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 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.
For a graphic on More investors commit to ESG investing png, click here
“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
Live Trading News published a generally shared view of Aramco Takes a Beating by S. Jack Heffernan on August 12, 2019. So, without further ado, here are the man’s thoughts on why Aramco Takes a Beating.
Saudi state-owned energy giant Aramco said Monday its first-half net income for 2019 had slipped to $46.9 billion, a first such disclosure for the secretive company ahead of its debut earnings call.
“The company’s net income was $46.9 billion for the first half (of) 2019, compared to $53.0 billion for the same period last year,” the company said in a statement.
The fall in income, owing to lower oil prices, comes amid renewed speculation the company was preparing for its much-delayed overseas stock listing.
“Despite lower oil prices during the first half of 2019, we continued to deliver solid earnings and strong free cash flow,” Aramco CEO Amin Nasser was quoted as saying in the statement.
It is the first time the company has published half-year financial results and comes after Aramco opened its secretive accounts for the first time in April as it prepares to raise funds from investors.
It made no mention of the planned initial public offering in Monday’s statement.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has previously said the IPO — dubbed as potentially the world’s biggest stock sale — would take place in late 2020 or early 2021.
Saudi Arabia plans to sell up to five per cent of the world’s largest energy firm and hopes to raise up to $100 billion.
The planned IPO forms the cornerstone of a reform programme envisaged by Prince Mohammed to wean the Saudi economy off its reliance on oil.
Saudi Arabia has not announced where the listing will be held, but London, New York and Hong Kong have all vied for a slice of the much-touted IPO.
S. Jack Heffernan Ph.D. Funds Manager at HEFFX holds a Ph.D. in Economics and brings with him over 25 years of trading experience in Asia and hands on experience in Venture Capital, he has been involved in several startups that have seen market capitalization over $500m and 1 that reach a peak market cap of $15b. He has managed and overseen startups in Mining, Shipping, Technology and Financial Services.1
Posted on March 8, 2020, in The Arab Weekly, Six decades after independence, Middle East still looking for growth model by Rashmee Roshan Lall is an accurate survey of the region that faces, as we speak, prospects of harshest times. How is the Middle East still looking for a growth model? Investing in the human capital of children and young people as well as enhancing their prospects for productive employment and economic growth is little more complicated than relying on Crude Oil exports related revenues. These are the main if not the only source of earnings of the region now plummeting perhaps for good before even peaking. In effect, all petrodollar inspired and financed development that, put simply, was transposed from certain parts of the world, using not only imported materials but also management and all human resources can not result in anything different from that described in this article.
Though a large youthful population would normally be regarded an economic blessing, it’s become the bane of the MENA region.
It’s been 75 years since World War II ended and the idea of decolonising the Middle East and North Africa began to gain ground but, while formal colonisation ended about six decades ago, the region seems unable to find a clear path to growth.
Rather than an “Arab spring,” what may be needed is a temperate autumn, a season of mellow fruitfulness to tackle the region’s biggest problems. These include finding a way to use the demographic bulge to advantage, reducing inequality of opportunity and outcome and boosting local opportunity.
Here are some of the region’s key issues:
The MENA region’s population grew from around 100 million in 1950 to approximately 380 million in 2000, the Population Reference Bureau said. It is now about 420 million and half that population lives in four countries — Egypt, Sudan, Iraq and Yemen.
The 2016 Arab Human Development Report, which focused on youth, said most of the region’s population is under the age of 25.
The youth bulge is the result of declining mortality rates in the past 40 years as well as an average annual population growth rate of 1.8%, compared with 1% globally. The absolute number of young people is predicted to increase from 46 million in 2010 to 58 million in 2025.
Though a large youthful population would normally be regarded an economic blessing, it’s become the bane of the MENA region. The demographic trend suggests the region needs to create more than 300 million jobs by 2050, the World Bank said.
Jihad Azour, International Monetary Fund (IMF) director for the Middle East and Central Asia, said MENA countries’ growth rate “is lower that what is required to tackle unemployment. Youth unemployment in the region exceeds 25%-30%.” The average unemployment rate across the region is 11%, compared to 7% in other emerging and developing economies.
Unsurprisingly, said Harvard economist Ishac Diwan, a senior fellow at the Middle East Initiative, young Arabs are unhappier than their elders as well as their peers in countries at similar stages of development.
Last year’s Arab Youth Survey stated that 45% of young Arab respondents said they regard joblessness as one of the region’s main challenges, well ahead of the Syrian war (28%) and the threat of terrorism (26%).
The region’s population is expected to nearly double by 2030 and the IMF estimated that 27 million young Arabs will enter the labour market the next five years.
Poverty and inequality
Most Arab people do not live in oil-rich countries. Data from the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) stated that 116 million people across ten Arab countries (41% of the total population), are poor and another 25% were vulnerable to poverty. This translates to an estimated 250 million people who may be poor or vulnerable out of a population of 400 million.
The MENA region is also regarded as the most unequal in the world, with the top 10% of its people accounting for 64% of wealth, although the average masks enormous differences from one country to another.
The middle class in non-oil producing Arab countries has shrunk from 45% to 33% of the population, ESCWA economists said. In a report for the Carnegie Corporation last year, Palestinian-American author Rami G. Khouri described what he called “poverty’s new agony,” the fact that a poor family in the Middle East will remain poor for several generations.
Egypt is a case in point. In 2018, Cairo vowed to halve poverty by 2020 and eliminate it by 2030. However, Egypt’s national statistics agency released a report on household finances last year that said that 33% of Egypt’s 99 million people were classified as poor, up from 28% in 2015. The World Bank subsequently nearly doubled that figure, saying 60% of Egyptians were “either poor or vulnerable.”
Wealth gaps between countries are greater in the region than in others because it has some of the world’s richest economies as well as some of the poorest, such as Yemen.
Inequality is not the only problem in the region. Former World Bank economist Branko Milanovic said the uneven picture means that last year’s protests in Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan and Iraq cannot be explained by “a blanket story of inequality.”
Indeed, Algeria, a relatively egalitarian country, was roiled by protests, first against a long-serving president and then against the wider political system.
French economist Thomas Piketty, who wrote the bestselling book on income inequality, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” said Arab countries must come up with a way to share the region’s vast and unequally distributed wealth.
Lost decades of growth
In the decade from 2009, the region’s average economic growth was one-third slower than in the previous decade. The IMF said per capita incomes have been “near stagnant” and youth unemployment has “worsened significantly.”
The state is the largest employer in many Arab countries and over-regulation of the private sector left it underdeveloped and unable to overcome the significant barriers to trade and economic cooperation across regional borders. Meanwhile, inflexible labour laws stifled job creation and cronyism allowed inefficiency to stay unchallenged. In 2018, the average rank of Arab countries on the World Bank’s Doing Business survey was 115th out of 190 countries.
Along with structural factors, conflict has had a debilitating effect on economic growth. Three years ago, the World Bank noted that the Syrian war had killed approximately 500,000 people, displaced half the population — more than 10 million people — and reduced more than two-thirds of Syrians to poverty.
By 2017, conflict in Yemen and Libya had displaced more than 15% and 10% of their respective populations of 4 million and 6 million. Taken together, the Syrian, Yemen and Libyan civil wars have affected more than 60 million people, about one-fifth of the MENA population.
Infrastructural damage runs into the billions of dollars but it is the loss — or outright collapse, as in Yemen — of economic activity that has affected real GDP growth.
Countries in the region affected by conflict lost $614 billion cumulatively in GDP from 2010-15 — 6% of the regional GDP, ESCWA’s 2018 report on institutional development in post-conflict settings stated.
New thinking needed
This is the year when, for the first time, an Arab country holds the chairmanship of the Group of 20 of the world’s largest economies. It could be an opportunity to consider existing trends within the region, what needs to be changed and how.
In the words of Oxford development macroeconomist Adeel Malik, “the Arab developmental model… seems to have passed its expiration date.” In a 2014 paper for the Journal of International Affairs, Malik said “failure of the Arab state to deliver social justice is ultimately rooted in the failure of a development model based on heavy state intervention in the economy and increasingly unsustainable buyouts of local populations through generous welfare entitlements.”
It’s a good point, for the region’s richest countries just as much as its poorest. Oil-rich states are affected by dramatic changes in oil prices and the increasingly urgent suggestion that the world is at “peak oil.” An IMF report warned that, by 2034, declining oil demand could erode the $2 trillion in financial wealth amassed by Gulf Cooperation Council members. The IMF said “faster progress with economic diversification and private sector development will be critical to ensure sustainable growth.”
Creativity and courage will be needed if the Arab world is to meet the expectations of its youthful population and the challenges posed by its increasing inequality.
Energy generation through renewable sources is improving exponentially and is something that is no longer simply better for the planet but also for investors. Nevertheless, the oil industry has no intention of voting itself out of office and will continue extracting and exploiting the planet’s oil reserves. We don’t have time to wait for investors to tire of these companies. The much-needed end of the oil industry should be brought about not by its profitability or otherwise, because it could linger on for decades, but instead through political decisions guided by scientific evidence, links to which can be found throughout this article. The writing is on the wall, and has been for years; when will we bother to read it? Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website.
Enrique Dans Teaching Innovation at IE Business School since 1990, and now, hacking education as Senior Advisor for Digital Transformation at IE University. BSc (Universidade de Santiago de Compostela), MBA (Instituto de Empresa) and Ph.D. in Management Information Systems (UCLA).
ENERGY VOICE through Ed Reed’s in this 19/12/2019 OIL & GAS article titled APICORP alarmed on declining MENA gas spend takes note of longtime predicted factors of the omnipresent situation as envisioned by, as it were, one side of the Gulf’s conflicting parties.
NAGOYA, Japan (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia is set to take over the G20 presidency for a year as it seeks to bounce back from an uproar over its human rights record and last year’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Foreign ministers attend a dinner during the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting, in Nagoya, Japan November 22, 2019. Charly Triballeu/Pool via REUTERS
The kingdom’s new foreign minister, a prince with diplomatic experience in the West, landed in Japan’s Nagoya city on Friday to meet with his counterparts from the Group of 20 nations.
Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud was appointed in October in a partial cabinet reshuffle, joining a new generation of royals in their 40s who rose to power under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 34, the de facto ruler of the world’s top oil exporter.
Saudi Arabia – a key U.S. ally in confronting Iran – has faced heavy Western criticism over the murder of Saudi national Khashoggi, its detention of women’s rights activists and its role in the devastating war in Yemen.
Diplomats say the G20 might help put Riyadh’s problems behind it and could prompt it to close more disputed files such as the Yemen war and the boycott of Gulf neighbour Qatar, though they have yet to see much progress.
King Salman has hailed the kingdom’s G20 presidency as proof of its key role in the global economy. [nL8N28041F]
Prince Faisal will pick up the baton at a ceremony on Saturday in Nagoya, where G20 foreign ministers have gathered for talks.
Japan – which headed the G20 this year – was the kingdom’s second-largest export market last year, at $33 billion, according to IMF trade data.
Apart from its reliance on Saudi oil, Japan has deepened its ties to the kingdom thanks to Japanese technology conglomerate SoftBank Group. Riyadh has been a big supporter of SoftBank’s massive Vision Fund.
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told Prince Faisal he was pleased to meet him for the first time and both sides wanted to boost relations, according to a read-out from Japan’s foreign ministry.
Motegi praised Saudi work to stabilise southern Yemen, where Riyadh orchestrated a deal to end a power struggle between Yemen’s government, which it backs, and southern separatists. [nL8N27L6J1]
King Salman also said this week Riyadh wants a political settlement in Yemen, where it has battled Iran-aligned Houthis in a nearly five-year war that has killed tens of thousands and drive parts of the country to the brink of famine.
A diplomatic source said there had been an “apparent de-escalation” in Yemen’s conflict in recent weeks. The source said Saudi airstrikes killing civilians would not be “a great backdrop for hosting the G20” and would not mesh with the kingdom’s message of opening up.
Diplomats said that Saudi Arabia plans more than a dozen G20 summits throughout the year on tourism, agriculture, energy, environment and digital economy.
Top diplomatic and business contacts suggest Riyadh has already gotten over much of the opprobrium it received over Khashoggi’s murder, but it still struggles to attract foreign investors, said analyst Neil Partrick.
A Saudi court charged 11 suspects in a secretive trial and Western allies imposed sanctions on individuals. But Riyadh still faces heat from some governments saying the crown prince – known as MbS – ordered the murder. He has denied this though said he takes ultimate responsibility as de facto ruler.
Riyadh has sought to fix its image or turn attention to its social reforms since Khashoggi’s 2018 killing at the hands of Saudi agents in Istanbul.
A share sale of giant Saudi state oil firm Aramco this month and a bond sale earlier this year – under a drive to diversify the largest Arab economy away from oil – attracted interest in the traditional sectors of energy and finance.
After boycotting the Saudis’ annual “Davos in the Desert” summit in 2018, Western executives returned to the 2019 gathering last month. “Davos in the Desert” is unrelated to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Reporting by Ellen Francis in Nagoya and Stephen Kailin in Bahrain with additional reporting by David Dolan in Nagoya; Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by Mark Heinrich
Two and a half years after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain launched a boycott against rival Qatar, the quartet are headed to Doha for a soccer tournament on November 24 – a game-changer in the Gulf dispute.
In the absence of significant Qatari capitulations or face-saving gestures, it appears concerns over Iran’s ability to threaten oil production and shipping have compelled Riyadh and its allies to bring Doha back into the fold.
The most important thing to watch is whether Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia, the peninsula state’s only land border to the rest of the Gulf, will open for the match.
“If the border opens up for the soccer game it will open up for regular visitors,” said Sigurd Neubauer, an analyst at the DC-based Gulf International Forum.
“This will be the game-changer,” he told Asia Times, as it could lead to a permanent lifting of the land and air blockade on Qatar and its lucrative national carrier, Qatar Airways.
Egyptian gas connection
While Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain may be subtle in their rapprochement with Qatar, Egypt has been willing to go to the next level to secure key energy supplies for its 90 million population.
In the past week, Qatar’s state gas company announced that a US$4.4 billion investment in Egypt – one of the countries supposedly boycotting it – had begun to bear fruit.
“Qatar Petroleum is pleased to announce the successful start-up of the Egyptian Refining Company (ERC) Refinery project located in Mostorod, north of the Egyptian capital Cairo,” a company statement said.
“All of the ERC Refinery units are now successfully operating, and are expected to ramp up to full production before the end of the first quarter of 2020, which will reduce Egypt’s dependence on imported petroleum products,” it added.
Qatar has quietly supplied the neighboring UAE with gas during the blockade, but the massive investment in Egypt – its largest in the Arab world and Africa – means Doha is going a step further to exhibit its strategic relevance.
With Saudi Arabia, a key patron of Egypt, focused on cooling Gulf tensions, deals like this may be increasingly granted a green light, if they even require a blessing at all.
“Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world and even if [President] Sisi is aligned with Saudi, Egypt did not expel any Qatari citizens during the blockade and allowed Egyptians to keep working and sending remittances,” said analyst Neubauer.
In turn, Doha showed a willingness to distance itself from its key ally through the blockade: Turkey.
“The Qatari decision to invest in Egypt is a strategic decision and it angered [President] Erdogan. So this is another sign things are moving in the right direction,” Neubauer added.
For Egypt, a key qualm against Qatar was its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and support for the anti-government 2011 uprising. But for Saudi Arabia, the key issue was ties with its arch-foe Iran.
But with the US maximum pressure campaign on Tehran now understood to be limited to sanctions, and with Tehran exhibiting its willingness to hit the Arab monarchies where it hurts – the petroleum sector – Qatar may increasingly be seen as a potential mediator for its vulnerable neighbors, rather than as a spoiler.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, just a few years ago set on taking on every rival from the Houthis of Yemen to Iran, has massively changed his positioning since the summer.
The damage to Saudi Aramco facilities last month drove home the risk of escalation with Tehran, and by extension, the importance of Gulf unity and multilateralism. For the UAE, attacks on oil tankers off its coast earlier this summer had a similar effect.
The lightning attacks on Aramco facilities wiped out half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production in a span of hours, wreaking not only physical damage but financial – compelling international investors to consider fresh security risks amidst an IPO valuation.
With no US military response to the Aramco attacks, the Saudis were shown how they would bear the brunt of further aggravation of their powerful neighbor.
“The combination of those attacks in September and doubts about US reliability … has persuaded the UAE and the Saudis that they needed to start dialing down tensions,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“And that relates to Qatar and Iran.”
In the case of Qatar, the Gulf states will be looking to come to an understanding that allows all parties to save face.
But Doha, which over the course of the blockade has embraced dairy farms and shifted to greater trade with Iran, is unlikely to ever go back to reliance on food imports through its land border with Saudi Arabia.
“Whatever compromise you find, it is not going to be a return to the status quo. It’s going to take a while to heal the wounds,” said Dorsey.
The Qataris, he said, will not be suddenly putting their eggs into one basket.
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.
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