Saudi Arabia floods markets with $25 oil as Russia fight escalates

By Olga Yagova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia is flooding markets with oil at prices as low as $25 per barrel, specifically targeting big refiners of Russian oil in Europe and Asia, in an escalation of its fight with Moscow for market share, five trading sources said on Friday.

The sources, from oil majors and refiners which process crude in Europe, said Saudi state oil company Aramco told them it would supply all requested additional volumes in April.

Sources previously told Reuters Saudi Arabia is also seeking to replace Russian oil with Chinese and Indian buyers, although not all refiners received volumes they had asked for.

Tanker rates soared as Saudi Arabia provisionally chartered around 31 supertankers to take extra oil, including to the United States, where Russian oil is usually less in demand.

Oil prices have halved since the start of the year because demand has been hit by the coronavirus outbreak and after Russia and OPEC failed to reach a new deal on supply cuts.

Moscow refused to support new deeper cuts, saying the impact from the virus could be much worse than thought, and Riyadh retaliated by opening its taps and pledging to pump record volumes on to the market.

Russia has so far said it is not planning to come back to the negotiating table despite feeling the pressure from the extraordinary Saudi moves.

Energy Minister Alexander Novak said on Friday Russia saw no grounds so far for returning to discussions with its OPEC+ partners and can increase its oil production by a modest 200,000 barrels per day in April.

By contrast, Saudi Arabia has pledged to raise output by 2.6 million bpd in April, including from stocks. Fellow Gulf producers like the United Arab Emirates has had to join in the battle for market share and has also announced production increases.

Saudi Arabia has made a deep cut to its official selling prices for oil. Arab Light and Arab Medium barrels were offered at selling price of $25-28 per barrel on CIF Rotterdam basis, traders said.

On Friday, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) also offered steep discounts for its Murban crude for April, announcing forward prices for the first time in its history. It previously set prices retroactively.

Russia’s main blend Urals has been offered slightly higher than $30 per barrel on CIF Rotterdam basis, according to Refinitiv Eikon data.

“We are happy with our allocation. The requests for April were confirmed. I look forward to May if prices remain that attractive”, a trader with a European oil company involved in the talks told Reuters.

European oil refiners including Total, BP, Eni and SOCAR have all had allocations for additional Saudi crude oil supplies in April confirmed, the sources said.

Saudi Aramco declined to comment. Total, BP, Eni and SOCAR did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

On Thursday, sources told Reuters Saudi Arabia started focusing on boosting supplies to traditional buyers of Urals as it is trying to replace Russian oil in refiners’ feedstock around the world, from Europe to India.

Brent crude prices were on track for their biggest weekly fall since the 2008 financial crisis on Friday as investors fretted over the impact of the virus on demand and the Russian-Saudi price war. [O/R]

(Reporting by Olga Yagova; Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul, Rania El Gamal in Dubai and Devika Krishna Kumar in New York; Editing by Dmitry Zhdannikov/Jan Harvey/David Evans/Jane Merriman)

Saudi princes’ detentions sent a message: don’t block my path to the throne

DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s crown prince meant to send a strong message to critics within the royal family by detaining senior princes this weekend: Don’t you dare oppose my succession to the throne.

The main target in the crackdown, sources said, is King Salman’s brother, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, one of only three members of the Allegiance Council, the royal body that endorses the line of succession, to oppose Mohammed bin Salman becoming crown prince in 2017 in a palace coup.

Four sources with royal connections said the move aimed to ensure compliance within the ruling Al Saud family, in which there have been rumblings of discontent, ahead of an eventual succession upon the king’s death or abdication.

One of the sources described the detentions as a preemptive effort to ensure Prince Mohammed’s “ascent will be rubber stamped by the Allegiance Council when the time comes”.

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, the interior minister, arrives at the 34rd session of the Council of Arab Interior Ministers in Tunis,Tunisia April 5, 2017. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Ahmed, 78, was detained on Friday along with Mohammed bin Nayef, who was crown prince until he was ousted in 2017 and replaced by Mohammed bin Salman. Ahmed’s son Nayef and Mohammed’s brother Nawaf were also detained, said two other sources with royal connections.

The princes have been held at royal villas in the capital Riyadh and some were allowed to contact their families, those sources said.

Crown Prince Mohammed, who has moved ruthlessly to tighten his grip on power, feared disaffected princes might rally around Ahmed and Mohammed bin Nayef as potential alternatives to take the throne, said two of the sources with royal connections, and a senior foreign diplomat.

“This is a preparation for transferring power,” said one of those sources. “It is a clear message to the family that no one can say ‘No’ or dare challenge him.”

Saudi authorities have not confirmed or commented on the detentions, which have not been covered by Saudi media. The media ministry has not responded to detailed requests for comment.

If Mohammed bin Salman, 34, succeeds his father, it will be Saudi Arabia’s first generational transfer of power since the death of state founder Abdulaziz Ibn Saud in 1953, who was followed by six of his sons in succession.

The Allegiance Council, made up of one member from each house of 34 sons of Abdulaziz, is designed to ensure that the hundreds of princes that make up the royal family’s next generation unite behind the new king.

The senior foreign diplomat said the detentions were another blow to the country’s image abroad just as it appeared to be recovering from the furor over the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and criticism of the Yemen war.

Crown Prince Mohammed previously detained senior royals and prominent Saudi businessmen in 2017 at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, unnerving investors at home and abroad. More recently, it seemed those days of unpredictability had been put to rest as Riyadh assumed this year’s presidency of the Group of 20 major economies.

ROYAL DISCONTENT

When sources initially described the latest detentions in recent days, several of them said the detained princes had been accused of plotting a coup to thwart Mohammed’s accession. However, some of those sources, and others who later spoke about the detentions, have since offered milder justifications, describing the arrests as a response to an accumulation of misbehavior rather than a plot against the crown prince.

Two sources used the same phrase, saying the princes were being warned with a “twist of the ear” to stop criticizing the crown prince.

While hosting traditional gatherings known as majlis, Prince Ahmed had raised questions about the crown prince’s stance on several issues, including a U.S. plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one of the sources said.

There was no way to contact Ahmed or the other princes to comment on the allegations. Sources said he returned from a trip abroad the night before he was detained.

Ahmed on Saturday asked his family to deliver his bisht, a traditional coat worn at formal occasions, suggesting he might soon make a public appearance, said two sources including one with royal connections.

Saudi insiders and Western diplomats say the family is unlikely to oppose the crown prince while the king is alive, and the monarch would not turn against his favorite son, to whom he has delegated most responsibilities of rule.

The recent detentions sparked speculation about the health of 84-year-old King Salman, but sources have said he remains mentally and physically sound. State TV on Sunday aired a clip of him accepting oaths of office from two new Saudi ambassadors.

Mohammed bin Nayef’s brother Saud and Saud’s son, Interior Minister Prince Abdulaziz, who were both rumored to have been among those detained, also appeared conducting official business in photographs published by state media on Sunday.

Royals seeking to change the line of succession have viewed Prince Ahmed as a possible choice who would have support of family members, the security forces and some Western powers, sources have said.

The other two members of the Allegiance Council who opposed Mohammed bin Salman becoming crown prince in 2017 are younger and less prominent than Ahmed. One of them lives abroad.

“Disgruntlement was gathering around him (Prince Ahmed) and he was letting it happen,” said the fourth source with royal connections.

Critics have questioned the crown prince’s ability to lead after the 2018 murder of Khashoggi by Saudi agents and an attack last year on a Saudi oil facility, the sources said.

Some royals became disaffected after Prince Mohammed reigned in traditional largesse for many family members, heavily restricted their movements and replaced their security details with guards who report to him.

Mohammed bin Nayef’s movements have been heavily controlled and monitored since 2017.

Ahmed has kept a low profile since returning to Riyadh in October 2018 after 2-1/2 months abroad, when he appeared to criticize the Saudi leadership while responding to protesters outside a London residence chanting for the Al Saud’s downfall. Saudi watchers say there is no evidence he wants the throne.

The second source with royal connections said the crown prince may have wanted to clear his path before the U.S. presidential election, fearing that a loss by Donald Trump could affect his standing.

The foreign diplomat said he may have moved against his uncle and cousin out of an abundance of caution, fearing that “the Americans might one day turn to them”.

(Editing by Peter Graff)

Saudi sentences five to death, three to jail over Khashoggi murder

Saudi sentences five to death, three to jail over Khashoggi murder
By Marwa Rashad

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia on Monday sentenced five people to death and three more to jail over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year and said the killing was not premeditated, a verdict criticized by a U.N. investigator as a “mockery” of justice.

The court dismissed charges against the remaining three of the 11 people that had been on trial, finding them not guilty, Saudi Deputy Public Prosecutor and spokesman Shalaan al-Shalaan said. None of the defendants’ names was immediately released.

“The investigation showed that the killing was not premeditated … The decision was taken at the spur of the moment,” Shalaan said, a position contradicting the findings of a United Nations-led investigation.

Khashoggi was a U.S. resident and critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. He was last seen at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, where he had gone to obtain documents for his impending wedding. His body was reportedly dismembered and removed from the building, and his remains have not been found.

Eleven Saudi suspects were put on trial over his death in secretive proceedings in the capital Riyadh.

Khashoggi’s murder caused a global uproar, tarnishing the crown prince’s image. The CIA and some Western governments have said they believe Prince Mohammed, also known as MbS, ordered the killing.

Saudi officials say he had no role, though in September Prince Mohammed for the first time indicated some personal accountability for the murder, saying “it happened under my watch”.

Agnes Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur for extrajudicial summary or arbitrary executions, on Monday lambasted the trial verdict as a “mockery” of justice.

“The hit-men are guilty, sentenced to death. The masterminds not only walk free, they have barely been touched by the investigation and the trial,” she said on Twitter.

The U.N.-led inquiry reported in February that the evidence pointed to “a brutal and premeditated killing, planned and perpetrated” by Saudi officials.

TWO SENIOR FIGURES FREED AFTER PROBE

Last November the Saudi prosecutor said that Saud al-Qahtani, a former high-profile Saudi royal adviser, had discussed Khashoggi’s activities before he entered the Saudi consulate with the team which went on to kill him.

The prosecutor had said Qahtani acted in coordination with deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Asiri, who he said had ordered Khashoggi’s repatriation from Turkey and that the lead negotiator on the ground then decided to kill him.

Both men were dismissed from their positions but while Asiri was tried, Qahtani was not.

On Monday Shalaan said Asiri has been tried and released due to insufficient evidence, and Qahtani had been investigated but was not charged and had been released.

Shalaan also said the Saudi consul-general to Turkey at the time, Mohammed al-Otaibi, had been freed after Turkish witnesses said Otaibi had been with them on the day of the crime. Two weeks ago, the United States barred Otaibi from entering the country.

Sources familiar with the matter told Reuters last year that Maher Mutreb, the lead negotiator, and Salah al-Tubaigy, a forensic expert specializing in autopsies, were also on trial for the murder and could face the death penalty.

On Monday Shalaan said that when the Saudi team that entered the consulate saw that it would not be possible to transfer Khashoggi to a safe place to continue negotiating, they decided to kill him.

“It was agreed, in consultation between the head of the negotiating team and the culprits, to kill Jamal Khashoggi inside the consulate,” Shalaan said in response to questions from journalists.

31 PEOPLE INVESTIGATED

Turkey said on Monday the trial outcome was far from serving justice and repeated its call for better Saudi judicial cooperation.

“The fact that important issues like the location of the late Khashoggi’s body, the identification of the instigators and, if there are any, the local co-operators, are still in the dark is a fundamental shortcoming to justice being served and accountability,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said.

Callamard, the U.N. rapporteur, criticized the trial for having been held behind closed doors, saying that the conditions in international law for doing so had not been met.

Human rights group Amnesty International also criticized the closed trial, branding the verdict a “whitewash”.

“The verdict fails to address the Saudi authorities’ involvement in this devastating crime or clarify the location of Jamal Khashoggi’s remains,” Amnesty said in a statement.

In the murder investigation, 21 people were arrested and 10 called in for questioning without arrest, according to Shalaan.

Riyadh’s criminal court pronounced the death penalty on five defendants “for committing and directly participating in the murder of the victim”. The three sentenced to prison were given various sentences totaling 24 years “for their role in covering up this crime and violating the law”.

Shalaan added the investigations proved there was no “prior enmity” between those convicted and Khashoggi.

The verdicts can still be appealed.

(Reporting by Marwa Rashed in Riyadh; Additional reporting by Nafisa Eltahir and Maha El Dahan in Dubai; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Special report: ‘Time to take out our swords’ – Inside Iran’s plot to attack Saudi Arabia

By Reuters staff

(Reuters) – Four months before a swarm of drones and missiles crippled the world’s biggest oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia, Iranian security officials gathered at a heavily fortified compound in Tehran.

The group included the top echelons of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite branch of the Iranian military whose portfolio includes missile development and covert operations.

The main topic that day in May: How to punish the United States for pulling out of a landmark nuclear treaty and re-imposing economic sanctions on Iran, moves that have hit the Islamic Republic hard.

With Major General Hossein Salami, leader of the Revolutionary Guards, looking on, a senior commander took the floor.

“It is time to take out our swords and teach them a lesson,” the commander said, according to four people familiar with the meeting.

Hard-liners in the meeting talked of attacking high-value targets, including American military bases.

Yet, what ultimately emerged was a plan that stopped short of direct confrontation that could trigger a devastating U.S. response. Iran opted instead to target oil installations of America’s ally, Saudi Arabia, a proposal discussed by top Iranian military officials in that May meeting and at least four that followed.

This account, described to Reuters by three officials familiar with the meetings and a fourth close to Iran’s decision making, is the first to describe the role of Iran’s leaders in plotting the Sept. 14 attack on Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state-controlled oil company.

These people said Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved the operation, but with strict conditions: Iranian forces must avoid hitting any civilians or Americans.

Reuters was unable to confirm their version of events with Iran’s leadership. A Revolutionary Guards spokesman declined to comment. Tehran has steadfastly denied involvement.

Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for the Iranian Mission to the United Nations in New York, rejected the version of events the four people described to Reuters. He said Iran played no part in the strikes, that no meetings of senior security officials took place to discuss such an operation, and that Khamenei did not authorize any attack.

“No, no, no, no, no, and no,” Miryousefi said to detailed questions from Reuters on the alleged gatherings and Khamenei’s purported role.

The Saudi government communications office did not respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Pentagon declined to comment. A senior Trump administration official did not directly comment on Reuters’ findings but said Tehran’s “behavior and its decades-long history of destructive attacks and support for terrorism are why Iran’s economy is in shambles.”

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, at the center of a civil war against Saudi-backed forces, claimed responsibility for the assault on Saudi oil facilities. That declaration was rebuffed by U.S. and Saudi officials, who said the sophistication of the offensive pointed to Iran.

Saudi Arabia was a strategic target.

The kingdom is Iran’s principal regional rival and a petroleum giant whose production is crucial to the world economy. It is an important U.S. security partner. But its war on Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians, and the brutal murder of Washington-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents last year, have strained its relations with U.S. lawmakers. There was no groundswell of support in Congress for military intervention to aid the Saudis after the attack.

The 17-minute strike on two Aramco installations by 18 drones and three low-flying missiles revealed the vulnerability of the Saudi oil company, despite billions spent by the kingdom on security. Fires erupted at the company’s Khurais oil installation and at the Abqaiq oil processing facility, the world’s largest.

The attack temporarily halved Saudi Arabia’s oil production and knocked out 5% of the world’s oil supply. Global crude prices spiked.

The assault prompted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to accuse Iran of an “act of war.” In the aftermath, Tehran was hit with additional U.S. sanctions. The United States also launched cyber attacks against Iran, U.S. officials told Reuters.

SCOURING TARGETS

The plan by Iranian military leaders to strike Saudi oil installations developed over several months, according to the official close to Iran’s decision making.

“Details were discussed thoroughly in at least five meetings and the final go ahead was given” by early September, the official said.

All of those meetings took place at a secure location inside the southern Tehran compound, three of the officials told Reuters. They said Khamenei, the supreme leader, attended one of the gatherings at his residence, which is also inside that complex.

Other attendees at some of those meetings included Khamenei’s top military advisor, Yahya Rahim-Safavi, and a deputy of Qasem Soleimani, who heads the Revolutionary Guards’ foreign military and clandestine operations, the three officials said. Rahim-Safavi could not be reached for comment.

Among the possible targets initially discussed were a seaport in Saudi Arabia, an airport and U.S. military bases, the official close to Iran’s decision making said. The person would not provide additional details.

Those ideas were ultimately dismissed over concerns about mass casualties that could provoke fierce retaliation by the United States and embolden Israel, potentially pushing the region into war, the four people said.

The official close to Iran’s decision making said the group settled on the plan to attack Saudi Arabia’s oil installations because it could grab big headlines, inflict economic pain on an adversary and still deliver a strong message to Washington.

“Agreement on Aramco was almost reached unanimously,” the official said. “The idea was to display Iran’s deep access and military capabilities.”

The attack was the worst on Middle East oil facilities since Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi strongman, torched Kuwait’s oil fields during the 1991 Gulf crisis.

U.S. Senator Martha McSally, an Air Force combat veteran and Republican lawmaker who was briefed by U.S. and Saudi officials, and who visited Aramco’s Abqaiq facility days after the attack, said the perpetrators knew precisely where to strike to create as much damage as possible.

“It showed somebody who had a sophisticated understanding of facility operations like theirs, instead of just hitting things off of satellite photos,” she told Reuters. The drones and missiles, she added, “came from Iranian soil, from an Iranian base.”

A Middle East source, who was briefed by a country investigating the attack, said the launch site was the Ahvaz air base in southwest Iran. That account matched those of three U.S. officials and two other people who spoke to Reuters: a Western intelligence official and a Western source based in the Middle East.

Rather than fly directly from Iran to Saudi Arabia over the Gulf, the missiles and drones took different, circuitous paths to the oil installations, part of Iran’s effort to mask its involvement, the people said.

Some of the craft flew over Iraq and Kuwait before landing in Saudi Arabia, according to the Western intelligence source, who said that trajectory provided Iran with plausible deniability.

“That wouldn’t have been the case if missiles and drones had been seen or heard flying into Saudi Arabia over the Gulf from a south flight path” from Iran, the person said.

Revolutionary Guards commanders briefed the supreme leader on the successful operation hours after the attack, according to the official close to the country’s decision making.

Images of fires raging at the Saudi facilities were broadcast worldwide. The country’s stock market swooned. Global oil prices initially surged 20%. Officials at Saudi Aramco gathered in what was referred to internally as the “emergency management room” at the company’s headquarters.

One of the officials who spoke with Reuters said Tehran was delighted with the outcome of the operation: Iran had landed a painful blow on Saudi Arabia and thumbed its nose at the United States.

SIZING UP TRUMP

The Revolutionary Guards and other branches of the Iranian military all ultimately report to Khamenei. The supreme leader has been defiant in response to Trump’s abandonment last year of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly called the Iran nuclear deal.

That 2015 accord with five permanent members of the U.S. Security Council – the United States, Russia, France, China and the United Kingdom – as well as Germany, removed billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran’s curbing its nuclear program.

Trump’s demand for a better deal has seen Iran launch a two-pronged strategy to win relief from sweeping sanctions reimposed by the United States, penalties that have crippled its oil exports and all but shut it out of the international banking system.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has signaled a willingness to meet with American officials on condition that all sanctions be lifted. Simultaneously, Iran is flaunting its military and technical prowess.

In recent months, Iran has shot down a U.S. surveillance drone and seized a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow channel through which about a fifth of the world’s oil moves. And it has announced it has amassed stockpiles of enriched uranium in violation of the U.N agreement, part of its vow to restart its nuclear weapons program.

The Aramco attacks were an escalation that came as Trump had been pursuing his long-stated goal of extricating American forces from the Middle East. Just days after announcing an abrupt pullout of U.S. troops in northern Syria, the Trump administration on Oct. 11 said it would send fighter jets, missile-defense weaponry and 2,800 more troops to Saudi Arabia to bolster the kingdom’s defenses.

“Do not strike another sovereign state, do not threaten American interests, American forces, or we will respond,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned Tehran during a press briefing.

Still, Iran appears to have calculated that the Trump administration would not risk an all-out assault that could destabilize the region in the service of protecting Saudi oil, said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit working to end global conflict.

In Iran, “hard-liners have come to believe that Trump is a Twitter tiger,” Vaez said. “As such there is little diplomatic or military cost associated with pushing back.”

The senior Trump administration official disputed the suggestion that Iran’s operation has strengthened its hand in working out a deal for sanctions relief from the United States.

“Iran knows exactly what it needs to do to see sanctions lifted,” the official said.

The administration has said Iran must end support for terrorist groups in the Middle East and submit to tougher terms that would permanently snuff its nuclear ambitions. Iran has said it has no ties to terrorist groups.

Whether Tehran accedes to U.S. demands remains to be seen.

In one of the final meetings held ahead of the Saudi oil attack, another Revolutionary Guards commander was already looking ahead, according to the official close to Iran’s decision making who was briefed on that gathering.

“Rest assured Allah almighty will be with us,” the commander told senior security officials. “Start planning for the next one.”

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and six other countries imposed sanctions on Wednesday on 25 corporations, banks and people linked to Iran’s support for militant networks including Hezbollah, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement.

The targets were announced by the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) nations – which also include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was on a Middle East trip to finalize details of an economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

All 25 targets were previously sanctioned by the United States.

“The TFTC’s action coincides with my trip to the Middle East, where I am meeting with my counterparts across the region to bolster the fight against terrorist financing,” Mnuchin said in the Treasury statement.

In Jerusalem on Monday, Mnuchin said the United States would increase economic pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, making the pledge during a Middle East trip that includes visits to U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Sanctions reimposed on Tehran by President Donald Trump after he withdrew the United States from world powers’ 2015 nuclear pact with Tehran have dried up Iranian oil revenues and cut Iranian banks’ ties to the financial world.

Twenty-one of the targets announced Wednesday comprised a vast network of businesses providing financial support to the Basij Resistance Force, the Treasury said.

It said shell companies and other measures were used to mask Basij ownership and control over multibillion-dollar business interests in Iran’s automotive, mining, metals, and banking industries, many of which have operate across the Middle East and Europe.

The four individuals targeted were Hezbollah-affiliated and help coordinate the group’s operations in Iraq, it said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Daphne Psaledakis; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Saudi visit shows Putin’s deepening Middle East influence

By Olesya Astakhova and Stephen Kalin

RIYADH (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin signaled Moscow’s growing Middle East clout on Monday by visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time in over a decade, buoyed by Russian military gains in Syria, strong ties with Riyadh’s regional rivals and energy cooperation.

Moscow accrued power in the Middle East in 2015 by sending troops to Syria, where it and Iran have been key backers of President Bashar al-Assad amid civil war, while the United States pulled back. Saudi Arabia sided with Syrian rebels.

On the eve of Putin’s trip, U.S. troops were abruptly retreating from northern Syria as Russian-backed government forces deployed deep inside Kurdish-held territory under a deal to help fend off a Turkish cross-border offensive.

Russia has also strengthened ties with both Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran, which are locked in a decades-old contest for influence that veered towards open conflict after a recent spate of attacks on oil assets in the Gulf that Riyadh and Washington blame on Tehran. Iran denies the charges.

Tensions with Iran, which is locked in several proxy wars with Saudi Arabia, have risen to new highs after Washington last year quit a 2015 international nuclear accord with Tehran and re-imposed sanctions.

The Russian president, accompanied by his energy minister and head of Russia’s wealth fund, met King Salman at his palace along with de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom Putin says he has friendly relations.

Deepening ties have seen non-OPEC Russia, once regarded as a rival in oil markets, join OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia in forming an alliance known as OPEC+ to support crude prices by restraining output.

At a morning forum convening 300 Saudi and Russian CEOs, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said OPEC+ countries were showing high commitments to the deal, and his Russian counterpart said there were no talks underway to change it.

Ahead of the visit, Putin, who offered to provide Russian defense systems to the kingdom after Sept. 14 attacks on its oil facilities, said he could also play a positive role in easing tensions with Tehran given good ties with both sides.

Any progress on long-mulled Saudi plans to purchase the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems would cause disquiet in Washington, which is sending 3,000 troops and additional air defense systems to Saudi Arabia.

U.S. President Donald Trump has resisted pressure to sanction Riyadh over human rights abuses, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, calling that a “foolish” move that would only benefit competitors Russia and China.

OIL AND INVESTMENTS

Asked about concerns Riyadh was cozying up to Moscow, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said he saw no contradiction.

“We don’t believe that having close ties with Russia has any negative impact on our relationship with the United States,” he told reporters on Sunday. “We believe that we can have strategic and strong ties with the United States while we develop our ties with Russia.”

Russian and Saudi flags lined Riyadh streets ahead of Putin’s one-day visit, which includes an evening performance by Russia’s Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra. Putin then travels to the United Arab Emirates.

In meetings with Saudi leaders, the Russian president will discuss the OPEC+ pact, which has seen production cut by 1.2 million barrels per day since January.

The two sides are expected to sign more than $2 billion of deals, including a joint investment by state oil giant Saudi Aramco and Russia’s RDIF sovereign wealth fund.

RDIF head Kirill Dmitriev said a number of Russian investors were interested in a planned initial public offering of Aramco. The oil major could sell 1-2% through a local listing its chairman said would be announced “very, very soon”, ahead of a potential international offering.

Energy Minister Alexander Novak said Russia’s Gazprom is interested in cooperating with Saudi firms on natural gas.

Moscow, the world’s largest wheat exporter, made some progress in accessing the Saudi and Middle Eastern markets when the kingdom agreed in August to relax specifications for wheat imports, opening the door to Black Sea imports.

RDIF and Saudi Arabia’s SALIC plan to sign an agreement to jointly search for investment projects in Russia’s agricultural sector, a source told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Maher Chmaytelli and Dahlia Nehme in Dubai and Polina Devitt in Moscow; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Lincoln Feast, William Maclean)

U.S. to deploy large number of forces to Saudi Arabia

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States announced on Friday a new, large deployment of forces to Saudi Arabia to help bolster the kingdom’s defenses following the Sept. 14 attack on its oil facilities, which Washington and Riyadh have blamed on Iran.

The planned deployment, which was first reported by Reuters, will include fighter squadrons, one air expeditionary wing and air defense personnel, the Pentagon said.

The Pentagon said it was sending two additional Patriot batteries and one Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD).

“Taken together with other deployments, this constitutes an additional 3,000 forces that have been extended or authorized within the last month,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

It was unclear whether some of the newly announced troops might replace other American forces expected to depart the region in the coming weeks or months.

The Pentagon has yet to announce, for example, whether it will replace the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its strike group when it eventually wraps up its deployment to the Middle East.

The deployment is part of a series of what the United States has described as defensive moves following the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities last month, which rattled global energy markets and exposed major gaps in Saudi Arabia’s air defenses.

Iran has responded to previous U.S. troop deployments this year with apprehension. It denies responsibility for the attack on Saudi Arabia as well as attacks on oil tankers earlier this year.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Editing by Chris Reese and Tom Brown)

Exclusive: In Saudi Arabia, criticism of Crown Prince grows after attack

By Reuters staff reporters

(Reuters) – Some members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family and business elite have expressed frustration with the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman following the largest-ever attack on the kingdom’s oil infrastructure last month.

It has sparked concern among several prominent branches of the ruling Al Saud family, which numbers around 10,000 members, about the crown prince’s ability to defend and lead the world’s largest oil exporter, according to a senior foreign diplomat and five sources with ties to the royals and business elite. All spoke on condition of anonymity.

The attack has also fanned discontent among some in elite circles who believe the crown prince, known in the West by the initials MbS, has sought too tight a grip on power, the sources said. Some of these people said the event has also fueled criticism among those who believe he has pursued an overly aggressive stance towards Iran.

“There is a lot of resentment” about the crown prince’s leadership, said one of the sources, a member of the Saudi elite with royal connections. “How were they not able to detect the attack?”

This person added that some people in elite circles are saying they have “no confidence” in the crown prince, an assertion echoed by the four other sources and the senior diplomat.

The crown prince nonetheless has staunch supporters. A Saudi source within circles loyal to the crown prince said: “The latest events won’t affect him personally as a potential ruler because he is trying to stop the Iranian expansion in the region. This is a patriotic issue, and so he won’t be in danger, at least as long as the father lives.”

A second senior foreign diplomat said ordinary Saudis still want to unite behind MbS as a strong, decisive, dynamic leader.

The Saudi government media office did not respond to detailed questions from Reuters for this article.

The crown prince, during a television interview aired Sunday by U.S. broadcaster CBS, said that defending Saudi Arabia was difficult because of the kingdom’s large size and the scale of threats it faces. “It’s challenging to cover all of this fully,” he said. He also called for “strong and firm” global action to deter Iran but said he preferred a “peaceful solution” to a military one.

FUELING RESENTMENT

At stake is political stability in the world’s largest oil exporter, a key ally of the United States in the Middle East. The crown prince is officially next in line to the throne to his 83-year-old father, King Salman, and is de facto ruler of the country. He has vowed to transform the kingdom into a modern state.

The 34-year-old crown prince, who is popular among young Saudis, has received praise at home for easing social restrictions in the conservative Muslim kingdom, granting women more rights and pledging to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy. But state control of the media and a crackdown on dissent in the kingdom make it difficult to gauge levels of genuine enthusiasm domestically.

The September 14 attack set ablaze two of state oil giant Saudi Aramco’s plants, initially knocking out half of the kingdom’s oil production — 5% of global oil output. Saudi Arabia has said Iran was responsible, an assessment that U.S. officials share. Iranian officials have denied involvement.

“The magnitude of these attacks is not lost on the population, nor is the fact that he (the crown prince) is the minister of defense and his brother is deputy defense minister, and yet arguably the country has suffered its largest attack ever and on the crown jewels,” said Neil Quilliam, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, a London-based international affairs think tank.

“There’s diminishing confidence in his ability to secure the country – and that’s a consequence of his policies,” said Quilliam, a specialist on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. MbS oversees foreign, security and defense policy.

The attack has fueled resentment that has simmered since the crown prince came to power two years ago, sweeping aside rivals to the throne and arresting hundreds of the kingdom’s most prominent figures on corruption allegations.

MbS has seen his reputation overseas suffer from a costly war in Yemen against the Iran-aligned Houthi group that has killed tens of thousands of people and triggered a humanitarian crisis. He also came under international criticism over the murder a year ago of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate, which the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has said the crown prince ordered.

The crown prince, during the CBS interview, denied ordering the killing of Khashoggi but said he ultimately bears “full responsibility” as the kingdom’s de facto leader.

Khashoggi was murdered by agents of the Saudi government without authorization or permission, said Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, during a moderated discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in New York on September 24.

CONSOLIDATE CONTROL

Some Saudi critics say MbS’s aggressive foreign policy towards Iran and involvement in the war in Yemen exposed the kingdom to attack, according to four of the sources with ties to the royals and business elite. They also express frustration that the crown prince was unable to prevent the attacks despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars on defense, according to the five sources and one of the senior diplomats.

Jubeir, the Saudi minister, in his recent remarks in New York, said the kingdom’s air defenses have stopped hundreds of ballistic missiles and dozens of drones coming into Saudi Arabia. He added that the failure to detect the September 14 attack was “being looked at,” but that “it’s very difficult to detect small objects that fly at three hundred feet of altitude.”

Some Saudi elite say the crown prince’s efforts to consolidate control have hurt the kingdom. One source close to government circles said MbS has installed officials who were generally less experienced than previously.

MbS ousted Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince and interior minister two years ago. The former crown prince had nearly two decades of experience in senior roles in the ministry, which was responsible for domestic policing and intelligence. MbS named a 33-year-old cousin as a replacement, after placing key areas of intelligence and counter-terrorism under the royal court’s purview.

The crown prince also removed Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who had overseen or effectively commanded the kingdom’s elite internal security force, the Saudi Arabian National Guard, since 1996. The prince was ultimately replaced at the end of last year by then-32-year-old Prince Abdullah bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz, who had been deputy governor of Mecca for less than two years and before that in private business.

The Saudi government media office did not immediately respond to a request for comment addressed to Prince Abdullah.

FAVORITE SON

Saudi insiders and Western diplomats say the family is unlikely to oppose MbS while the king remains alive, recognizing that the king is unlikely to turn against his favorite son. The monarch has delegated most responsibilities of rule to his son but still presides over weekly cabinet meetings and receives foreign dignitaries.

Regardless of the king’s future, the insiders and diplomats say, a challenge to MbS’s authority could be difficult given his hold on the internal security structure.

Some royals view 77-year-old Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, King Salman’s only surviving full brother, as a possible alternative who would have support of family members, the security apparatus and some Western powers, said two of the five sources with ties to Saudi elite.

“They are all looking at Ahmed to see what he does. The family continues to think he is the only one who can save them,” said one prominent businessman.

There is no evidence Prince Ahmed is willing to play that role, according to Saudi watchers. Prince Ahmed has largely kept a low profile since returning to Riyadh in October 2018 after 2-1/2 months abroad. During the trip, he appeared to criticize the Saudi leadership while responding to protesters outside a London residence chanting for the downfall of the Al Saud dynasty.

Prince Ahmed was one of only three people on the Allegiance Council, made up of the ruling family’s senior members, who opposed MbS becoming crown prince in 2017, two Saudi sources said at the time.

Prince Ahmed couldn’t be reached for comment. One of the five sources with ties to Saudi elite said that Prince Ahmed’s position on whether he will challenge MbS is that he “will cross that bridge when we come to it.”

(Editing by Cassell Bryan-Low)

Saudi prince seeks to dodge blame for Khashoggi killing: U.N. expert

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s crown prince is trying to repair damage to his image done by Jamal Khashoggi’s murder by insisting “layers and layers” of hierarchy separated him from the Saudi agents who killed the journalist, the U.N. investigator told Reuters.

Mohammad bin Salman told CBS program “60 Minutes” that as de facto Saudi leader he ultimately bore “full responsibility” for the killing a year ago, but he denied ordering it. He made similar remarks to U.S. broadcaster PBS.

Asked how he did not know about the killing by Saudi officials, he told CBS it was impossible for him to know “what three million people working for the Saudi government do daily”.

In an interview with Reuters, Agnes Callamard, U.N. expert on summary executions, attributed his remarks to a “strategy of rehabilitation in the face of public outrage around the world”.

“He is creating a distance between himself, he is exonerating himself from direct criminal responsibility in the killing. He is creating layers, and layers and layers of actors and institutions which are protecting him from his direct accountability for the killing.”

She spoke before joining Khashoggi’s family and friends in Istanbul on Wednesday to mark the murder’s first anniversary.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the crown prince, was murdered on Oct 2 at its consulate in Istanbul. His dismembered body has never been found. A global outcry ensued and led to U.S. Treasury sanctions on 17 Saudi individuals and a Senate resolution blaming Prince Mohammed.

Saudi officials have denied suspicions in the CIA that the crown prince, known as MbS, ordered the killing. Eleven people are on trial in Saudi Arabia, although Callmard has voiced concerns over a potential miscarriage of justice.

IMPUNITY

A report by Callamard in June found credible evidence warranting further investigation that the crown prince and other senior officials including key adviser Saud al-Qahtani are liable for the murder.

Callamard told Reuters the only way she could interpret his admission of state responsibility — as opposed to personal responsibility — was as “recognizing implicitly at least that the killing was a state killing.”

“To the extent the killing occurred under his watch, he represents the state, he is indeed quasi head of state,” she said.

Turning to the international implications, Callamard said that if countries around the world did not respond properly to Khashoggi’s killing, “it will open the gate to a sense of impunity for the killing of independent critical voices.”

Callamard has called for states to widen sanctions to include the crown prince and his assets abroad unless he can prove he is not responsible.

Critics of the kingdom say his latest public comments appear part of a public relations campaign ahead of Riyadh’s hosting of the G20 next year, its IPO of state oil giant Saudi Aramco and a foreign investment push to diversify the economy away from oil.

Reacting to Prince Mohammed’s description of the killing as a “mistake”, Callamard countered that a killing that implicated “a consulate, requires preparation and planning and ultimately premeditation for 24 hours, is not a mistake.”

She called for “a transparent investigation into the chain of command” around the killing and demanded the prince apologize to Khashoggi’s family and fiancee.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by William Maclean)

Drones, sanctions, contamination: supply surprises leave oil unfazed

By Ahmad Ghaddar and Noah Browning

LONDON (Reuters) – They should have started a bull run, but supply shocks that have rocked the oil industry this year have failed to deliver a sustained rise in crude prices.

Drone attacks crippled Saudi Aramco’s oil plants, U.S. oil sanctions knocked out exports from Iran and Venezuela, and massive contamination tainted Russian oil flows.

Yet, instead of sky-high prices, the market has been kept in check by a flood of oil from the U.S. fracking boom and worries about a global recession weighing on the demand outlook.

And there is unlikely to be a spike anytime soon, analysts and data indicate because high-tech industry understands better than ever just how replete their market is with oil.

“Between fears of peak oil demand, unlimited shale growth, a looming global recession and the possibility that millions of barrels of OPEC barrels (sanctioned or otherwise) could return to the market fairly quickly, there is no faith in the future,” said Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at Energy Aspect.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which includes Iran, Venezuela and its de facto leader Saudi Arabia, has continued to rein in supply this year but the group’s efforts have not delivered the hoped-for price surge.

Oil futures markets indicate that supply outages have not dealt a boost to prices as investors see the unexpected shocks to oil output will not massively dent overall supply.

SAUDI BOUNCE-BACK

The Sept. 14 attacks on Aramco sites knocked out around 5.7 million bpd of capacity from the world’s biggest oil exporter, nearly 6% of global oil supplies.

Despite the unprecedented damage, Saudi Arabia has swiftly restored its production capacity to 11.3 million barrels per day, just shy of its regular output, sources briefed on Aramco’s operations told Reuters.

Brent oil prices surged 15% in the wake of the attacks but have since lost most of their gains and are trading at around $62 a barrel.

 

While U.S. oil output continues to surge along with the productivity of existing wells, the increasingly sparse number of operating wells could eventually drag on output and provide a boost to prices.

“We think the outlook for U.S. supply growth is far too optimistic,” Mark Hume, portfolio manager at investment giant BlackRock’s Energy and Resources Income Trust.

“There’s a real chance of U.S. growth going to the downside and I think balances will be tighter than one might anticipate right now,” he added.

DATA TRANSPARENCY

Another aspect that has softened the impact of supply shocks on oil prices is the wide availability of data which gives investors a much clearer view on the operations of the market.

BP chief executive Bob Dudley said this week that the reaction to the Saudi attacks was “sensible”.

“It says something about the market – there’s instantaneous data on storage levels which didn’t exist in the past,” he said.

Technology firms increasingly offer real-time data pinpointing storage levels in oil tanks, detecting if a refinery unit is operating using heat cameras and tracking ships.

“The data availability is a bit of a game-changer,” said Norbert Ruecker, head of economics at Swiss bank Julius Baer. “This speeds up what financial markets are all about.”

(Reporting by Ahmad Ghaddar and Noah Browning; Additional reporting by Dmitry Zhdannikov and Ron Bousso in London and Jessica Resnick-Ault in New York; Editing by Edmund Blair)