The industrial logic behind Saudi Aramco’s ‘chemical attraction’

Flames are seen at the production facility of Saudi Aramco's Shaybah oilfield in the Empty Quarter, Saudi Arabia, on May 22, 2018. (REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah/File Photo)
Updated 27 July 2018
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The industrial logic behind Saudi Aramco’s ‘chemical attraction’

  • Aramco wants to become more than just a producer of crude oil.
  • SABIC was first conceived in 1976, and began production in 1981

DUBAI: News that Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company and the mainstay of the Kingdom’s economy, was in talks to buy a controlling stake in Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), the diversified chemicals giant, caused some surprise.

Not only was the move, which could cost Aramco about $70 billion if it acquires the whole stake held by the Public Investment Fund, an apparent step outside the traditional energy business; it looks like a further distraction from the initial public offering (IPO) of shares in Aramco, the flagship project of the economic transformation of the Kingdom set in train by the Vision 2030 strategy.

One prestigious commentator talked of Aramco’s “strange chemical attraction” for a deal some said had been dreamt up by the armies of investment bankers hired by Aramco for the history-setting IPO but now underemployed as the deadline for the flotation has slipped.

Aramco chief executive Amin Nasser confirmed that a deal with SABIC could push the IPO, already delayed until next year, back further.

But experts on Saudi business have told Arab News that there is  a sound industrial logic to a potential move for SABIC, and that the effect on the IPO plans would not necessarily be negative. Long term, a deal with SABIC could make Aramco a more attractive proposition for global investors.

The move, which has been mulled over for some time by advisers at American investment banks JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley, which have reportedly been retained to see it through to transaction, should be viewed against the backdrop of Aramco’s long-term strategic goal: It wants to become more than just a pumper of crude oil for burning in car engines, but instead a high-value-added developer of advanced petrochemical products.

“Demand in the petrochemicals sector is twice as much as the transport sector, so for us it is very important as a strategy to look at other sectors and maximize the value of our resources such as converting crude directly into chemicals,” Nasser said recently.

Industry experts agreed that the move  fitted well into that long-term strategy. Ellen Wald, author of recently published “Saudi, Inc.” and president of US-based Transversal Consulting, told Arab News: “There is a business logic to explain the potential Aramco-SABIC deal.”

“From the SABIC perspective the deal could mean it would benefit from Aramco managerial expertise and maybe even Aramco talent and financing. Also, SABIC could benefit from Aramco’s experience and connections in international expansion. There is also a possibility that a strategic investment from Aramco could mean the return of preferential and cheaper feedstock for Sabic.

“From the Aramco perspective, the benefits are that it would help solve any questions about when or if Aramco’s own chemicals business is competing with SABIC. Also, acquiring a strategic interest in SABIC would immediately increase Aramco’s downstream business, bringing it closer to the profile of a typical independent oil company (IOC),” she said. 

That was echoed by Jean Francois Seznec, a political scientist specializing in Middle East business based in Washington DC.

“Aramco would buy a very extensive research portfolio and excellent chemical management, eventually allowing Saudi Aramco to ‘Saudize’ its chemical division. There could be rationalization of certain basic chemical production lines, which duplicate with Aramco’s and also within SABIC. Aramco would acquire an excellent marketing organization worldwide for its new and future products,” he said.

On the downside, Seznec said that “rationalization (in the form of an Aramco-SABIC merger) means job duplication, perhaps among expats, but also among Saudis.”

Jim Krane, author and fellow for Energy Studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute in Houston Texas, pointed to synergies from the deal. “Currently, Aramco provides SABIC’s feedstock at a cut-rate price and allows SABIC to export products made from that feedstock at the full international price. It reaps the profit, but with Aramco now in the petrochemical business itself, it no longer makes sense. Saudi Aramco is essentially subsidizing a competitor.

“The number-crunchers at Aramco probably figured it makes more sense to combine with SABIC and work together, so that both companies would see the benefits of Saudi Arabia’s cheap supply of natural gas.” 

But what of the financial implications of the deal, both for the Saudi economy and for the Aramco IPO?

Wald said: “It means that the IPO is at the very least delayed.”


Gulf of Oman tanker attacks jolt oil-import dependent Asia

Updated 15 June 2019
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Gulf of Oman tanker attacks jolt oil-import dependent Asia

  • Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz have alarmed Japan, China and South Korea
  • Japan’s conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was in Tehran when the attack happened

SEOUL: The blasts detonated far from the bustling megacities of Asia, but the attack this week on two tankers in the strategic Strait of Hormuz hits at the heart of the region’s oil import-dependent economies.

While the violence only directly jolted two countries in the region — one of the targeted ships was operated by a Tokyo-based company, a nearby South Korean-operated vessel helped rescue sailors — it will unnerve major economies throughout Asia.

Officials, analysts and media commentators on Friday hammered home the importance of the Strait of Hormuz for Asia, calling it a crucial lifeline, and there was deep interest in more details about the still-sketchy attack and what the US and Iran would do in the aftermath.

In the end, whether Asia shrugs it off, as some analysts predict, or its economies shudder as a result, the attack highlights the widespread worries over an extreme reliance on a single strip of water for the oil that fuels much of the region’s shared progress.

Here is a look at how Asia is handling rising tensions in a faraway but economically crucial area, compiled by AP reporters from around the world:

WHY ASIA WORRIES

The oil, of course.

Japan, South Korea and China don’t have enough of it; the Middle East does, and much of it flows through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, which is the passage between the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

This could make Asia vulnerable to supply disruptions from US-Iran tensions or violence in the strait.

The attack comes months after Iran threatened to shut down the Strait of Hormuz to retaliate against US economic sanctions, which tightened in April when  the Trump administration decided to end sanctions exemptions for the five biggest importers of Iranian oil, which included China and US allies South Korea and Japan.

Japan is the world’s fourth-largest consumer of oil — after the US, China and India — and relies on the Middle East for 80 per cent of its crude oil supply. The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster led to a dramatic reduction in Japanese nuclear power generation and increased imports of natural gas, crude oil, fuel oil and coal.

In an effort to comply with Washington, Japan says it no longer imports oil from Iran. Officials also say Japanese oil companies are abiding by the embargo because they don’t want to be sanctioned. But Japan still gets oil from other Middle East nations using the Strait of Hormuz for transport.

South Korea, the world’s fifth largest importer of crude oil, also depends on the Middle East for the vast majority of its supplies.

Last month, South Korea halted its Iranian oil imports as its waivers from US sanctions on Teheran expired, and it has reportedly tried to increase oil imports from other countries.

China, the world’s largest importer of Iranian oil, “understands its growth model is vulnerable to a lack of energy sovereignty,” according to market analyst Kyle Rodda of IG, an online trading provider, and has been working over the last several years to diversify its suppliers. That includes looking to Southeast Asia and, increasingly, some oil-producing nations in Africa.

THE GEOGRAPHY AND THE POLITICS

Asia and the Middle East are linked by a flow of oil, much of it coming by sea and dependent on the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran threatened to close the strait in April. It also appears poised to break a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, an accord that US President Donald Trump withdrew from last year. Under the deal saw Tehran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions.

For both Japan and South Korea, there is extreme political unease to go along with the economic worries stirred by the violence in the strait.

Both nations want to nurture their relationship with Washington, a major trading partner and military protector. But they also need to keep their economies humming, which requires an easing of tension between Washington and Tehran.

Japan’s conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was in Tehran, looking to do just that when the attack happened.

His limitations in settling the simmering animosity, however, were highlighted by both the timing of the attack and a comment by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who told Abe that he had nothing to say to Trump.

In Japan, the world’s third largest economy, the tanker attack was front-page news.

The Nikkei newspaper, Japan’s major business daily, said that if mines are planted in the Strait of Hormuz, “oil trade will be paralyzed.” The Tokyo Shimbun newspaper called the Strait of Hormuz Japan’s “lifeline.”

Although the Japanese economy and industry minister has said there will be no immediate effect on stable energy supplies, the Tokyo Shimbun noted “a possibility that Japanese people’s lives will be affected.”

South Korea, worried about Middle East instability, has worked to diversify its crude sources since the energy crises of the 1970s and 1980s.

THE FUTURE

Analysts said it’s highly unlikely that Iran would follow through on its threat to close the strait. That’s because a closure could also disrupt Iran’s exports to China, which has been working with Russia to build pipelines and other infrastructure that would transport oil and gas into China.

For Japan, the attack in the Strait of Hormuz does not represent an imminent threat to Tokyo’s oil supply, said Paul Sheldon, chief geopolitical adviser at S&P Global Platts Analytics.

“Our sense is that it’s not a crisis yet,” he said of the tensions.

Seoul, meanwhile, will likely be able to withstand a modest jump in oil prices unless there’s a full-blown military confrontation, Seo Sang-young, an analyst from Seoul-based Kiwoom Securities, said.

“The rise in crude prices could hurt areas like the airlines, chemicals and shipping, but it could also actually benefit some businesses, such as energy companies (including refineries) that produce and export fuel products like gasoline,” said Seo, pointing to the diversity of South Korea’s industrial lineup. South Korea’s shipbuilding industry could also benefit as the rise in oil prices could further boost the growing demand for liquefied natural gas, or LNG, which means more orders for giant tankers that transport such gas.