The rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran has quickly ballooned into the worst conflict in decades between the two countries.
The back-and-forth escalation quickly turned the simmering tension into an overt struggle for power in the Middle East. First, the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric prompted protestors to set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic relations and kicked out Iranian diplomatic personnel. Tehran banned Saudi goods from entering Iran. Worst of all, Iran blames Saudi Arabia for an airstrike that landed near its embassy in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s Sunni allies in the Arabian Peninsula largely followed suit by downgrading diplomatic ties with Iran. However, recognizing the dire implications of a major conflict in the region, most of Saudi Arabia’s Gulf State allies did not go as far as to entirely sever diplomatic relations, as Saudi Arabia did. Bahrain, the one nation most closely allied with Riyadh, was the only one to take such a step.
Many of them are concerned about a descent to further instability. Nations like Kuwait and Qatar have trade links with Iran, plus Shiite populations of their own. Crucially, Qatar also shares a maritime border with Iran as well as access to massive natural gas reserves in the Persian Gulf. These countries are trying to split the difference between the two belligerent nations in the Middle East. “The Saudis are on the phone lobbying countries very hard to break off ties with Iran but most Gulf states are trying to find some common ground,” a diplomat from an Arab country told Reuters. “The problem is, common ground between everyone in this region is shrinking.”
The effect from the brewing conflict on oil is murky, but for now it is not having a bullish impact. In the past, geopolitical tension in the Middle East, especially involving large oil producers, would add a few dollars to the price of oil. This risk premium captured the possibility of a supply disruption into the price of a barrel of crude. However, recent events barely registered in oil trading. That is because the global glut in oil supplies loom larger than any potential for a supply disruption. Oil dropped to nearly $30 per barrel on January 12 and oil speculators are not paying any attention to the tension in the Middle East.
Also, the conflict could simply manifest itself in an intensified battle for oil market share. Iran has put forth aggressive goals to ramp up oil production in the near-term. And Saudi Arabia continues to produce well in excess of 10 million barrels per day while discounting its crude in several key markets, particularly in Europe in order to box out Iran.