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Saudi Aramco’s transformation is underway

After much gestation, Saudi Aramco published its annual review last week. It is an invaluable snapshot of the world’s biggest oil company in a period of transition, as it plays a crucial role in the Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the Kingdom’s economy away from oil dependence. It deserves to be read closely. But there are a couple of things not in the review that the global oil industry and the world of finance will soon want to have explained in detail.

First, beyond a very general mention by Aramco Chairman Khalid Al-Falih (who is also Saudi energy minister), there is no detailed reference to the initial public offering (IPO) planned on global stock markets for late next year. The advisers are probably saving their material for the formal “intention to float” statement that they are busy working on.

Neither is there a detailed statement of Aramco’s finances. Its shareholder, the Saudi government, presumably gets all that information first-hand anyway, and with no public shareholders, there has never been any obligation to reveal its financial secrets. That too will change as the IPO campaign intensifies.

What does come across loud and clear from the review is that Aramco is well on the way to transforming itself from being a traditional national oil company (NOC) — like many in the Middle East and other emerging markets — toward the model of what it regards as its global peers Exxon Mobil, BP and Shell — the independent oil companies (IOC).

There is still a way to go, not least in the kind of financial disciplines an IPO and institutional investors will insist upon, but a good start has been made. Essentially, this involves a move away from being just a finder and pumper of crude oil upstream, into diversified downstream and related petro-industrial sectors.

But it should be stressed that Aramco’s core business is likely to remain crude oil production. The review gave some idea of the enormous scale of this business, and of Aramco’s commanding position in the global energy industry. With a record 10.5 billion barrels produced per day in 2016, it produced more oil than any oil company in history, and more than the three aforementioned Western giants combined.

The other eye-catching figure from the review is the one for reserves. Some commentators made much of the fact that the estimated figure dipped from 261.1 billion to 260.8 billion barrels, but in the scheme of things this is nothing. When a company pumps 3.8 billion barrels a year, a downtick of 300 million is marginal.

But its core business is likely to remain crude oil production.

Frank Kane

Two big things will change on the upstream side this year. It seems certain that daily production will fall as the effects of the Saudi-led cuts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) last December take hold. And reserves are being reassessed as part of the IPO preparation process. The reserves estimate has stuck doggedly at 260 billion for many years, but the next review could see a significant change.

The transformation from NOC to IOC will be seen primarily in downstream activities, which the review is keen to highlight. In the Kingdom, this involves joint ventures with some of the biggest names in global industry, such as Dow and Sumitomo, to develop its capability in plastics, ethane and refining.

The future is the Sadar venture with Dow Chemicals, a $20 billion petrochemicals venture outside Jubail that produces materials for virtually every stage of the industrial process, from soap to golf balls. The “crude to chemicals” strategy will be further enhanced by the new $20 billion joint venture with the Saudi Arabia Basic Industries Corp. (SABIC).

Internationally, the big-ticket items are also in downstream and petrochemicals, the review confirms. The $30 billion investment in Motiva Enterprises, the US subsidiary, will launch a big refining and chemicals plan in Texas, while the Dutch venture Arlanxeo represents a big investment in the synthetic rubber industry. Multibillion-dollar refining and petrochemicals ventures are also being planned in India and China.

The review stresses Aramco’s commitment to research and development, with 175 new patents granted in the course of the year, many of them in the areas of sustainability and the environment.

And for those cynical observers who recently highlighted Aramco’s involvement in camel farms and sports stadiums, the review stresses its commitment to health care, education and training in the Kingdom. 

That surely is as worthwhile an item on the corporate social responsibility (CSR) index as any of the big-spending programs from the IOCs.

The review is destined to become a collectors’ item as the final hurrah of the old Aramco. If all goes to plan, by the time the next one is published Aramco will be well on the way to being publicly listed on Tadawul and other stock markets.

• Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. He can be reached on Twitter @frankkanedubai