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Austria’s foreign minister has refused to attend next week’s OPEC conference in Vienna amid an escalating row over the oil cartel’s decision to ban a large number of prominent news organisations.
Alexander Schallenberg, who was due to be one of the first speakers at an OPEC seminar in the Austrian capital on July 5, said through a spokesman that “media freedom” including “information about political developments” was “a cornerstone of any democratic society”. .
Oven gave no public reason for the ban, but the FT said it was instigated by Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, who has sought to boost the price of oil in recent months. People close to the minister said he believed his view of the oil market had not been emphasized enough.
Schallenberg’s office said his decision not to attend was due to “scheduling” issues, emphasizing the role of press freedom. It is the latest development in a row between OPEC and sections of the media after the group barred Reuters, Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal from its ministerial meeting in Vienna earlier this month.
This week, Opec canceled an invitation to the same news organizations for a two-day seminar next week, where ministers from the group share the stage with some of the top oil industry figures, including BP CEO Bernard Looney and TotalEnergies’ Patrick Pouyanne.
OPEC Secretary General Haitham Al Gais of Kuwait told a meeting of the group at its headquarters in Vienna earlier this month that “this is our house” when asked how the group could justify banning much of the press, without elaborating.
However, extending the ban on Opec outside its headquarters to a location without diplomatic status has put the Austrian government in an awkward position, as the seminar is 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 Austrian history. In addition to the current museum in the country, it was also page Adolf Hitler proclaimed the “Anschluss” which incorporated Austria into the Third Reich.
Opec has been based in Vienna since 1965, five years after the group was founded, when the city served as a relatively neutral meeting point between East and West during the Cold War. Vienna maintains long-term relations with international organizations that want to settle in the city, thus contributing significantly to the Austrian economy.
The press ban raised questions for other attendees at the event, including Kadri Simson, the EU’s energy commissioner. Simson said she would attend the roundtable discussion she was scheduled to attend, but “will not be working with the media at the conference” to be fair to those who were banned.
Western companies including Hess from the US and Austria’s OMV – which is partly state-owned – are also sponsoring the event. Neither company responded to requests for comment.
Other companies with executives, including Vitol, Petrobras, BP, TotalEnergies and Halliburton, did not respond to requests for comment on their participation or whether they supported restricting press access.
Schallenberg was scheduled to appear on the seminar’s opening panel alongside Haitham Al Gais and Equatorial Guinea’s Energy Minister Antonio Oburu Ondo, who holds the rotating OPEC presidency this year. According to the preliminary agenda, the panel was to discuss the “global energy landscape”.
An OPEC spokesman declined to comment.
The OPEC ban comes as Prince Abdulaziz, the half-brother of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, is trying to prop up oil prices. Despite OPEC and allies including Russia leading three supply cuts since October, oil prices have fallen back to nearly $75 a barrel from last year’s peak of around $130.
Prince Abdulaziz became known to some traders as ” prickly prince” for lashing out at those opposed to him, including traders who bet against the price. He often warned dealers briefly that they would “take care” if they bet against him.
Saudi Arabia needs a higher oil price to help finance Crown Prince Mohammed’s ambitious program of social and economic reforms, including a series of “giga projects” such as the creation of the futuristic city of Neom on the Red Sea.
Bloomberg said in a statement Wednesday that it was “very concerned” by OPEC’s decision, adding that “in the interest of market transparency,” the news organization would “strongly advocate that OPEC allow
journalists from relevant global news channels to attend”.
Reuters said that “transparency and a free press serve readers, markets and the public interest,” adding that “we protest this curtailment of coverage.” The Wall Street Journal declined to comment.
Other news organizations were invited, including the Financial Times.
Another report from Alice Hancock in Brussels