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Saudi Arabia's Risky Oil-Price Play

By boosting production and lowering prices, Saudi Arabia has helped create a bear market in oil
Saudi Arabia's Risky Oil-Price Play
Photograph by Mohamed Al Hwaity/Reuters; Barrel: Alamy

With the U.S. on track to become the world’s largest oil producer by next year, it’s become popular in Washington and on Wall Street to call America the new Saudi Arabia. Yet the real Saudi Arabia hasn’t relinquished its role as the producer with the most influence over oil prices. Its reserves of 266 billion barrels, ability to pump as many as 12.5 million barrels a day, and, most important, its low cost of extracting crude still make it a formidable rival to the U.S., whose shale wells are hard to exploit. “Saudi Arabia is the only one in the position of putting more oil on the market when they want to and cutting production when they want to,” says Edward Chow, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The Saudis are also the most powerful member of OPEC, the 12-member group that’s increasingly facing off against Russian, U.S., and Canadian production.

In September, despite a global oil glut developing largely because of China’s slowdown and the rapid increase in U.S. production, the Saudis boosted production half a percent, to 9.6 million barrels a day, lifting OPEC’s combined production to an 11-month high of almost 31 million barrels a day. Then, on Oct. 1, Saudi Arabia lowered prices by increasing the discount it offered its major Asian customers. The kingdom might just as easily have cut production to defend higher prices. Instead, the Saudis sent a strong signal that they were determined to protect their market share, especially in India and China, against Russian, Latin American, and African rivals. Iraq and Iran followed Saudi Arabia’s example.