Trump is Already Changing the Middle East – and Oil Markets, Too
As you’re reading this, I’m in Abu Dhabi to attend a series of meetings with colleagues from across the energy world.
Now, I thought I knew what I was getting into, what with recent events in the U.S. and abroad.
But I wasn’t prepared.
You see, the storm clouds are settling in and fast, coming from several different directions, threatening to upset the Middle East’s fragile political order, and likely to require a massive redrawing of U.S. security interests.
On Saturday morning, there were even actual storm clouds rolling in from the Persian Gulf.
And it briefly rained… right here, in the desert. Looks like even the natural order of things may be undergoing pressure.
As for the region’s political order, everything is in flux right now.
Energy and Security are Butting Heads
Each time Marina and I arrive in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), I marvel at how much is being built here. Some years ago, an international engineer told me that Dubai then housed over 12% of all the world’s building cranes.
These days that same phenomenon is underway down the coast in Abu Dhabi, a jewel comprising three main islands now connected to the mainland.
A federal system of seven emirates, the UAE Presidency is de facto hereditary to the emir leading the Al Nahyan clan of Abu Dhabi while the Prime Minister position belongs to the emir of the Al-Maktoum family in Dubai. That makes these two titular heads the holders of national political power.
A while back when Dubai ran into financial difficulties, the emir of Abu Dhabi (and UAE President) lent it the money to get out of hock.
The development underway in the city today is staggering. Take our hotel, which is celebrating its fifth birthday.
Five years ago, nothing surrounding it or comprising the astonishing Etihad Tower complex, even existed:
And if the past few days are any indication, it is going to be a rocky ride. In the process, two disparate parts of my life are (yet again) converging.
My earlier career in intelligence had in large measure brought me into the world of energy. Now the energy world is bringing me back to my security roots. This version of what we used to call the “operational shuffle” is the result of a collision between a range of oil and energy issues arising here in Abu Dhabi and the recent U.S. presidential election…
The Persian Gulf isn’t Wasting Time After Trump’s Win
Back home, Americans are still working out the implications of a yet unknown Trump Administration. That process will unfold for weeks as the population digests cabinet and personnel appointments in advance of Trump’s January 20 inauguration.
The Persian Gulf is already reacting. In keeping with the tenor of how these matters play out, there are two layers. The outside one – called the exoteric in the trade – continues a calm demeanor and noncommittal approach by local ministers, oil folks, and broader global banking and finance interests. That is, what is projected by the guys I’m meeting.
That level is for public consumption.
The other is the esoteric. This concerns the policy implications arising and the real meaning of the response. On this level, I am experiencing the most pronounced reactions in quite some time.
Frankly, I expected some concerns over the change in political direction back home, expressed in private conversations. But nothing like what I am hearing.
The geopolitical implications of possible changing American postures have trumped (every pun intended) everything else.
My meetings here have been dramatically changed as a result…
The Middle East Is Already Being Reshaped by Trump’s Election Win
You need to understand who the people I regularly meet with are.
They do not overreact. They are knowledgeable, well-seasoned veterans of the energy space. Rarely nonplussed, these professionals are architects of huge projects, oversee access to large investments, and have witnessed just about anything you can think of.
In fact, the ten people sitting at the table below (sorry, none of them allow their photographs to be taken) have a combined 238 years of energy sector experience.
The first is on the oil front.
OPEC and the international coterie of moneyed interests that accompany the cartel are not waiting for the government to take shape in Washington. Trump has pledged to make the U.S. energy independent. The move is hardly a new one. We have been talking about that prospect for several years here in Oil & Energy Investor.
But the new administration is going to expedite that (although nobody has yet told us how). Nonetheless, the writing is on the wall. And it’s enough to prompt some major reversals in policy here.
The Saudis have already laid down a gauntlet. Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih has warned that OPEC will not tolerate any cuts in U.S. oil imports.
The reason is simple: these days the oil market is genuinely globally integrated. And any move to change dynamics in one location will have consequences elsewhere.
Think of the crude oil sector as a balloon. Squeeze it in one place, and it will just bulge out somewhere else.
But in the current environment, OPEC is likely to experience internal difficulties, as the cartel puts forward a production cut or cap in a market it no longer effectively controls. As I have said before, controlling 40% of the world’s oil supply just doesn’t buy what it used to.
Combine this with the cartel’s big three (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait) moving to diversify their revenue bases, and it’s clear that OPEC is rapidly becoming a two-tier organization.
That is going to be very destabilizing to the whole region. But that’s not even the most serious, or immediate, new matter on my agenda here in Abu Dhabi…
Pulling Out of the Iranian Nuclear Deal Could Destabilize the Region
This second issue arises from Trump’s victory.
On the campaign trail, the Trump campaign often pledged that they would throw out the Iranian nuclear accord. For this region of the world, that has immediate and significant consequences – for crude oil as well as each country’s view of national security.
Now, there’s been an ongoing debate in the U.S. over whether the accord should have been signed in the first place. However, if that agreement is now invalidated, Tehran begins another arms race with a strengthened Russia ensconced in nearby Syria and an already strong position in the Iranian nuclear energy industry.
Flash points like Syria to the north and Yemen to the south quickly intensify. Even a weakened ISIS does not bring about much encouragement in Iraq. That merely allows the Sunni (with Saudi support) and Shiite (with Iranian backing) domestic disagreement to unravel Iraq.
The other main Iraqi ethnic division – the Kurds currently inhabiting the autonomous region of Kurdistan in the northeast of the country – will formally declare independence in the face of such instability.
In turn, Kurdish populations in eastern Turkey, southeastern Syria, and northeastern Iran will then create escalating problems for those three countries, as their borders come under renewed assault.
A similar sectarian problem has been festering in the tiny state to the north of where I am now – Bahrain. There a Sunni royal household has been at odds with a Shiite majority population. The popular unrest has been intensifying with Iranian support.
Meanwhile, Saudi military forces are ready to move across the causeway connecting the island to the Saudi mainland to support the government.
This entire regional is a tinder box and one needs to be careful not to add to the kindling – for their sakes, ours, and the stability of the price of oil.
And it’s just another reason why you’d be wise to look at U.S. shale rather than Middle Eastern oil companies.
In short, what I’m hearing here means that the run-up to the November 30 OPEC summit in Vienna, where many of these regional rivalries (including Saudi Arabia vs. Iran) are playing out, will be very interesting.
You’ll get the latest as I hear it, right here.
In the meantime, I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving.