The so-called corruption crackdown in Saudi Arabia over the weekend may be the start of a bigger power struggle by the heir apparent to the throne which destabilises the region for a time and keeps oil prices elevated.
Following the creation of an anti-corruption committee by current King Salman, security forces Saturday swept up 11 princes, including well-known billionaire invest Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, and four ministers, including the one in charge of the National Guard, according to various reports. A number of former ministers were also arrested.
Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman — the 32-year-old known as “MBS” who will take over when King Salman, 81, abdicates the throne later this year or early next — is seen by analysts as the man behind those moves in an effort to consolidate power to his family and its allies before he takes the throne.
“Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s (MBS’) Saturday night purge represents a stunning political development in Saudi Arabia and a shot across the bow at the old establishment,” wrote Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy for RBC Capital Markets in a Sunday note to clients. “The key question now is whether MBS has launched or preempted a new destabilizing ‘Game of Thrones’ by arresting his relatives in such dramatic fashion.”
Brent crude oil futures jumped to their highest since July 2015 in early trading Sunday evening, while U.S. WTI futures were also trading higher to $55.82 a barrel following the weekend drama.
The short-term and medium-term outlook for oil looks bullish, according to the note by Croft, who is one of the most widely-followed commodity analysts on Wall Street.
In the short term, analysts are focusing on the detention of Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, the head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, as a sign the struggle is much bigger and will be more tumultuous than it currently looks. The National Guard is in charge of keeping the population in line.
“While MBS’ supporters insist that Saturday’s move had absolutely nothing to do with staving off a coup and maintain that it was entirely about eradicating corruption, detaining Mutaib does also seemingly serve a broader power consolidation agenda,” wrote Croft. “The fact that private airstrips were closed on Saturday also does suggest that more high-level arrests may be looming.”
History shows, that when there is turmoil within Saudi Arabia, oil prices head higher. If the young prince is ultimately trying to fight extremism, there could be protests led by clerics among the population.
Using Kensho, CNBC looked at what happened to oil prices one month after major protests within Saudi Arabia.
A month later, the international crude benchmark was 2.7 percent higher, on average, according to Kensho. Crude prices in the U.S. followed the lead, gaining more than 2 percent, on average, as well.
The medium-term outlook is also bullish for oil because the crown prince will likely uphold and extend the OPEC production cuts, according to RBC.
“In terms of oil, there was no talk of returning to market share in Riyadh last week and $60/bbl Brent provides a more optimal enabling environment for many of MBS’ key initiatives to remake the economy,” said Croft’s note. “Hence, we continue to see Saudi Arabia actively supporting market management, extending the OPEC cut deep into 2018, and moving ahead with the planned sale of a stake in Aramco.”
Saudi rulers likely also would like to keep oil prices stable ahead of the planned IPO of state oil company Saudi Aramco expected next year.
Longer term, however, the crown prince’s rule could be bearish for oil. He is trying to diversify the kingdom away from its reliance on crude revenues. The Aramco IPO is part of that process. A new $500 billion mega-city powered by renewable energy is part of that diversification plan as well — it’s also a sign of just how bold the man is currently winning this “Game of Thrones.”