Angola’s oil exploration evaporates as COVID-19 overshadows historic reforms

Angola’s oil exploration evaporates as COVID-19 overshadows historic reforms
Angola is Africa’s second-largest oil producer, and was expected to have the continent’s largest number of offshore rigs drilling before the coronavirus affected demand, especially in China. (AFP)
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Updated 21 May 2020

Angola’s oil exploration evaporates as COVID-19 overshadows historic reforms

Angola’s oil exploration evaporates as COVID-19 overshadows historic reforms
  • Oil price crash prompts majors to idle all drilling rigs

LONDON: The coronavirus pandemic has done in a handful of months what a 27-year civil war did not: Brought oil drilling to a halt in Angola, Africa’s second-largest oil producer.

The consequences could be grave for a poor country that relies heavily on oil revenues and is saddled with debts that exceed its economic output.

The halt in oil exploration, which has not been previously reported, could represent a setback for one of the most ambitious economic reform drives on the continent, aimed at cleaning up corruption and attracting foreign money. It comes as Angola seeks buyers in its push to privatise state energy assets, which is central to the reform process.

An oil price crash last month to two-decade lows has prompted all international energy majors operating in Angola — Total, Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP and Eni — to idle or ditch their drilling rigs, according to company sources, Refinitiv ship-tracking data and industry experts.

France’s Total, responsible for almost half of Angola’s oil output, told Reuters it would not drill for more oil for now due to the coronavirus crisis, instead focusing on current production.

“We have suspended all our drilling activities like all other operators in Angola,” it said.

Sarah McLean, senior analyst at IHS Markit, said it was the first time since its records began in 1984 that Angola had not had a single rig drilling. The London–based information provider had expected at least 10 rigs to be operating there by the end of 2020, the highest number for any African nation this year. The Angolan finance ministry and president’s office did not respond to Reuters requests for comment, nor did state oil giant Sonangol, which works in partnership with the foreign oil majors.

Angola’s prospects looked bright going into 2020.

Energy majors increased their exposure to Angola in the wake of reforms to investment laws by President João Lourenço, who took power after almost four decades of rule by Jose Eduardo dos Santos, and greater transparency at Sonangol.

They planned to operate more drilling ships in Angola than anywhere on the continent to tap tantalizing new offshore discoveries this year. Then COVID-19 struck.

As global demand fell off a cliff amid lockdowns, oil companies lopped billions from planned spending. Angola, with its relatively high-cost offshore fields, was among the first on the chopping block. Reduced demand from the virus’s first victim, China — the top destination for Angolan oil — also hit the country hard.

Total, in a bad portent, had already canceled one drill ship after a March 7 technical problem. The vessel is now parked off the Canary Islands, according to Refinitiv tracking data.

The French producer has since idled three other drill ships; Transocean Skyros and Maersk Voyager were sent to docks at the capital Luanda while Seadrill West Gemini lies dormant at Walvis Bay in Namibia, the tracking data shows.

Total did not comment on specific ships, but said it hoped to restart gradually “as soon as the situation allows.”

US major Chevron canceled its contract with rig supplier Valaris, in late March, and parked the drill ship, Valaris 109, in the capital. A Chevron spokesman said it would continue “cost-managed production” at existing fields.

Meanwhile, two offshore discoveries which Italy’s Eni described as “significant” last year are now on ice, the company told Reuters.

US firm ExxonMobil and the UK’s BP, the other oil majors in Angola, have also canceled planned drilling until at least 2021. Both declined to comment.

Any time would be bad for Angola’s drilling to dry up. Yet the crisis comes at a key juncture for its reform drive, which it is counting on to help improve living standards for the population of over 32 million. According to the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative’s global poverty index, about a third of Angolans live in “severe poverty.”

The country is seeking to attract investors for a sweeping privatization program of state assets including energy assets like parts of Sonangol, but also ports, banks and telecoms firms. The program, launched last August, had already got off to a rocky start.

Angola has yet to sell any major assets of Sonangol, which its petroleum minister described as a sprawling “octopus.” Several assets scheduled for sale last year have yet to be tendered, while the only announced purchases have been of a slaughterhouse firm and farm complex which netted $35 million from local buyers in April.

Angola was aiming to shed smaller assets before privatising 30 percent of the whole Sonangol group via an IPO in 2022. That timeline, always ambitious, now seems unlikely, according to Nick Branson, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft.

“The idea of a Sonangol IPO just seems hopelessly optimistic,” he said.

“There are so many moving parts and such a lack of appetite for these sort of transactions anyway. Look at how long it took Saudi Aramco,” he added, citing the long struggle by Saudi Arabia to privatise their state oil firm amid flagging prices.

Despite its problems, Angola has announced the tendering of state-owned bank BCI and parts of Sonangol’s ports and logistics businesses in recent weeks.

Gonçalo Falcão, a Brazil-based partner in UK-based law firm Mayer Brown, which advises potential buyers on aspects of the privatization drive, said the government would not settle for a fire sale.

“It’s still to be seen how many competitive bidders emerge,” he said, noting the state could postpone tenders if it deems offers too low.

“They’re trying to send a message that, okay, we’re struggling, but we will continue going forward with our plans because we’re a reliable country and we’ve made a huge effort to make our companies transparent and reduce corruption.”

President Lourenço has been seeking to tackle a troubled legacy after Angola clawed its way out of a 1975-2002 civil war, one of the world’s longest. The country is ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt, in 146th place on a list of 183 countries, according to Transparency International.

After he took power in 2017, he moved to remove dos Santos’s children from key roles. Dos Santos’s daughter, Isabel, had been running Sonangol, while his son, Jose Filomeno — now on trial — had run the sovereign wealth fund.

Despite Angola earning praise for its anti-corruption drive, the economy — which draws a third of state revenues from oil — was in a precarious position before the pandemic.

The country received a record $3.7 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund last year. It also owes billions to China and holds the largest single bilateral debt burden in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is the number 3 economy.

Its debt-to-GDP ratio has climbed to the highest in around two decades, above 100 percent, and servicing its borrowings eat up $9 billion a year.

“The Angolan state owns a major universe of companies — telecom companies, water companies, electricity,” said Falcão of Mayer Brown. “I wouldn’t say they are desperate, but keen to make revenue, and they think a good investment opportunity six months ago would still be a good investment today.”


Low interest rates boosted mortgage demand by 27% through May

Low interest rates boosted mortgage demand by 27% through May
Updated 28 min 34 sec ago

Low interest rates boosted mortgage demand by 27% through May

Low interest rates boosted mortgage demand by 27% through May
  • Residential real estate financing contracts offered to individuals by local banks reached 133,006 through May, with a value of SR69.5 billion

RIYADH: Mortgage lending in Saudi Arabia increased 27 percent this year through May, as interest rates decreased to between 1 percent and 4.9 percent, compared to about 6 percent early last year.

Residential real estate financing contracts offered to individuals by local banks reached 133,006 through May, with a value of SR69.5 billion, according to data from the Saudi Central Bank (SAMA).

Real estate financing grew by 50 percent compared with the same period in 2020 when SR46.6 billion was lent via 104,000 contracts.

“There is great competition between banks and real estate finance companies to obtain a greater share of the housing demand, after government support and joint financing programs with the Real Estate Development Fund (REDF), which led to an increase in the volume of lending for home purchases,” Riyadh-based Menassat Reality Co. CEO Khaled Almobid told Arab news.

“I expect more lending during the last quarter of this year despite the difficulties it is facing due to the rise in some housing prices in major cities and the lack of supply,” he said.

Saudi banks are offering mortgages with interest rates as low as 1 percent at Al Rajhi Bank, 2.5 percent at the Saudi National Bank (AlAhli Bank) and up to 4.5 percent at some banks.

Residential villas made up about 80 percent of the total financing, apartments 17 percent, while the purchase of residential lands’ financing made up the remaining 3 percent.

Saudi real estate financing achieved a record growth during the past three years, amounting to about 295,590 contracts, worth SR140.7 billion in 2020, compared to 22,259 financing contracts, worth SR17 billion in 2016, local media reproted citing SAMA data.


Lebanon sells cheapest Big Mac in the world as currency collapses

Lebanon sells cheapest Big Mac in the world as currency collapses
Updated 26 July 2021

Lebanon sells cheapest Big Mac in the world as currency collapses

Lebanon sells cheapest Big Mac in the world as currency collapses
  • Lebanese pound is 70 percent undervalued according to the Big Mac Index
  • A split is emerging between those paid in Lebanese pounds and those in dollars

RIYADH: Lebanon is home to the world’s cheapest Big Mac after the pound slumped in value, leaving it more than 70 percent undervalued against the US dollar, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

At 29,904 Lebanese pounds, a Big Mac is not cheap for those being paid in local currency, but with an exchange rate of 17,800 to the dollar, it costs just $1.68 for tourists and those lucky enough to get paid in dollars.

The slump in the Lebanese pound is exacerbating and accelerating inflation on a basic basket of goods, such as rice, sugar and flour, on a daily basis, said Lebanese economic analyst Bassel Al-Khatib.

Most people are paid in the local currency in Lebanon, where the national minimum wage stands at 675,000 Lebanese pounds per month, which was once worth almost $450 at the official exchange rate, but today barely fetches $30 on the black market, according to the Crisis Observatory at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

The Observatory said the cost of food has soared by 700 percent over the past two years, and this increase had picked up pace to 50 percent in the past few weeks alone.

Most Lebanese people are getting poorer on a daily basis, pushing some of them to sell their gold, cars and even furniture to survive, while others wait for US dollar transfers from their relatives abroad, or wait for civil society aid, Al-Khatib told Arab News.

This is all reflected in Lebanese social media, which is flooded with donation requests for new-born baby milk and medications that are not available anymore in the markets or are sold for extremely high prices. There are also numerous donation requests for people in need of food.

At the same time, others are sharing their expensive restaurant bills, such as Babel Baher who spent 5 million Lebanese pounds on a meal and posted the cheque on Facebook.

“$250 is almost nothing for someone coming from abroad,” a Facebook user called Rania wrote under the post. “This is a very cheap bill for someone who has US dollars and this dinner is not expensive at all compared to abroad.”

Al Khatib said that those paid in US dollars are living an affordable life with only $300 out of their salaries while before they needed $3,000 to have the same quality of life.

“The patchwork policies to support some commodities is not helping as all commodities that are subsidized are smuggled, ” said Al Khatib.

The country’s mismanagement with no plan or economic vision to save Lebanon from its worsening crisis, led us here, and there are no positive prospects as long as there are no radical solutions in the country, he said.


PIF-backed Lucid Motors makes trading debut on Nasdaq

PIF-backed Lucid Motors makes trading debut on Nasdaq
Updated 26 July 2021

PIF-backed Lucid Motors makes trading debut on Nasdaq

PIF-backed Lucid Motors makes trading debut on Nasdaq
  • will make itsLucid to make trading debut on New York’s Nasdaq Global Select Market on Monday
  • Lucid merged with special purpose acquisition vehicle Churchill Capital Corp. IV

RIYADH: Lucid Motors, the Californian electric vehicle (EV) carmaker majority-owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), will make its trading debut on New York’s Nasdaq Global Select Market on Monday.

Listed under the new ticker symbol “LCID”, the listing came about following the merger of Lucid and Churchill Capital Corp. IV — a special purpose acquisition company — on July 23. The EV firm will begin trading by ringing the Nasdaq opening bell on July 26.

The deal will help Lucid raise $4.4 billion, which will be used to fast track its production growth plans. The firm has over 11,000 paid reservations for its Lucid Air vehicle, which is on scheduled to start deliveries in the second half of this year.

“We are on track to meet our projected deliveries for the next two years, and we look forward to delighting our customers around the world with the best electric vehicles ever created,” Peter Rawlinson, CEO and CTO of Lucid Group, said in a press statement.

Michael S. Klein, chairman and CEO of Churchill Capital Corp. IV, said ahead of the merger: “Lucid has industry-leading technology, clear demand for its products, and is on track to deliver revenue-generating cars to customers in the second half of this year. We are excited to support Lucid’s transition into a public company and confident in its ability to address unmet needs in the automotive industry, which is moving toward electrification at a rapid pace and on a global scale.”

PIF announced its investment in Lucid Motors in Sept. 2018. The Lucid Motors CEO told Arab News in January that his team were scrutinizing possible locations in Saudi Arabia to open retail outlets — what Lucid calls “studios” — for their luxury EVs.

“We are already looking,” he said. “My retail team just returned from a scouting trip in the Kingdom, and that is very much on the road there. Hopefully, we can get a retail outlet there right at the tail end of 2021, probably early 2022.”

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Arabia stands to record a profit of nearly $20 billion on the back of its investment in Lucid.

PIF will own over 60 percent of the company, which is expected to have a market capitalization of about $36 billion.

Lucid’s expected market capitalization is nearly twice the valuation of Nissan Motor Co. and about two-thirds that of Ford Motor Co., which delivered more than 4 million cars last year. Lucid has yet to sell any cars.

Looking at the market for EVs, a report by the Pew Research Center found that 7 percent of respondents said they currently owned an electric or hybrid vehicle, and 39 percent said they were very or somewhat likely to buy an EV when they next came to purchase.

Interest has grown, with 1.8 million EVs registered in the US in 2020, more than three times as many as four years ago, according to the International Energy Agency.

While the US accounts for 17 percent of the world’s 10.2 million EVs, China is the biggest market, with 44 percent of all cars and Europe following with 31 percent.


Saudi Arabia to introduce insurance on domestic labor contracts in 2022

Saudi Arabia to introduce insurance on domestic labor contracts in 2022
Updated 26 July 2021

Saudi Arabia to introduce insurance on domestic labor contracts in 2022

Saudi Arabia to introduce insurance on domestic labor contracts in 2022
  • Move aims to increase attractiveness of Saudi labor market
  • Recruiters must carry the cost of insuring contracts for first two years

RIYADH: Saudi Ministry of Human Resource and Social Development is expected to start implementing insurance on the domestic labor contract early in 2022 in cooperation with the Saudi Central Bank (SAMA), Al Eqtisadia paper reported.

This decision guarantees the rights and benefits of the employer and the worker, including compensating the employer for the expense of bringing in a replacement domestic worker in the event of death, inability to work, or suffering from chronic or critical diseases, according to the ministry.

The move aims to increase the attractiveness of the Saudi labor market, improve the contractual relationship between workers and employers, and reduce risks in the domestic labor recruitment market, helping to cut costs.

“Recruitment companies and agencies used to provide a 3-month trial period for the worker, compensating families for any potential damage, but once the trial period ends, the two parties are not protected, causing lot of losses to Saudi families,” Saudi development and localization specialist Saleh Al-Anzi told Arab news.

“The insurance contract protects both the worker and the employer,” he said.

The insurance will be technically linked to the mediation contract for the recruitment of domestic workers through the Musaned platform, and the ministry will issue the implementation mechanism later in cooperation with the relevant authorities, including SAMA and the Ministry of Interior, sources familiar with the matter told the paper.

Recruitment companies must carry the cost of insuring the contracts of domestic workers they bring into the country for the first two years, the Saudi Council of Ministers decreed in May.


Saudi car rental facilities to issue e-contracts starting July 25

Saudi car rental facilities to issue e-contracts starting July 25
Updated 26 July 2021

Saudi car rental facilities to issue e-contracts starting July 25

Saudi car rental facilities to issue e-contracts starting July 25
  • Car rental facilities to issue all car rental contracts on the Naql portal

RIYADH: The Saudi Transport General Authority (TGA) started implementing the first phase of the unified electronic contract for car rental starting July 25, TGA announced on its Twitter account.
The unified electronic contract obliges car rental facilities to issue all car rental contracts on the Naql portal through the rental contracts service.
This service will enable the licensed establishments to issue a unified contract with complete statutory requirements and clauses, and will contribute to preserving the rights of the lessor and the lessee, enhancing the confidence in the services provided, and raising the level of quality of services, TGA said.
The unified electronic car contract will reduce disputes and the burden on the relevant authorities and will stimulate investment in the sector, according to the TGA.
TGA launched its Distinguished Transport Partner program in May to strengthen public-private partnerships in the sector.