How outraged should we be that Saudi Aramco has reported a world-record quarterly profit of $48 billion, representing a giant bonus from the global oil price spike provoked by the war in Ukraine? Well, that’s how the cookie crumbles when you’re sitting on oil reserves so abundant and so easily accessible that your marginal cost of producing the next barrel is less than $10 when the market price has just doubled to $130 — as it did in March, before settling back to around $95 today.
And you might think that this recent price retreat is likely to continue as oil demand begins to shrink with the onset of recession in developed economies – just as you worry that your own reserves will one day dwindle. So reaping maximum short-term returns is the best thing you can do for your still underdeveloped desert country, especially if (as Aramco likes to do) you can present a narrative about reinvesting some of the proceeds in hydrogen and other green technologies that will eventually take you to net zero.
That’s evidently the way Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman — MbS for short, best known for denying that he ordered the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi — was thinking last month at the moment of his infamous fist-bump with Joe Biden in Jeddah. That gesture of deferential recognition by the president, and his request for help to ease oil supply, earned what was widely called “a slap in the face” from the Saudi-led OPEC group of oil-producing countries, in the form of a token 100,000 barrels-per-day production increase – when OPEC’s own forecast says daily global demand is about to exceed 100 million barrels.
Meanwhile, MbS’s kinsman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is reported to have invested half a billion dollars in three sanctioned Russian oil companies, Gazprom, Rosneft and Lukoil, just as the war was kicking off. To answer my opening question, outrage at any one-off windfall profit is generally pointless — but what this story tells us is that the super-rich Saudis regard western powers as supplicants who can be gamed to advantage, and the pariah that is Putin’s Russia as a regime they can do business with. That’s the realpolitik — and it ain’t going to help any of us through the current energy crisis.