That Saudi Arabia and Iran are rivals in more than one way is known. Politically, religiously and commercially, the two countries butt heads, to exert control over the Middle East. Now, a new front is opening up in that spat, as Iran moves to expand its oil trade in Asia.
This is not a particularly new development; Iran has been attempting this for years, but international sanctions put in place to limit and moderate the country’s nuclear program scared many Asian buyers away, fearing that they would be locked off of the international financial system by strict rules prohibiting companies engaging with Iran from connecting to US and European banks. The sanctions were lifted in January this year. The beast is back. And it is hungry.
Iranian exports have doubled since the sanctions were lifted, loading some 2.31 million bd of crude and condensate for June exports. Some of this increase has gone to Europe, with Iran reducing the price at which it sells to Europe to tempt buyers. But most of the volumes are going to Asia, where Iran has conversely raised crude prices, squeezing more margins out of improving Asian demand. South Korea, Japan, India, Indonesia and Thailand have also reported increased imports of Iranian crude over the last six months, with China taking large volumes. Talks of investing in Iranian upgrade and LNG projects – from South Korea, Japan and the Philippines – is also happening. Korean shipyards are also building some US$2.4 billion worth of ships for Iranian firms, solving an issue that previously plagued the country – during the sanctions, there were buyers in Asia willing to flout the rules to purchase the crude, but shippers either refused to carry the cargo or could not because they could not secure insurance. With the sanctions lifted, Asian and European tankers have already returned to the fray, and Iran is also planning a US$3 billion export-focused refinery in Sarif to expand into products.
There is room to grow – Iran can theoretically export some 4 million bd of crude and condensate a day; and it intends to. This puts it in opposition with Saudi Arabia and OPEC, as a ramp-up of that scale would force downward pressure on global prices and necessitate a cut in another producer, something that no country is willing to do. Iran sees this is a restoration of its oil hegemony, penance for being kept out in the cold for years; Saudi Arabia balks at that, but turning up the taps to ‘punish’ Iran would just hit other members, including Nigeria, where oil output is down due to sabotage and where a return to US$40 crude would be a disaster. Saudi Arabia can afford to be flexible; Iran is staying obstinate, undercutting Aramco in pricing where it can. And as long as this plays out, the most Saudi Arabia can do is to match Iran’s moves to sell (with other producers, particularly Russia, circling round to capitalise on moments of weakness) – and Asian players, and consumers, will be the beneficiary.
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When it was first announced in 2012, there was scepticism about whether or not Petronas’ RAPID refinery in Johor was destined for reality or cancellation. It came at a time when the refining industry saw multiple ambitious, sometimes unpractical, projects announced. At that point, Petronas – though one of the most respected state oil firms – was still seen as more of an upstream player internationally. Its downstream forays were largely confined to its home base Malaysia and specialty chemicals, as well as a surprising venture into South African through Engen. Its refineries, too, were relatively small. So the announcement that Petronas was planning essentially, its own Jamnagar, promoted some pessimism. Could it succeed?
It has. The RAPID refinery – part of a larger plan to turn the Pengerang district in southern Johor into an oil refining and storage hub capitalising on linkages with Singapore – received its first cargo of crude oil for testing in September 2018. Mechanical completion was achieved on November 29 and all critical units have begun commissioning ahead of the expected firing up of RAPID’s 300 kb/d CDU later this month. A second cargo of 2 million barrels of Saudi crude arrived at RAPID last week. It seems like it’s all systems go for RAPID. But it wasn’t always so clear cut. Financing difficulties – and the 2015 crude oil price crash – put the US$27 billion project on shaky ground for a while, and it was only when Saudi Aramco swooped in to purchase a US$7 billion stake in the project that it started coalescing. Petronas had been courting Aramco since the start of the project, mainly as a crude provider, but having the Saudi giant on board was the final step towards FID. It guaranteed a stable supply of crude for Petronas; and for Aramco, RAPID gave it a foothold in a major global refining hub area as part of its strategy to expand downstream.
But RAPID will be entering into a market quite different than when it was first announced. In 2012, demand for fuel products was concentrated on light distillates; in 2019, that focus has changed. Impending new International Maritime Organisation (IMO) regulations are requiring shippers to switch from burning cheap (and dirty) fuel oil to using cleaner middle distillate gasoils. This plays well into complex refineries like RAPID, specialising in cracking heavy and medium Arabian crude into valuable products. But the issue is that Asia and the rest of the world is currently swamped with gasoline. A whole host of new Asian refineries – the latest being the 200 kb/d Nghi Son in Vietnam – have contributed to growing volumes of gasoline with no home in Asia. Gasoline refining margins in Singapore have taken a hit, falling into negative territory for the first time in seven years. Adding RAPID to the equation places more pressure on gasoline margins, even though margins for middle distillates are still very healthy. And with three other large Asian refinery projects scheduled to come online in 2019 – one in Brunei and two in China – that glut will only grow.
The safety valve for RAPID (and indeed the other refineries due this year) is that they have been planned with deep petrochemicals integration, using naphtha produced from the refinery portion. RAPID itself is planned to have capacity of 3 million tpa of ethylene, propylene and other olefins – still a lucrative market that justifies the mega-investment. But it will be at least two years before RAPID’s petrochemicals portion will be ready to start up, and when it does, it’ll face the same set of challenging circumstances as refineries like Hengli’s 400 kb/d Dalian Changxing plant also bring online their petchem operations. But that is a problem for the future and for now, RAPID is first out of the gate into reality. It won’t be entering in a bonanza fuels market as predicted in 2012, but there is still space in the market for RAPID – and a few other like in – at least for now.
RAPID Refinery Factsheet:
Tyre market in Bangladesh is forecasted to grow at over 9% until 2020 on the back of growth in automobile sales, advancements in public infrastructure, and development-seeking government policies.
The government has emphasized on the road infrastructure of the country, which has been instrumental in driving vehicle sales in the country.
The tyre market reached Tk 4,750 crore last year, up from about Tk 4,000 crore in 2017, according to market insiders.
The commercial vehicle tyre segment dominates this industry with around 80% of the market share. At least 1.5 lakh pieces of tyres in the segment were sold in 2018.
In the commercial vehicle tyre segment, the MRF's market share is 30%. Apollo controls 5% of the segment, Birla 10%, CEAT 3%, and Hankook 1%. The rest 51% is controlled by non-branded Chinese tyres.
However, Bangladesh mostly lacks in tyre manufacturing setups, which leads to tyre imports from other countries as the only feasible option to meet the demand. The company largely imports tyre from China, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan.
Automobile and tyre sales in Bangladesh are expected to grow with the rising in purchasing power of people as well as growing investments and joint ventures of foreign market players. The country might become the exporting destination for global tyre manufacturers.
Several global tyre giants have also expressed interest in making significant investments by setting up their manufacturing units in the country.
This reflects an opportunity for local companies to set up an indigenous manufacturing base in Bangladesh and also enables foreign players to set up their localized production facilities to capture a significant market.
It can be said that, the rise in automobile sales, improvement in public infrastructure, and growth in purchasing power to drive the tyre market over the next five years.
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 14 January 2019 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$51/b
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