Sukru Cildir of Lancaster University wonders how Saudi-Iranian oil rivalry has been shaped by American power. It has not historically been going for a long time and the recent decarbonisation wave sweeping the world does not seem to affect either party.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both oil-rich states in the Middle East, has oscillated from co-operation to conflict throughout history. Alongside a range of factors that shape their rivalry including sectarianism and nationalism has been the politics of oil.
Oil is a strategic international commodity, and its use as a political tool is widespread. Its role in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry can’t be understood without unpicking the international context, and the power structures that govern the way countries interact with each other. At the heart of this is the dominance of the US over this international system.
The dynamics between the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia over oil were laid bare in September 2019, after a series of drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities. The attacks caused the suspension of 5.7m barrels per day (mbpd) of crude oil production, nearly half the Saudi output.
The Houthis, a Yemeni faction, claimed responsibility. However, American and Saudi government officials accused Iran of committing these attacks. In return, the Iranians blamed foreign forces in the region for the insecurity and told the US to leave the area.
While the Saudi-Iranian oil rivalry is ostensibly the business of these two countries, it has always had an international dimension, overshadowed by the US.
The 1979 Iranian revolution marked a turning point for the place oil played within the Saudi-Iranian relationship. Before then, both countries were important allies of the US, a position which brought with it political and economic benefits, particularly to their oil industries. But the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran paved the way for a separation of paths.
As a result, ever since 1979, the Iranian oil industry has been subject to American pressure, through a range of economic sanctions and embargoes, which has crippled Iranian oil production. Iran has been unable to reach the level of oil production of over six mbpd that it had in the pre-revolution years. Meanwhile, Saudi oil production reached over 12 mbpd in 2018.
This led to the Iranian oil industry being deprived of necessary foreign investment and technology transfer, and it has fallen behind Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s state-owned oil company, and other regional competitors. Saudi Arabia has largely backed the US policy of isolating and sanctioning Iran, particularly the Iranian oil industry, which has, as I’ve argued elsewhere, contributed to the ongoing tensions in the Saudi-Iranian relationship.
As Saudi Aramco prepares for an IPO in December that could make it the world’s biggest publicly listed company, Iran is desperate to revitalise its own outmoded oil industry. As Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh admitted in early 2019, many of Iran’s ageing oil facilities are in fact “operating museums”.
The US continues to have such an influence on Middle Eastern oil politics because of the way it has successfully pushed its own international agenda since 1945. After World War II, the US cemented its dominance over an international system built on the basis of liberal and capitalist principles. While the US rewards its allies with economic and political benefits, it punishes its challengers through a range of political and economic measures, not least economic sanctions.
Oil became a strategic international commodity in the post-World War II period, and began to play a pivotal role in the way the US maintained its global dominance. To do this, the US aimed to open up and transnationalise oil-rich economies in the Global South such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, to both promote its national interests and solidify its privileged position within the current system.
Accordingly, the supply of Middle Eastern oil into international markets without disruption – and at a reasonable price – became an essential instrument for maintaining American dominance, even though the US didn’t need to import oil from the Middle East.
A world of US dominance
The political economist Susan Strange provided a theoretical framework back in 1987 to explain the structure of US dominance over the international system through four main dimensions: production, finance, security and knowledge. This is also a useful way to understand how the US shapes the international oil market – and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
By 2018, in the wake of a shale boom, the US became the largest oil-producing country in the world by reaching production of 15 mbpd. Financially, oil has been priced and traded in US dollars, in particular since the early 1970s when a series of negotiations and agreements linking the sale of oil to the US dollar were made between Saudi Arabia and the US. This has increased global demand for US dollars, and helped the US deal with its trade deficit and keep its interest rates low. It has also helped the US to monitor the petroleum trade by controlling global bank transfers.
The US also stands as a main security provider to oil-rich Gulf monarchies, with publicly acknowledged military bases in over 12 countries in the Middle East. Additionally, it has a supremacy over global knowledge, most obviously through its continued domination and control of the sector’s technological needs. By leading global innovation and technological development in the shale revolution, for example, and having the highest budget for research and development, the US largely controls global technology transfer. This has also deprived Iran of necessary technology, capital and know-how to modernise its ageing oil industry, constraining production.
Therefore, despite the fact that the Saudi-Iranian oil rivalry seems like a regional issue, the role of American power in a globalised world has been key to shaping this regional political competition over oil.
The largest oil and gas producer, Saudi Aramco, is due to become the world’s most valuable publicly listed company. The Saudi government is planning to sell a small fraction of the firm’s shares on the Riyadh stock exchange before seeking a listing for 5% of the firm on an international market.
The company is so big that this would be the largest ever initial public offering (IPO) and could value the whole company at around US$1.5 trillion. This is less than the government’s hoped-for valuation of US$2 trillion, but would still make Aramco 50% larger than Microsoft, Apple or Amazon (which are all valued at about US$1 trillion).
And yet the future doesn’t look good for oil. The threat of climate change means most countries are looking for ways to reduce their use of fossil fuels and many investors are trying to reduce the number of oil company stocks they hold. So why is the company considered so valuable? A closer look at the data suggests the market sees Aramco as a short-term money maker but with much worse long-term prospects.
While this sounds like the company is in a strong position, the numbers actually reveal a more complicated situation. Other large public oil companies such as Shell typically pay shareholders a dividend of 6% on their investment value. If Aramco pays a similar percentage and its total dividends reach around US$75 billion, then the actual value of the company could be closer to US$1.25 trillion.
Of course, that would still make the company the most valuable in the world. But there’s another problem. A 6% return on investment from buying shares in the company represents the success of the company now. But the return from the company’s long-term bond represents what the market expects the company’s future prospects to be, and right now the bond yield is about 4% a year. When the bond yield is less than the yield from shares, it implies that prospects for capital growth are lower than in other sectors and that investors view oil as a declining industry.
The problem for Aramco and other oil firms is that climate change and falling demand has turned their oil reserves into “stranded assets”. This means they could be worth much less than investors expected and perhaps even become worthless. Global investors are not looking to increase the proportion of their portfolios devoted to oil and gas firms. Many, particularly sovereign wealth funds such as Norway’s, are decarbonising their investments.
Aramco’s difficult flotation comes in the middle of this process. With its high prospective yield, Aramco may well be attractive to “sin stock” investors who are happy to benefit from large short-term gains in socially unacceptable companies. But investors that buy in for financial or strategic reasons risk being left with stocks that become increasingly unmarketable. Who wants to be the last fund holding oil?
What’s more, the Saudi government will have to keep selling further shares in Aramco to fund its ambitions to transform its economy away from dependence on oil. This will depress Aramco’s share price, causing future valuations to occur on even worse terms. If it has proved difficult for the company to get the first valuation it wanted, what will happen later if the first sale doesn’t go well?
At the beginning of the 18th century, Wall Street was one of the locations in the US that traded slaves. Soon we may look back and find it just as alien that markets were trading investments related to oil combustion at the beginning of the 21st century.
DUBAI/RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Aramco aims to announce the start of its initial public offering (IPO) on Nov. 3, three people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters, after delaying the deal earlier this month to give advisers time to secure cornerstone investors.
The people also said Aramco’s chief executive officer, Amin Nasser, was not present at the conference on Tuesday as he was meeting investors abroad ahead of the offering.
Aramco is looking to float a 1% to 2% stake on the kingdom’s Tadawul market, in what would be one of the largest ever public offerings, worth upwards of $20 billion.
Aramco, in response to queries by Reuters, said on Tuesday the oil company “does not comment on rumour or speculation. The company continues to engage with the shareholders on IPO readiness activities. The company is ready and timing will depend on market conditions and be at a time of the shareholders’ choosing.”
The people declined to be identified due to commercial sensitivities.
The company will soon have more shareholders from institutions, the head of the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, Yassir al-Rumayyan, said.
Al-Rumayyan, governor of the Public Investment Fund (PIF) and chairman of Aramco’s board of directors, was speaking at a panel at the conference in Riyadh.
Aramco will start subscription for investors in its initial public offering on Dec. 4, Saudi-owned news channel Al-Arabiya said in a news flash on Tuesday citing sources.
The oil giant plans to announce the transaction’s price on Nov. 17, it added. The company will begin trading on the local stock market, the Tadawul, on Dec. 11, the broadcaster reported.
The prospect of Aramco selling a piece of itself has had Wall Street on tenterhooks since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman first flagged it three years ago.
However, his desired $2 trillion valuation has always been questioned by some financiers and industry experts, who note that countries have been accelerating efforts to shift away from fossil fuels to curb global warming, putting oil prices under pressure and undermining producers’ equity value.
Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), is working on a consortium of investors for Aramco’s IPO, its chief executive said.
“There are several Russian pensions funds who are interested to invest in the Aramco IPO and we have also received indications from our Russia-China fund of some Chinese major institutions also interested in Aramco IPO,” Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) head Kirill Dmitriev told reporters on Tuesday.
Separately, Aramco has not approached the Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA) to invest in the IPO, the sovereign wealth fund’s managing director Farouk Bastaki said on Tuesday.
“KIA has not been approached by Aramco or its advisers for the IPO, and KIA will look at the IPO like any other investment,” Bastaki told reporters on the sidelines of an investment conference in Riyadh.
Reporting by Hadeel Al Sayegh in Dubai, Davide Barbuscia and Saeed Azhar in Riyadh; Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal and Marwa Rashad in Riyadh, and Asma AlSharif in Dubai; editing by Giles Elgood and Jason Neely
The political impasse in which Algeria has been mired for more than seven months would result in a sharp economic slowdown in the short term. This Algeria’s Political deadlock and economic breakdown that the World Bank forecasters have reached is by any means comprehensive but could be read as some sort of alert.
The institution expects non-hydrocarbon sectors, as well as all oil and gas-related activity, to run through an air hole this year; which should have some unavoidable consequences on the country’s GDP growth. In effect, in similar way to other developing countries, it is expected to come down to 1.3% in 2019 from 1.5% the previous year.
“Uncertainty policy is expected to lead to a slowdown in the non-hydrocarbon sector in 2019,” reads a World Bank report released last Thursday. The Bretton Woods institution has not failed to highlight the impact of the arrests of business leaders on investment morality grounds or lack of these, and more generally, on the economy. “Business leaders from various sectors were arrested in connection with corruption investigations, which has disrupted the economy due to sudden changes in the direction and supervision of these companies, as well as uncertainty over investment,” the same report said. Since the beginning of the crisis, a wave of arrests affected the business community, public institutions, banks and social bodies alike. This blocking situation had worsened over the weeks; appropriation sets did not meet, officials at the level of economic administration were careful not to take the slightest risk. That is to say how violent the shock wave was. The impact on the economy could be disastrous as the situation continues to worsen by the day. As such, the World Bank (WB) estimates that “the pre-election period also risks further delaying the fiscal consolidation process scheduled for 2019, increasing the budget deficit to 12.1% of GDP and increasing the risk of a more abrupt adjustment in the future.” For the WB, widening budget and current account deficits is almost inevitable. While the fiscal deficit would be unlikely to be reduced internally, “on the external front, the current account deficit is expected to widen to 8.1% of GDP, mainly due to a significantly larger trade deficit.”
Investment is being impacted
“As the course of political events is expected to have an impact on economic activity, it is also expected that more resources will be allocated to social measures, to the detriment of public investment spending,” the Bank predicts. The report, stating that “private sector activity and investment will be affected by political disruptions and an unfavourable business climate, as well as disruptions caused by delays in payment of workers in several industries.” This is the case, since the draft Finance Bill 2020 foresees a sharp decline in capital expenditure, to the tune of 20.1%, while operating expenses and social transfers are maintained as they are. WB experts are merely saying out loud what Algerian economists and operators are thinking, warning of a situation that could go along if solutions to the political impasse run out. “The delays at the end of the political impasse and political uncertainty could further damage the country’s economy, leading to increased imports and further dwindling foreign exchange reserves,” concludes the WB report. Moreover, macroeconomic indicators are unlikely to improve at any time under current political conditions.
Economic growth to only 1.9% in 2020
Moreover, against a background of falling capital spending and low morale among investors, the growth of the Algerian economy would be only 1.9% in the year 2020. A stagnation is due in particular to the “slow” growth of the hydrocarbons sector, combined with the contraction in economic activity, which has limited growth in non-hydrocarbon sectors, according to the WB’s economic monitoring report released on Thursday. “Growth in the hydrocarbon sector has been slow, with economic activity contracting by 6.5% and 7.7% in 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, respectively, partially off-sparing the effects of the slight increase in non-core growth 3.4% and 3.9% in 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, respectively,” the WB noted. The tiny increase in investment in the first half of the year (4.9%) was driven by public investment in construction, public works and hydraulics, as a result of the expansion of social housing programmes, the WB said. Furthermore, the institution believes that “the recent discovery of a new gas field suggests a rebound in gas production and exports, but only in the medium term, and if and only if the framework for investment in hydrocarbons lends it to it.” The World Bank is merely bringing water to the government’s mill, which has called the enactment of the new hydrocarbon law urgent.
The key factors of all energy policies across the MENA are about reducing carbon emissions and conserving hydrocarbons reserves per this article, dated September 30, 2019, of Power Technology reporting (see below) on the latest World Energy Council’s congress of Abu Dhabi, early this month.
With an estimated $100bn-worth of renewables projects under study, design and in execution across the region, the policy momentum behind energy transformation is now being converted into new, potentially lucrative business opportunities across the Middle East and Africa.
Reducing carbon dioxide emissions and conserving hydrocarbons reserves are key factors shaping energy policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
But it is the more immediate combination of lower oil prices and the fall in the cost of renewable energy technologies that have seen every country in the region announce ambitious clean energy targets.
Clean energy, which includes renewables such as solar and wind power, as well as alternative fuels including waste-to-energy and nuclear, accounts for only a small proportion of electricity generation in the MENA region today.
Change is coming
According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), installed solar and wind capacity across the MENA region reached respectively 2,350MW and 434MW in 2017, up from just 91MW and 104MW in 2010.
And with an estimated $100bn-worth of renewables projects under study, design and in-execution across the region, the policy momentum behind energy transformation is now being converted into new, potentially lucrative business opportunities in the region.
The significance of the region’s energy transition was clear to see at the latest edition of the World Energy Congress, which was hosted in Abu Dhabi in September.
Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia’s pavilion was the most-buzzing hive at the congress.
In addition to its broad programme of structural economic reforms and the recent appointment of a new energy minister, the region’s biggest economy has by far the most ambitious clean energy programme planned in the Middle East.
As Riyadh’s Renewable Energy Project Development Office (Repdo) outlined plans to launch tenders for its third round of its ambitious National Renewable Energy Programme (NREP) before the end of 2019, representatives from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign investment wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), were meeting technology providers on the sidelines of the event to discuss the opportunities for building large-scale solar manufacturing facilities in the kingdom.
While solar and wind power are the main focus of the region’s energy diversification plans, some of the world’s largest energy companies were keen to showcase the potential for emerging technologies including waste-to-energy.
Another glimpse into the future was provided by discussions about the potential to store energy from peak-power sources such as solar and wind.
With the race to achieve cost-effective battery-storage solutions already underway, other technologies using hydrogen are being piloted in the region to offer another method to mitigate the intermittency issues of solar and wind power.
The challenge facing the region’s utilities is to convert their ambitious clean energy ambitions into actual investment projects.
This article is sourced from Power Technology sister publication www.meed.com, a leading source of high-value business intelligence and economic analysis about the Middle East and North Africa. To access more MEED content register for the 30-day Free Guest User Programme.
Despite or in spite of the far from peaceful happenings in one of the four corners of the Arabian peninsula, life carries on unperturbed elsewhere and the following is about what is happening in the opposite corner, i.e.:
ABU DHABI, September 15, 2019 — In the vast air-conditioned halls of an Abu Dhabi conference centre, the world’s much-vaunted transition to clean energy is the buzzword in sessions of a top industry gathering.
But many executives and officials from oil-dependent Gulf states insist that while the change to renewables is essential, fossil fuels remain the future at least for the next few decades, despite the urgent need to fight climate change.
The debate has taken centre stage at this week’s World Energy Congress, with many officials calling for accelerating the process of moving to clean power sources and minimising carbon emissions.
Speakers addressed issues like the role of nuclear, hydrogen gas and other non-conventional sources of energy as a replacement for fossil fuels which currently account for over three-quarters of the world’s energy consumption.
However, delegates from oil-producing countries and particularly those in the Gulf argued that although the transition to clean energy sources must be supported, they will not be able to meet rising demand any time soon.
“For decades to come the world will still rely on oil and gas as the majority source of energy,” said the head of Abu Dhabi Oil Co. Jaber Sultan.
“About $11 trillion of investment in oil and gas is needed to keep up with current projected demand,” over the next two decades, he told the congress which was attended by representatives of 150 nations and over 400 CEOs.
Energy from increasingly competitive renewable sources has quadrupled globally in just a decade, but insatiable demand for energy particularly from developing economies saw power sector emissions rise 10 per cent, a UN report said last week.
“All energy transitions — including this one — take decades, with many challenges along the road,” the CEO of Saudi energy giant Aramco, Amin Nasser, said at the conference.
Nasser said his country supports the growing contribution of alternatives, but criticised policies adopted by many governments that do not consider “the long-term nature of our business and the need for orderly transition”.
Addicted to oil
Oil is still the lifeline for the Gulf states, contributing at least 70 per cent of national revenues across the region which has been cushioned by decades of immense profits from the flow of “black gold”.
Gulf nations have invested tens of billions of dollars in clean energy projects, mainly in solar and nuclear.
Dubai has launched the world’s largest solar energy project, with a price tag of $13.6 billion and the capacity to satisfy a quarter of the energy-hungry emirate’s current needs when it comes online in 2030.
But critics say the addiction to oil is a tough one to kick, particularly when supplies remain abundant and the massive investment in infrastructure necessary to switch to renewables is daunting.
“A global shift from dirty fossil fuel to renewable energy is economically, technically and technologically feasible… All that is missing is political will!” said Julien Jreissati from Greenpeace in the Middle East.
He said while the United Arab Emirates has put plans into action, “Saudi Arabia which has always made big announcements regarding their renewable energy ambitions is lagging behind as their projects and targets remain ink on paper.’
“There is no doubt that the world will leave oil behind. The only question remaining is when will this happen?”
Despite important technological advances made in the past decade, renewable energy sources still make up just around 18 per cent and nuclear adds another 6 per cent of the world’s energy mix.
In the past decade, the adoption of wind and solar energy picked up rapidly as the production cost plummeted to levels close to that of oil and gas.
But the Abu Dhabi conference saw calls for accelerated innovation and “disruptive” technology to speed the transition as the world prepares for global energy demand to peak between 2020 and 2025, according to the World Energy Council.
Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid said that sustainable and environmentally friendly energy practices must be aligned with national and global economic policies in order to have the required impact.
“It makes more economic sense to apply all green technologies globally, and if this happens we might go to being CO2-free energy users 5 or 10 or 20 years quicker,” she told the conference.
“I prefer that market forces, pushed by smart policymaking and legal space-setting, act quickly and save us all from the alternative.”