Qatar announced Monday that it will withdraw from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in January, as the Persian Gulf state faces a prolonged regional clash with rival Saudi Arabia.
Qatar framed the surprise decision, which ended nearly six decades of membership in OPEC, as a move to focus the country’s resources on exports of liquefied natural gas. The decision also comes amid a more than year-long feud between Qatar and its neighbors. Led by Saudi Arabia, a coalition of Arab Gulf states broke off relations with Qatar and imposed an economic and travel blockade in June 2017 after accusing Qatar’s government of sponsoring terrorism.
Qatari Energy Minister Saad Sherida al-Kaabi said in a news conference Monday that the decision was not related to the political clash and that Qatar was leaving the oil cartel to work on plans to boost its natural gas production by more than 40 percent in the coming years.
“I think it’s inefficient to focus on something that is not your core business and something that is not going to benefit you long term,” he said. “For me to put effort and resources and time in an organization where I am a very small player, and don’t have real say in what happens in that organization, practically does not work.”
Though Qatar’s oil exports of 600,000 barrels a day are tiny compared to that of Saudi Arabia, which produces 11 million barrels per day, Qatar’s exit from OPEC — the first by a Middle Eastern country — underscored the far-reaching consequences of the Persian Gulf feud.
Qatar is already the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. Qatar Petroleum, the state-owned oil and gas company, said in a series of Twitter posts on Monday quoting Kaabi that it plans to develop and increase natural gas output from 77 million tons per year to 110 million.
“Achieving our ambitious growth strategy will undoubtedly require focused efforts, commitment and dedication to maintain and strengthen Qatar’s position as the leading natural gas producer,” Kaabi said.
Qatar also said that the government wants to increase its oil production, the Associated Press reported.
The regional boycott of Qatar has drawn in the Trump administration, which has close economic and military ties to all the countries embroiled in the feud. But President Trump has issued conflicting statements about Qatar. He first endorsed the allegations that the country is a “sponsor of terrorism” last year but later called Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani a “great friend” when the emir visited Washington in April. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged Persian Gulf leaders to resolve the conflict, emphasizing their shared aim of battling Sunni extremists in the region and in confronting Iran, a primary foreign policy goal for the Trump administration.
Senior U.S. officials, including Trump and Pompeo, offered a spirited defense of the Saudi government after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October by Saudi agents, in statements that have helped ease the kingdom’s international isolation and fueled speculation that the Trump administration would have added leverage with its Saudi allies to end the Persian Gulf conflict. But Qatar’s exit from OPEC on Monday — along with recent signs it is bolstering its military capacity, to counter its Gulf rivals — has made the prospects of a speedy end to the dispute appear dim.
In recent months, American drivers have felt the effect of rising gas prices, with Trump attacking OPEC throughout the year for limiting production. He has long pressured OPEC to lower oil prices and has used Twitter to criticize the organization. After peaking in October at $86 per barrel, Benchmark Brent crude is trading at more than $61 per barrel. OPEC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The group’s members are scheduled to meet this week to discuss potential cuts in production.
Five countries — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq and Venezuela — founded OPEC in 1960, but the organization has grown to 15 member nations. The group coordinates policies to keep oil prices stable and to ensure a regular global supply. But it also works with non-OPEC oil producers, including Russia, to set levels of production. Qatar joined OPEC in 1961.
Kareem Fahim contributed to this report.