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Historic Opportunity to Reduce Global Fuel Subsidies

A historic opportunity for Saudi Arabia and other countries to eliminate energy subsidies.

Low crude oil prices are making the impossible possible. Back in August, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) rolled back gasoline and diesel subsidies, leading prices to increase by 25%. UAE’s energy minister, Suhail Al-Mazrouei, said the change was about “building a strong economy that is not dependent on government subsidies.”

This is a stunning change for one of the world’s largest crude oil producers. Cheap gasoline has long been a permanent fixture throughout much of the Middle East, so when the second-largest OPEC producer increases gasoline prices this is big news.

And it is not just UAE. The World Bank recently released new data on global gasoline prices and several major economies have increased gasoline prices since the last data release two years ago.


Indonesia, for example, increased gasoline prices by $1.75/gallon. These are even larger price increases than would initially appear because global spot prices decreased by $0.75/gallon during this period. So compared to the opportunity cost of gasoline, Indonesia’s $1.75 increase represents a whopping $2.50/gallon reduction in subsidies. The economic waste from fuel subsidies goes up with the square of the gap between the price at the pump and global spot prices, so even countries with small nominal increases like Iran implicitly took large steps to improve economic efficiency.

The two biggest movers were Egypt and Indonesia. Gasoline prices in Indonesia increased from $1.78 in November 2012 to $3.52 in November 2014, while prices in Egypt increased from $1.70 to $3.33.  Both countries made these reforms to curb rising budget deficits and both have pledged to use some of the fiscal savings from reforms to target health, education, and social protection measures (see here, here, here, and here).

Mexico took a slow but steady approach to rolling back subsidies. Gasoline and diesel prices in Mexico continue to be set by PEMEX, the state-owned petroleum monopoly.  But after holding pump prices well below global spot prices for more than a decade, the decision was made to steadily increase them during 2013 and 2014.  The monthly “gasolinazos” were each relatively small in magnitude, but cumulatively have now completely eliminated fuel subsidies in Mexico.


Cutting fuel subsidies is good for the economy. Why? Economic efficiency requires that prices be set equal to marginal cost. Cutting fuel subsidies eliminates “deadweight loss” (economist-speak for “waste”) and ensures that the benefits exceed the costs for all gasoline and diesel sales.

Cutting fuel subsidies is also good for the environment. We are less than 1 month away from the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris where participants will be discussing all types of creative approaches for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.  Few are as simple and effective, however, as increasing energy prices. Indonesia’s recent reforms, for example, could eventually reduce Indonesian oil consumption by 30%, or half a million barrels per day. This is equivalent to more than 75 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, a significant part of Indonesia’s entire proposed commitment for COP 21.

Why is this subsidy reform happening now?  Low crude oil prices reduce government revenue in oil producing countries, increasing budget deficits and making fuel subsidies harder to afford.  This fiscal urgency was a major part of the motivation in most of the countries where subsidy reform has occurred. The situation was particularly desperate in Egypt and Indonesia, where the governments combined reforms with public-education campaigns aimed at explaining just how costly the subsidies had become from a fiscal perspective.

Low crude oil prices also reduce the size of the subsidy, making it an opportune time to allow prices to rise to international levels. Had UAE attempted to liberalize prices last year, it would have meant much larger price increases and more public backlash. When Yemen tried to liberalize prices in August 2014, it led to large protests and violence, in part because global spot prices were so much higher than they are today.

The true test is going to be whether countries like the UAE can maintain the reform in the future when global oil prices increase. Although the term “deregulation” is being used to describe the reforms in UAE, prices in UAE are not truly deregulated. They continue to be set by a “Fuels Prices Committee”, which meets on the 28th of each month. You have to worry when crude prices increase, this committee is going to come under huge political pressure to freeze retail rates.

dubai-256585_640The Dubai Marina at Night.

UAE’s reform nonetheless provides a clear roadmap for countries that continue to have large gasoline subsidies like Venezuela (where retail prices are $.06 per gallon), Saudi Arabia ($.61), Kuwait ($.83), Turkmenistan ($.83), and Qatar ($.87). The UAE reform suggests that there may be a changing culture around fuel subsidies.

The next big change may be in Saudi Arabia. Two weeks ago the Saudi oil minister Ali Al-Naimi made news when he said that Saudi Arabia was considering reducing fuel subsidies. One report even suggested that the Saudi government had asked the UAE government for advice. Ali Al-Naimi backed away from these suggestions last Wednesday, however, saying that such steps are only, “when you are in dire need, and fortunately Saudi Arabia isn’t today in such dire need.”  Given Saudi Arabia’s historic leadership in the Persian Gulf region and long tradition of steep subsidies, any reform there would be huge news and could lead the remaining countries that subsidize fuels to do the same, slashing economic waste and external costs.

Keep up with Energy Institute blogs, research, and events on Twitter @energyathaas.

Suggested citation: Davis, Lucas. “Historic Opportunity to Reduce Global Fuel Subsidies” Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, November 9, 2015,



Lucas Davis View All

Lucas Davis is the Jeffrey A. Jacobs Distinguished Professor in Business and Technology at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a Faculty Affiliate at the Energy Institute at Haas, a coeditor at the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, and a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He received a BA from Amherst College and a PhD in Economics from the University of Wisconsin. Prior to joining Haas in 2009, he was an assistant professor of Economics at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on energy and environmental markets, and in particular, on electricity and natural gas regulation, pricing in competitive and non-competitive markets, and the economic and business impacts of environmental policy.

8 thoughts on “Historic Opportunity to Reduce Global Fuel Subsidies Leave a comment

  1. It’d be more informative to add a graph or two to show
    1) the base levels of national subsidies in addition to the decrease of the countries ($/fuel unit)
    2) base levels and delta (i.e., change if any) of the subsidies for the U.S. and other major economies ($/fuel unit)
    3) the scale of national fuel markets for the countries (annual production and sales in volume)

  2. Thank you for writing on the importance for the developing countries to continue on the road toward fuel subsidies reform. I would like to make or add the following comments:
    1. The barriers to fuel subsidy reform, in my view, are economic, political, and institutional in nature.
    2. Both low and high oil prices offer an opportunity for fuel subsidy reform depending on whether we are addressing oil producing or consuming countries and the type of subsidies reform plan or mechanism selected.
    3. Low institutional capacity is frequently absent or relegated a minor role in the analysis of fuel subsidies reform. Based on work we conducted in oil producing countries, a country’s lack or low ability with regard to regulatory capacity, accountability, fiscal efficiency, and commitment plays a central role in the identification, analysis, and proper implementation of fuel subsidy reform.
    4. Countries with energy subsidies almost universally suffer lack of adequate market, policy, and institutional frameworks. Low oil prices without framework reform is not enough to correct drawbacks due to market or institutional drawbacks.
    5. Reducing the use of GHG producing fuels along with fuel subsidies reform can generate co-benefits for high CO2-emitting countries. This is particularly true for oil producing developing countries. Policy instruments that will reduce GHG and capitalize on the co-benefits can be designed at reasonable cost and effort and can contribute to the correction of market failure caused by underpricing of domestic fuels thus enhancing the range of policy options available to decision makers.
    6. Fluctuation in the oil market impacts energy policy formulation and subsidies. Low international oil prices have lead countries to emphasize higher energy intensity and to scale back necessary energy sector restructuring reform. On the other hand high oil market prices have tended to downplay attention to subsidies to become a greater source of concern as a budgetary issue as oil market prices and revenues fall. Energy price subsidies reform is not sufficient to counteract the effects mentioned here. The need is for the generation of public policies, standards and programs that will directly address growth in energy intensity with major impact in turn on energy consumption and subsidies.

  3. Bravo!
    One quibble: Please use metric units on international posts. (It’s then easier for politicians to understand how bad they are and what they need to do 🙂

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