By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry said on Tuesday he would soon visit Qatar and Saudi Arabia, a trip expected to occur after this week’s meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
“I’m headed to the Middle East later here to Qatar and then to the kingdom,” Perry told the annual meeting of the National Petroleum Council, a group of more than 200 company executives and analysts that advises the Department of Energy.
Perry said he would make the trip during “interesting times,” but did not give specific dates. It will be his first trip to Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, since the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Top U.S. senators said on Tuesday they were more certain than ever after receiving a CIA briefing that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was culpable in Khashoggi’s killing. Saudi Arabia has said the prince had no prior knowledge of the killing, which has strained Saudi Arabia’s ties with the West.
Qatar said this week it would leave OPEC to focus on gas production, in a swipe at Saudi Arabia, the de facto leader of the group, which is trying to show unity in tackling an oil price slide.
Energy Department spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said Perry would “engage with his energy counterparts in the region.” Perry and Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al Falih are alumni of Texas A&M University and longtime friends.
President Donald Trump, who has stood by the crown prince, has urged Saudi Arabia to keep oil output high after Washington left an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program in May. The Trump administration reapplied sanctions on Iran’s oil exports in November, which led some analysts to worry crude prices would rise.
But global economic weakness and fears of an oil glut as U.S. production rises have pushed crude oil prices down in recent weeks.
OPEC and its allies are working toward a deal this week to reduce oil output by at least 1.3 million barrels per day. Russia, which has worked with OPEC recently on production agreements, has been the main stumbling block to a deal on a major cut. OPEC will meet on Thursday in Vienna, followed by talks with allies such as Russia on Friday.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Peter Cooney)