OPINION: The epic oil price slump, if prolonged, is bound to prove calamitous for the upstream sector of the financially strapped Middle Eastern and North African producers and those with high production costs.
The consequences will go beyond the energy sector for the more populous nations, where autocratic governments have long used oil windfalls to shield themselves from social unrest through generous handouts and subsidies.
World Bank warning
“As the world struggles with the fear of recession, the Middle East and North Africa could be the hardest hit by what is arguably a perfect storm: the coronavirus spreads to the region and oil prices collapse,” the World Bank says.
"If the decline in oil prices persists, it will erode the fragile macroeconomic and social stability of countries, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, that have been hit by the novel coronavirus."
Only the wealthy Persian Gulf producers with small populations — such as Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates — can be expected to weather a prolonged storm thanks to their enviable financial position.
Iran position precarious
The major losers will primarily be Iran as well as Iraq, Libya Algeria, Oman, and Saudi Arabia.
Iran, whose economy is being seriously squeezed by unprecedented US sanctions against its vital oil sector, will find itself struggling to pay for basic imports as the price collapse will further reduce income from the crude sales achieved through circumventing the stifling sanctions.
Iran’s exports have fallen to a fraction of the 2.5 million barrels per day that the Islamic Republic used to export before May 2018, when US President Donald Trump tore up the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement and imposed draconian punitive measures against the country.
The Iranian Central Bank has just put out an international distress call amid rising cases of the coronavirus outbreak by asking the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for $5 billion in emergency funds to cope with containment.
Iran is fast becoming the global epicentre of the endemic, with more than 500 dead and 11,000 afflicted.
Severe economic problems have led to widespread unrest in the past two years, with the clerical leadership employing heavy-handed tactics to quell dissent.
Iraq set to suffer
Neighbouring Iraq is in the grip of growing political unrest with protesters demanding jobs and end to endemic corruption.
Iraq, Opec’s second-biggest producer, has been without a functioning government for months, disrupting planning and delaying major upstream projects.
Rising tensions between the US and Iran — both of which are fighting for influence in Iraq — have added to the security and political woes.
Algeria, often seen as a hostile destination for international oil companies, will find it difficult to attract fresh investment in the face of the price collapse and social unrest.
Algeria’s Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad said the North African country is faced with an unprecedented “multi-dimensional crisis”, while also urging the public to make fewer demands of the government and reduce their presence on the streets.
Libya’s civil war, which has crippled the oil industry, is showing no signs of ending.
Oman has so far been spared social unrest but the future remains bleak since the Persian Gulf sultanate has the highest production costs among regional producers because the bulk of its oil production is ultra-heavy heavy, which needs robust commodity prices in order to compete with other blends.
The oil price rout, arising from the collapse earlier this month of Opec+ talks to persuade Russia to agree to new production curbs, is also a real threat to Saudi maverick ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has pinned his success as the future king on delivering on an ambitious economic diversification scheme funded by oil money.
(This is an Upstream opinion article.)