The state energy giant’s vast oil reserves – it can sustain current production levels for the next 50 years – make it more exposed than any other company to a rising tide of environmental activism and shift away from fossil fuels.
In the three years since Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman first proposed a stock market listing, climate change and new green technologies are putting some investors, particularly in Europe and the United States, off the oil and gas sector.
Sustainable investments account for more than a quarter of all assets under management globally, by some estimates.
Aramco, for its part, argues oil and gas will remain at the heart of the energy mix for decades, saying renewables and nuclear cannot meet rising global demand, and that its crude production has lower greenhouse gas emissions than its rivals.
But with the company talking again to banks about an initial public offering (IPO), some investors and lawyers say the window to execute a sale at a juicy price is shrinking and Aramco will need to explain to prospective shareholders how it plans to profit in a lower-carbon world.
“Saudi Aramco is a really interesting test as to whether the market is getting serious about pricing in energy transition risk,” said Natasha Landell-Mills, in charge of integrating environment, social and governance (ESG) considerations into investing at London-based asset manager Sarasin & Partners.
“The longer that (the IPO) gets delayed, the less willing the market will be to price it favourably because gradually investors are going to need to ask questions about how valuable those reserves are in a world that is trying to get down to net zero emissions by 2050.”
Reuters reported on Aug. 8 that Prince Mohammed was insisting on a $2 trillion valuation even though some bankers and company insiders say the kingdom should trim its target to around $1.5 trillion.
A valuation gap could hinder any share sale. The IPO was previously slated for 2017 or 2018 and, when that deadline slipped, to 2020-2021.
Aramco told Reuters it was ready for a listing and the timing would be decided by the government.
The company also said it was investing in research to make cars more efficient, and working on new technologies to use hydrogen in cars, convert more crude to chemicals and capture CO2 which can be injected in its reservoirs to improve extraction of oil.
SELLING THE STORY
Some would argue this is not enough.
A growing number of investors across the world are factoring ESG risk into their decision-making, although the degree to which that would stop them investing in Aramco varies wildly.
Some would exclude the company on principle because of its carbon output, while others would be prepared to buy if the price was cheap enough to outweigh the perceived ESG risk – especially given oil companies often pay healthy dividends.
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At a $1.5 trillion valuation, Aramco would be the world’s largest public company. If it were included in major equity indices it would automatically be bought by passive investment funds that track them, regardless of their ESG credentials.
And as the world’s most profitable company, Aramco shares would be snapped up by many active investors.
Talks about a share sale were revived this year after Aramco attracted huge investor demand for its first international bond issue. In its bond prospectus, it said climate change could potentially have a “material adverse effect” on its business.
When it comes to an IPO, equity investors require more information about potential risks and how companies plan to deal with them, as they are more exposed than bondholders if a business runs into trouble.
“Companies need to lead with the answers in the prospectus, rather than have two or three paragraphs describing potential risks from environmental issues,” said Nick O’Donnell, partner in the corporate department at law firm Baker McKenzie.
“An oil and gas company needs to be thinking about how to explain the story over the next 20 years and bring it out into a separate section rather than hiding it away in the prospectus, it needs to use it as a selling tool. And also, once the IPO is done, every annual report should have a standalone ESG section.”
Unlike other major oil companies, Aramco doesn’t have a separate report laying out how it addresses ESG issues such as labour practices and resource scarcity, while it does not publish the carbon emissions from products it sells. Until this year’s bond issue, it also kept its finances under wraps.
The company does however have an Environmental Protection Department, sponsors sustainability initiatives and is a founding member of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, which is led by 13 top energy companies and aims to cut emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
On Aug. 12 Aramco published information on the intensity of its hydrocarbon mix for the first time. It disclosed the amount of greenhouse gases from each barrel it produces.
Aramco’s senior vice president of finance Khalid al-Dabbagh said during an earnings call this month that its carbon emissions from “upstream” exploration and production were the lowest among its peers.
A study published by Science magazine last year found carbon emissions from Saudi Arabia’s crude production were the world’s second lowest after Denmark, as a result of having a small number of highly productive oilfields.
THE OIL PRICE
Aramco says that, with the global economy forecast to double in size by 2050, oil and gas will remain essential.
“Saudi Aramco is determined to not only meet the world’s growing demand for ample, reliable and affordable energy but to meet the world’s growing demand for much cleaner fuel,” it told Reuters.
“Alternatives are still facing significant technological, economic and infrastructure hurdles, and the history of past energy transitions shows that these developments take time.”
The company has also moved to diversify into gas and chemicals and is using renewable energy in its facilities.
But Aramco still, ultimately, represents a bet on the price of oil.
It generated net income of $111 billion in 2018, over a third more than the combined total of the five “super-majors” ExxonMobil (XOM.N), Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.AS), BP (BP.L), Chevron (CVX.N) and Total (TOTF.PA).
In 2016, when the oil price hit 13-year lows, Aramco’s net income was only $13 billion, according to its bond prospectus where it unveiled its finances for the first time, based on current exchange rates. Its earnings fell 12% in the first half of 2019, mainly on lower oil prices.
Concerns about future demand for fossil fuels have weighed on the sector. Since 2016, when Prince Mohammed first flagged an IPO, the 12-months forward price to earnings ratio of five of the world’s top listed oil companies has fallen to 12 from 21 on average, according to Reuters calculations, lagging the FTSE 100 and the STOXX Europe 600 Oil & Gas index averages.
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AN INFLUX OF CAPITAL
Using a broad measure, there was global sustainable investment of $30.1 trillion across the world’s five major markets at the end of 2018, according to the Global Sustainable Investment Review here, more than a quarter of all assets under management globally. That compares with $22.8 trillion in 2016.
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“Given the influx of capital into the ESG space, Aramco’s IPO would have been better off going public 5-10 years ago,” said Joseph di Virgilio, global equities portfolio manager at New York-based Romulus Asset Management, which has $900 million in assets under management.
“An IPO today would still be the largest of its kind, but many asset managers focusing solely on ESG may not participate.”
The world’s top listed oil and gas companies have come under heavy pressure from investors and climate groups in recent years to outline strategies to reduce their carbon footprint.
Shell, BP and others have agreed, together with shareholders, on carbon reduction targets for some of operations and to increase spending on renewable energies. U.S. major ExxonMobil, the world’s top publicly traded oil and gas company, has resisted adopting targets.
Britain’s biggest asset manager LGIM removed Exxon from its 5 billion pounds ($6.3 billion) Future World funds for what it said was a failure to confront threats posed by climate change. LGIM did not respond to a request for comment on whether it would buy shares in Aramco’s potential IPO.
Sarasin & Partners said in July it had sold nearly 20% of its holdings in Shell, saying its spending plans were out of sync with international targets to battle climate change. The rest of the stake is under review.
The asset manager, which has nearly 14 billion pounds in assets under management, didn’t participate in Aramco’s bond offering and Landell-Mills said they would be unlikely to invest in any IPO.
Additional reporting by Ron Bousso in London and Victoria Klesty in Oslo; Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Pravin Char
The global energy economy is undergoing a rapid transition from ‘hydrocarbon molecules to electrons’: in other words, from fossil fuels to renewables and low-carbon electricity. Leading energy industry players and analysts – the energy-forecasting ‘establishment’ – are seriously underestimating the speed and depth of this transition. This in part reflects the vested interests that dominate that establishment. By contrast, the financial sector – which has little or no vested interest in fossil fuels – understands what is going on and is taking the transition on board.
The history of past energy transitions – including the US’s shift from wood to coal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the French adoption of nuclear power on a wide scale in the 1980s – provides useful context for analysis of this trend. Such transitions have been triggered by factors ranging from market upheaval to technological change, with the technological element typically reinforcing the transition.
A similar dynamic, involving triggers and reinforcing factors, is in evidence today. The current transition in the global energy system has been triggered, in the first instance, by concerns over climate change and recognition of the imperative of shifting to a lower-carbon economy. In some places, growing concerns over urban air quality have overtaken climate change as a driver of government policy in support of the transition. The reinforcing factors include the falling costs of renewables and the rapid market penetration of electric vehicles (EVs). To these factors can be added ongoing uncertainty over the possibility of another oil price shock; and rises in oil product prices that are independent of movements in crude oil prices – a phenomenon sometimes known as ‘OECD disease’.
If the transition to renewables and low-carbon electricity happens faster than the energy establishment anticipates, the implications for exporters of oil and for the geopolitics of oil will be very serious. For example, the failure of many oil-exporting countries to reduce their dependence on hydrocarbon revenues and diversify their economies will leave them extremely vulnerable to reduced oil and gas demand in their main markets. The countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region will be particularly exposed, with the possible consequences including an increase in the incidence of state failure in a region already suffering the fallout from having signally failed to address the causes of the Arab uprisings since 2011. Increased political and economic turbulence in the MENA region would also have the potential to create serious migration problems for Europe.
The geopolitics of oil over the past 120 years have played a central role in international relations. Indeed some would argue that geopolitical rivalry over access to, and control of, oil supplies has been the source of much of the conflict witnessed in the 20th century (Yergin, 1991). The rise of renewables implicit in the current energy transition could well change this status quo. Renewables are widely used and widely produced. Currently, their availability is constrained neither by the agendas of dominant fuel suppliers nor by the threat of physical disruption to the strategic transit routes along which traded resources are typically shipped. There are certainly supply constraints associated with some minerals required for renewable energy technologies, but these hardly compare with the conflicts around oil supply, and most such constraints, in any case, are easily managed. Thus, as this energy transition proceeds, oil geopolitics will begin to fade away as an issue of concern.
DUBAI (Reuters) – When Saudi Aramco was on the verge of a deal last year to buy a stake in an Indian oil refinery, its boss quickly boarded a company jet in Paris and flew to New Delhi.
Chief executive Amin Nasser arrived unannounced early on April 11, 2018, finalised the agreement and signed it later that day. Negotiators had just finished hammering out the details.
His last-minute flight, after a business trip to France with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, underlined the importance of the deal both to Saudi Arabia and its huge state oil firm.
The planned investment in the $44-billion (£35 billion) refinery and petrochemical project on India’s west coast is a prime example of how Aramco is trying to squeeze value out of each barrel of oil it produces by snapping up refining capacity, mainly in fast-growing Asia.
But it also underlines the challenge Saudi Arabia faces in reducing its heavy economic reliance on oil. The results of its programme to diversify have been mixed, some projects are moving slowly and others are too ambitious, economic and energy analysts say.
Prince Mohammed’s stated goal of being able to “live without oil” by as early as 2020 looks set to be missed.
“Saudi Arabia’s oil addiction is as strong as ever…economically, of course, the Saudi economy runs on oil. Oil still dominates GDP, exports and government revenues,” said Jim Krane, energy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute.
“That said, Saudi Arabia is changing its relationship with oil. The dependence remains. But the kingdom is squeezing more value out of its oil,” he said.
The slow progress means the Saudi economy is likely to remain hostage to oil prices for longer than planned. Any delay in implementing change also risks denting Prince Mohammed’s image as a reformer.
SECURING THE FUTURE
Announcing his plan three years ago, the Crown Prince said Saudi Arabia must end its “oil addiction” to ensure the world’s biggest oil exporter and second largest producer cannot be “at the mercy of commodity price volatility or external markets.”
He spoke after a fall in crude oil prices boosted the Saudi fiscal deficit to about 15% of gross domestic product in 2015, slowing government spending and economic growth.
This year the deficit could hit 7% of GDP, according to the International Monetary Fund, as oil-related growth slows following production cuts led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Aramco is central to the Crown Prince’s reform plan in several ways, not least because its planned partial privatisation will generate income for the reforms.
The company has also been involved in most of the kingdom’s high-profile deals in the last two years as it increased investment in refining and petrochemicals.
In that time, Aramco has announced at least $50 billion worth of investments in Saudi Arabia, Asia and the United States. It aims to almost triple its chemicals production to 34 million metric tons per year by 2030 and raise its global refining capacity to 8-10 million barrels per day (bpd) from more than 5 million bpd.
In March last year, Aramco finalised a deal to buy a $7 billion stake in a refinery and petrochemicals project with Malaysia’s Petronas. A month later, Nasser and a consortium of Indian companies signed the initial deal that would give Aramco a stake in the planned 1.2 million bpd refinery in India’s western Maharashtra state.
In February of this year, Aramco signed a $10 billion deal for a refining and petrochemical complex in China. Last month it signed 12 deals with South Korea worth billions of dollars, ranging from ship building to an expansion of a refinery owned by Aramco.
“This is what I call the back to basics approach to economic diversification in the Gulf,” said Robin Mills, chief executive of energy consultancy Qamar Energy in Dubai. “The energy industry has the assets, capital and skills, so it’s the engine of new projects – refining, petrochemicals, gas and so on.”
MR UPSTREAM LOOKS DOWNSTREAM
In March, Aramco said it was acquiring a 70 percent stake in petrochemicals firm Saudi Basic Industries (SABIC) (2010.SE) for $69.1 billion from the national wealth fund, known as the Public Investment Fund (PIF).
Aramco is gaining new markets for its crude and building a global downstream presence – the refining, processing and purifying end of the production line. Its aim is to become a global leader in chemicals.
“We are not investing left and right, we are investing in the right markets, we are investing in the right refining assets, we are investing where we create value from fuels to chemicals,” Abdulaziz al-Judaimi, Aramco’s Senior Vice President for Downstream, told Reuters in May.
Nasser, previously known by Aramco employees as Mr Upstream, is leading the downstream expansion. He wants to bring Aramco’s refining capacity closer to its oil production potential, which is now at 12 million bpd.
Aramco wants gradually to match the downstream presence of its big competitors and, like Saudi Arabia as a whole, to reduce its vulnerability to any downturn in demand for crude oil or oil price volatility.
“You want to secure your demand in key markets,” said an industry source familiar with Saudi Arabia’s oil plans. “You have to become more dynamic, to become more adaptable, you have to make sure that you secure your future. Malaysia was one example, India was another.”
For years, Aramco has been a regular crude supplier to Indian refiners via long-term crude contracts.
Yet while it has stakes in refineries or storage assets in other important Asia markets such as China, Japan and South Korea – and owns the largest refinery in the United States – it has not secured that same access in India, a fast-growing market for fuel and petrochemicals.Slideshow (2 Images)
“India is a market that you just can’t ignore anymore,” an industry source said.
Aramco has also shifted its marketing strategy in China. It is now more oriented towards independent refiners to boost Saudi crude sales after years of dealing almost exclusively with state-owned Chinese firms.
But overall, plans to wean Saudi Arabia of oil have advanced slowly.
Few details have emerged of a $200-billion solar power-generation project announced by the PIF and Japan’s SoftBank in March 2018. It is unclear how or when the project will be executed, and Saudi’s Arabia’s energy ministry is moving ahead with its own solar projects.
In a blow to potential investment, the image of Saudi Arabia and the reputation of the Crown Prince have been damaged by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year.
Leading businessmen and politicians boycotted an investment forum meant to showcase the kingdom’s new future away from oil, and it was only big deals with Aramco that saved it.
Also, the partial privatisation of Aramco has been delayed since it set out its plans to acquire the stake in SABIC, though senior Saudi officials including Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih have said it could now happen in 2020-2021.
The PIF, chaired by Prince Mohammed, was meant to receive around $100 billion from the flotation. Instead it will get around $70 billion from the sale of its SABIC stake.
The PIF made its mark on the global stage three years ago by taking a $3.5- billion stake in Uber Technologies. But since 2016, the PIF’s direct investments overseas stand at just $10.5 billion, according to Refinitiv data, and many of the fund’s announced commitments have yet to materialise.
The funds’ main investments over the past two years were inequity shares in companies such as electric car makers Tesla (TSLA.O) and Lucid Motors and Gulf e-commerce platform Noon.com.
Such deals would not necessarily attract inward foreign investment, help develop industries or create jobs.
Additional reporting by Marwa Rashad and Hadeel Al Sayegh; writing by Rania El Gamal; editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Timothy Heritage
The pairing of wind and solar is emerging as a smart strategy to implement renewable energy sources with better economic feasibility.A Fine Couple They Are (Wind and Solar Power) as suggested by Jim Romeo would definitely affect this Energy Transition era if only in terms of duration.
The pairing of wind and solar power is an advantageous complement; the two benefit each other. The synergistic combination is an emerging trend in renewable energy and power generation as costs drop. The pairing of sustainable sources is in early stages, however. And the configuration still has challenges regarding return on investment (ROI), ease of implementation, and storage.
In western Minnesota, a 2-MW wind turbine and 500-kW solar installation—wind-solar hybrid project—is an early entrant to the wind-solar market and one of the first of its kind in the U.S. It was introduced at a cost of about $5 million with high expectations and the goal that Lake Region Electric Cooperative in Pelican Rapids would acquire the power for its 27,000 members.
The pioneering project got a boost amid the lower costs of solar. The power generation from both renewable sources is calculated to provide dividends on its investment.
According to market researcher Global Market Insights, hybrid solar-wind projects are expected to grow by 4% in the U.S. over the next five years to join a $1.5 billion global market. Some attribute the growth to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference objectives, combined with lower costs of development and materials, and a keen interest by many nations to rely more on renewable energy sources. Because wind turbine power and solar both have excess capacity, together they offer far greater possibilities.
Lucrative but Limited
Renewables especially make economic sense in non-urban areas, where costs per kWh are higher, said Mike Voll, principal and sector lead for Smart Technologies at Stantec. “So, rural communities and remote locations, where energy prices often reach $0.40 to $0.45 per kilowatt-hour, actually see an ROI from these projects. When it comes to combining both wind and solar with storage, however, the list of locations is even smaller still. In a perfect world, we’d have a place that has excellent radiance with enough wind and low cloud cover, but the reality is there are very few locations that meet the geographic requirements. So even as the price continues to drop, there will still be significant limitations to pairing solar and wind.”
Despite limitations, renewables can work well in locations where everything clicks. A storage option is an essential component. “Adding energy storage can reduce intermittency of output, reshape the generation profile to match to load, and enable dispatch of the renewable energy to maximize revenue generation through ISO market participation or utility programs,” said Todd Tolliver, senior manager at ICF, a global consulting and technology services company headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia.
Tolliver said the economic viability of these systems is constrained by equipment, costs of storage, and limited or irregular revenue streams. But he explained that the most common combination today is solar plus battery storage, thanks to investment tax credit and incentive programs in certain markets that provide clear lower costs and better revenue streams. Still, wind power energy storage has challenges.
A new study reveals just how stunningly rapid the clean energy transition is.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) reported on Tuesday that renewables are now the cheapest form of new electricity generation across two thirds of the world — cheaper than both new coal and new natural gas power.
Equally remarkable, BNEF projects that by 2030, wind and solar will “undercut existing coal and gas almost everywhere.”
In other words, within a decade it will be cheaper to build and operate new renewable power plants than it will be to just keep operating existing fossil fuel plants — even in the United States.
The reason for this transformation is the remarkable drop in both solar and wind power prices this decade: Since 2010, wind power has dropped 49% in cost and solar plummeted 85%.
BNEF projects prices will continue to fall for the next decade and beyond, with the cost of solar panels and wind power dropping by another third by 2030. Overall, by 2050, the cost of solar electricity is expected to drop 63% compared to today, and the cost of wind will likely drop 48%.
Because of these ongoing price drops, the world is projected to invest a whopping $4.2 trillion in solar power generation in the next three decades. The result is that solar will jump from a mere 2% of global power generation today to a remarkable 22% in 2050.
Over the same three decades, global investment in wind power will likely hit $5.3 trillion, and wind is expected to rise from 5% of global electricity today to 26% in 2050.
The result is that we are shifting from a world today where two thirds of power generation is from fossil fuels to one three decades from now where two thirds is zero carbon. As BNEF puts it, we are “ending the era of fossil fuel dominance in the power sector.”
On the road from Wadi Rum to Petra in Jordan, where signs point to the Sheikh Zayed solar complex, wind turbines turn languidly in a steady breeze. At Petra, even Bedouin encampments have solar panels and many homes in Amman use solar tubes to heat water. The UAE made headlines with its world-record solar installations, but in all the Middle East, the impact of the renewable revolution is most visible in the Jordanian landscape.
By last year, the Hashemite kingdom had installed 285 megawatts of wind and 771MW of solar power, a significant chunk of its total generation of about 4 gigawatts. By 2021, it wants to have 2.7GW of renewable capacity. Over the next decade, Jordan’s efforts could really take off – providing half of all electricity output, in our analysis at Qamar Energy. It is only a small market, but it is an important trailblazer for the region’s aspirations in renewables.
Jordan’s success has been built on good resources, solid policy and the imperatives of an energy crisis. Like most Middle East countries, the kingdom has abundant sunny desert land and, similar to Egypt and northern Saudi Arabia, it’s also quite windy in places.
The country started early on encouraging renewables with the Tafila wind farm, a joint venture with Masdar, built in 2015. It offers investors a reasonable return and gives smaller users such as hospitals and universities the chance to build solar panels on vacant land and transmit the power through a grid.
The biggest impetus to alternative energy was the cut-off from Egyptian gas supplies following the 2011 revolution, because of repeated militant attacks on the Sinai pipeline. Jordan’s budget deficit widened because the country, which imports more than 90 per cent of its energy needs and has historically financed its deficits through grants and soft loans, had to burn expensive oil for electricity. Jordan, which already hosted thousands of Iraqi refugees, had to accommodate an increasing power demand due to an influx of 1.3 million Syrians escaping the conflict in their country.
In response, the kingdom opened a liquefied natural gas import terminal at Aqaba, and negotiated supplies from the American company Noble, which produces from offshore Israel. Jordan has large resources of oil shale, effectively an immature form of petroleum source rocks, which can be cooked into oil. A Chinese-led consortium is developing a power plant based on burning this dirty material.
Jordan’s success has been built on good resources, solid policy and the imperatives of an energy crisis.
Efforts to construct a nuclear power plant have been hampered by a lack of cooling water, public opposition and the high costs of financing. Instead, Amman may opt for smaller, modular nuclear reactors that could be fabricated off-site.
To cover the higher costs of fuel, energy subsidies had to be cut back, putting a heavy burden on citizens at a time of sharp economic slowdown. But this had the positive effect of making individual rooftop solar installations attractive for small businesses and householders.
Local Jordanian companies, such as Kawar Energy and Shamsuna Power, along with Dubai-based companies including Yellow Door Energy, have created viable businesses and high-skilled employment. By the early 2020s, Jordan will have the Middle East’s lowest carbon output electricity grid, despite the carbon-heavy oil shale facility.
Success will soon bring its own challenges. Renewable output will exceed total demand at times, while the country still needs to provide for high-consumption and night-time periods. Hydropower, which could be used to store excess renewables, is minimal in the desert country.
The Red-Dead Sea project is intended to bring water to the Dead Sea, which is fast drying up due to climate change and the overuse of the Jordan River. On the way, the water would generate power for desalination. But the expensive venture faces environmental concerns and political hurdles in co-operating with Israel.
Philadelphia Solar, a local company, has announced plans for a solar plant with battery storage. Concentrated solar thermal plants (CSP), like the one under construction in Dubai, can save the Sun’s heat to generate power overnight. These do not seem to be part of Jordan’s plans yet, but the country has excellent conditions for CSP.
Electricity interconnections with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the West Bank are also underway, which could boost the resilience and renewable share of the whole area’s power grid. It could also send power to help rebuild war-torn Syria.
Jordan’s consumers will have to consider the benefits from the country’s renewable expansion, particularly industries which have complained of high electricity prices. Prices are high during peak demand hours, but this scheme will have to become more flexible to lower prices when there is an excess of solar.
Jordan’s small market and head start in renewable energy means it will reach these hurdles to solar deployment probably before any other country in the region. Its success in devising policies to continue attracting capital, boosting its renewable generation, local employment and electricity exports, while reducing consumer bills, will be an important signal for its neighbours.
This is particularly true for countries in the Arabian Gulf – whose utility companies are thinking about how to overcome similar barriers to their bold renewable plans. Such complementary resources and opportunities open the space for co-operation between these two regional allies.
Robin Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis.