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Austria’s foreign minister has declined to attend an Opec conference in Vienna next week amid an escalating dispute over the oil cartel’s decision to bar large numbers of prominent news organisations from attending.
Alexander Schallenberg, who was due to be one of the first speakers at the Opec seminar in the Austrian capital on July 5, said through a spokesperson that “media freedom” including “coverage of political developments” was a “cornerstone of any democratic society”.
Opec has not given any public reason for the ban but the FT has reported it was instigated by Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, who has struggled to boost the oil price in recent months. People close to the minister have said he believes his view of the oil market has not been given enough prominence.
Schallenberg’s office said his decision not to attend was due to “scheduling” issues, while emphasising the role of press freedom. It is the latest development in a stand-off between Opec and a section of the media, after the group barred Reuters, Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal from attending their ministerial meeting in Vienna earlier this month.
This week Opec rescinded invitations to the same news organisations for the two-day seminar next week where ministers from the group share the stage with some of the top executives in the oil industry, including BP’s chief executive Bernard Looney and Patrick Pouyanne of TotalEnergies.
Opec’s secretary-general, Kuwaiti Haitham Al Gais, said at the group’s meeting at its headquarters in Vienna earlier this month that “this is our house”, when asked how the group could justify banning large sections of the press, without elaborating.
But Opec extending the ban outside its headquarters to a venue without diplomatic status put the Austrian government in an awkward position, as the seminar is due to be held at the Hofburg Palace — a site owned by the Austrian state.
The imperial palace, one of the grandest in Europe, occupies a sometimes uncomfortable place in Austria’s own history. As well as housing the country’s contemporary museum it was also the site Adolf Hitler used to announce the “Anschluss”, which incorporated Austria into the Third Reich.
Opec has based its headquarters in Vienna since 1965, five years after the group’s founding, when the city served as a relatively neutral meeting point between east and west during the cold war. Vienna has long fostered relations with international organisations that wish to base themselves in the city, providing a significant contribution to Austria’s economy.
The press ban has raised questions for other participants in the event, including Kadri Simson, the EU energy commissioner. Simson said she would take part in the roundtable discussion she was scheduled in but would “not engage with media at the conference” in order to be fair to those that were banned.
Western companies including Hess from the US and Austria’s OMV — which is part-owned by the state — are also sponsors of the event. Neither company responded to requests for comment.
Other companies with executives appearing, including Vitol, Petrobras, BP, TotalEnergies and Halliburton, did not respond to requests for comment on their participation or whether they supported restrictions being placed on access to the press.
Schallenberg was due to appear on the seminar’s opening panel alongside Haitham Al Gais and the energy minister of Equatorial Guinea, Antonio Oburu Ondo, who holds the rotating presidency of Opec this year. The panel was set to discuss “the global energy landscape”, according to a preliminary programme.
A spokesperson for Opec declined to comment.
The ban from Opec comes as Prince Abdulaziz, the half brother of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, has struggled to support oil prices. Despite leading Opec and allies including Russia in three supply cuts since October, crude prices have slipped back to near $75 a barrel from a high near $130 last year.
Prince Abdulaziz has become known by some traders as “the prickly prince” for lashing out at those who oppose him, including traders that bet against the price. He has frequently warned short sellers they would be “ouching” if they bet against him.
Saudi Arabia needs a higher oil price to help finance Crown Prince Mohammed’s ambitious social and economic reform programme, including a number of “gigaprojects”, such as the creation of the futuristic Neom city on the Red Sea.
Bloomberg said in a statement on Wednesday that it was “very concerned” by Opec’s decision, adding that “for the sake of market transparency” the news organisation would “strongly advocate for Opec to allow
journalists from relevant global news outlets to attend”.
Reuters said that “transparency and a free press serve both readers, markets and the public interest”, adding “we object to this restriction on coverage”. The Wall Street Journal declined to comment.
Other press organisations, including the Financial Times, have been invited.
Additional reporting by Alice Hancock in Brussels