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

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.”

Iran looms large over OPEC summit

Updated 22 September 2018

Iran looms large over OPEC summit

  • Saudi Arabia only country in Mideast, and perhaps world, with enough capacity to keep market supplied, say experts
  • At Algiers, Opec and leading non-Opec countries are expected to discuss how to allocate supply increases to offset a shortage of Iran supplies

LONDON: The Opec summit in Algiers on Sunday meets amid widespread fears of a supply crunch when a forecast 1.4 million barrels a day of crude is lost from Iran in November when US sanctions kick in.
If, on top of that, more supply shocks hit the market in worse-than-expected disruption from Libya and Iraq, the price of crude could surge, said Andy Critchlow, head of energy news at S&P Global Platts. “At the moment, the market looks finely balanced,” he said.
There isn’t a lot of slack in the system. As Critchlow points out: “Upstream investment in infrastructure and new wells is historically low and it will take a long time to turn that around.”
At Algiers, Opec and leading non-Opec countries are expected to discuss how to allocate supply increases to offset a shortage of Iran supplies. The gathering comes after a tweet by President Trump on Sept. 20 calling on Opec to lower prices. He said on Twitter that “they would not be safe for very long without us, and yet they continue to push for a higher and higher oil price.”
Critchlow reckoned KSA still had spare capacity of about 2 million bpd. And KSA would get oil back as they go into winter as it had needed 800,000m bpd merely to generate electricity for the home market to meet heightened demand for air conditioning in the summer.
But there is uncertainty about what will come out of Algiers. For a start, the Iranians say they will not attend. That could be tricky in terms of an Opec communique at the end of the meeting as statements need unanimous support from member nations. And Iran has indicated it will veto any move that would affect Iran’s position, ie, one where other countries absorb its market share as sanctions bite.
Jason Gammel, energy analyst at London broker Jefferies, said: “The magnitude of the drop in Iranian exports is likely to be higher than any hit in demand as a result of problems linked to emerging market currencies, or trade wars. That’s why we expect oil prices to continue to strengthen. The Saudis and their partners will keep the market well supplied, and I think the issue is that the level of spare capacity in the system will be extremely low. Any threat or interruption will mean price spikes. Possibly by the end of the year demand will exceed supply; for now, the market remains in balance, but threats of supply disruption will bring volatility.”
Under the spotlight in Algiers is a production cuts accord forged by Opec and 11 other countries in 2016 which has been extended to the end of this year. The agreement helped reboot prices and obliterate inventory stockpiles that led to the crash in crude prices nearly three years ago. But how long will the agreement last? Algiers may kick that one into the long grass.
Thomson Reuters analysts Ehsan Ul-Haq and Tom Kenison told Arab News: “OPEC members would like to maintain cohesion within the group around supply ahead of Iran sanctions and declining Venezuela production, However, they are expected be in favor of maintaining stability in prices while doing so. On the other hand, they need to find a consensus around how their market share would be affected by a decision to pump more oil in the market. Any decision around production will likely be offset until the November meeting.”
Critchlow said that it is what KSA and Russia say and do that matters. “They speak for a fifth of the global oil market, producing a combined total of 22m bpd.” Together, they are the swing producers when it comes to crude production and supply.
Another factor about Algiers is that it is a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee, which is not a policy-making forum. Big policy statements may have to wait for the main Opec summit in Vienna at the end of year. That said, there will be some very high-level delegations in Algiers, including the Saudi oil minister and his Russian counterpart.
A statement about the demand picture could emerge, especially as there are fears about the impact on the global economy from the US-China tariff war.
Looking to the future, Critchlow thought the Opec production cuts accord would carry on into 2019. “Oil priced between $70/bbl and $80/bbl is a sweet spot for Middle East producers. Its’s good for Saudi as it helps stop further drainage of their foreign reserves and moves the budget back toward balance. Do they want (the price) to go higher? I think that would cause a lot of political problems for them.”