Persian Gulf region. But Mohammed’s extraordinary weekend roundup against alleged corruption, including arrests of high-profile Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and Bakr bin Laden of the Saudi Binladen construction company, shook investors across the globe.
There is more than oil prices at stake. Investors worldwide should pay attention to the goings-on in the Gulf, because the events could have ramifications on things as varied as U.S. corporate profits, Wall Street jobs and that dividend they collect on their oil company shares.
Funded by oil prices, the country pays corporations around the globe billions of dollars every year to build its engineering projects, run its oil fields and technology, and provide weapons for its security.
“I would caution any investor right now to wait a minimum of six months to see how this plays out,” said Thomas W. Lippman, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute. “What Saudi Arabia had to offer was stability and continuity, and at the moment, it’s not clear it has either.”
The turmoil comes at a delicate time.
Saudi Arabia is preparing to make its massive oil reserves available to investors through an initial public offering, perhaps as early as 2018. The IPO of the Saudi Aramco oil company, which could be worth $2 trillion, is so sought after that President Trump took to Twitter last weekend to urge the Saudis to list their giant on the New York Stock Exchange.
“Important to the United States,” Trump tweeted.
Last month, Riyadh hosted the Future Investment Initiative, a high-profile global investor conference that drew dozens of heavy global financial hitters including Richard Branson of Virgin Group, BlackRock chairman Larry Fink and Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund.
CNBC’s coverage of the event featured as a centerpiece Prince bin Talal in an hour-long interview, discussing investments, Aramco and the liberalization of Saudi society being pushed by Prince Mohammed under his Saudi Vision 2030 banner.
People who attended the event said they had no clue that such a dramatic turn of events was right around the corner.
Even so, oil prices climbed on the Saudi chaos over the weekend. Oil was up about 3 percent Monday, with widely held companies such as BP, ExxonMobil and Chevron all in positive territory.
Some analysts said the Saudi purge might actually have a calming effect on roiling oil markets.
“The price of oil is spiking because of market dynamics, not because people are genuinely worried about the stability of Saudi Arabia,” said Marcus Chenevix, an analyst with TS Lombard. “What this is, is a turn back to absolute rule by one man and away from rule by princes. That is not such a bad idea. In an absolute monarchy that does not have constitutionally guaranteed rights, it is better for our business clients. There is a single ruler making single rules rather than answering to a whole class of princes.”
Some of the increase is because of cuts in worldwide production championed by Saudi Arabia, as the leader of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and by Russia. Those cuts are flowing through the world economy, putting upward pressure on prices.
“Investors are really focusing on Vienna. OPEC meets there at the end of the month,” said John Lynch, chief investment strategist at LPL Financial. “The crown prince’s centralization of power should have more sway with OPEC, which should sustain production cuts. Saudi Arabia clearly has a big voice in OPEC. You are going to see an extension of the reduction cuts.”
If the crown prince can hold on to power, maintain cuts in oil production and keep the price around $60 a barrel or higher, then investors are likely to buy up the Aramco IPO.
Oil companies will be happy as well. BP, which has been ailing since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, beat earnings last week and announced a share buyback program. BP and other oil companies are eager to see a healthy price for a barrel of oil. Much of that hinges on Saudi Arabia’s ability to control OPEC production.
“It comes down to if [Mohammed] wins,” said Helima Croft, head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets. “If he wins, they list Aramco and people will say, ‘He is a visionary.’ Only if he loses will people question the stability of the state.”
Croft said the next two weeks could be telling.
Saudi Arabia’s economy is dependent on the price of oil, but much else flows from the oil, reaching all the way to corporate America. U.S. companies are some of the biggest clients of the desert kingdom.
“When you sack the minister of the economy and you arrest two of the most prominent business personalities in the country, Binladen and Al-Waleed, that’s bound to make people think: ‘Wait a minute. Do I want to jump into this pool right now?’ ” Lippman said.
He explained, “I’m talking about the international corporations that take on projects and contracts in Saudi Arabia as partners with the Saudis.” He said Dow Chemical, aluminum giant Alcoa and chocolate maker Mars all have a significant presence in Saudi Arabia.
“Right now there is uncertainty,” Brian Youngberg, an Edward Jones analyst, said. “If there is long-term uncertainty, it could discourage Western companies from investing in Saudi Arabia as they are trying to diversify.”
Chenevix, the TS Lombard analyst, said the corruption crackdown will definitely affect investment.
“As we saw with the Qatar crisis, as the controversy comes to the surface, investors will realize the political risk of the Gulf coast states,” he said. Last summer, several counties including Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed trade and travel bans, alleging that Qatar was a supporter of terrorism.
Chenevix said fixed-income investors will see a decline in Saudi bonds.
“Your fixed-income assets in Saudi Arabia will be worth less,” he said, “because basically they have been underpricing political risk.”