Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: September 25, 2019
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Business Trends
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The furore over the drone attack on the heart of Saudi oil infrastructure which shook the oil world, glossed over another important development in the heart of the Saudi oil world. Khalid al-Falih, the public face of the Saudi Arabia’s oil riches who had presided over countless OPEC and global negotiations, has fallen. Replaced swiftly by loyalists to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the shake-up heralds a new era for Saudi Arabia’s leadership in the oil world.

To understand the gravity of the situation, you have to consider the responsibilities of Khalid al-Falih. Serving as CEO of Saudi Aramco from 2009 - 2015 and as the all-powerful Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources from 2016 (while simultaneously being the chairman of Aramco), al-Falih was possibly the most powerful person in the oil world during this period. And one of the most respected as well. Responsible to corralling quarrelsome OPEC members and crafting the OPEC+ club to lift crude prices from their 2014 nadir, al-Falih had a reputation that inspired confidence. In fact, in the fallout of the Jamal Khashoggi assassination, al-Falih was tasked with restoring assurance in the Kingdom for a restless audience immediately after at the Davos in the Desert conference in Riyadh.

That was just a year ago. And now al-Falih is gone. The affair rolled out in stages. At first, it was announced that the single Ministry of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources would be split into two – one for energy and one for industry and mineral resources. At that point, it was assumed that al-Falih would remain the head of the new, smaller Ministry of Energy in charge of energy policy. A couple of days later, al-Falih was replaced as chairman of Saudi Aramco by Yasir al-Rumayyan, the head of the country’s powerful sovereign wealth fund. Again, it was assumed that this split had to happen due to the impending Aramco IPO that would require separation between energy policy and energy operations.

Then the axe fell.

Four days later, al-Falih was dismissed as the Minister of Energy, replaced with a member of the Crown Prince’s inner circle, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman. The purge was complete. With members of the Crown Prince’s inner circle now occupying the key positions, the stage was set for the Vision 2030 national plan, to transform the Saudi Arabian economy away from oil dependence. To accelerate al-Falih, with his more measured approach, was seen a roadblock. Past performance was ignored, and the change came swiftly, as it does in Saudi Arabia.

But the lead-up to that change was more nuanced. Al-Falih played a key role in crafting the Vision 2030 strategy. Under him, Saudi Aramco embarked on a massive downstream expansion that included securing stakes in key refineries in strategic markets and took over petrochemicals giant SABIC. But there he also made some decisions that apparently did not go down well the Crown Prince. Chief among this was his reticence to push forward with Aramco’s planned IPO hastily, which placed him directly in opposition to the impatient Crown Prince’s demands for dynamism. And with oil prices still subdued despite al-Falih’s best efforts to whip OPEC+ into shape, al-Falih’s position had been weakened. 

In a world where the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia demands results yesterday while al-Falih was preparing for a careful tomorrow, one had to go. So, with all positions in place to accelerate Saudi Arabia’s development plans, it should be pedal to the metal now. But without more considered approach, will the Crown Prince be able to sustain control of this speeding vehicle as al-Falih did in the past?

 Khalid al-Falih’s career in a snapshot:

  • Joined Saudi Aramco in 1979
  • Elected to Saudi Aramco Board of Directors in 2004
  • Appointed CEO of Saudi Aramco in 2009
  • Appointed Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources in 2017
  • Dismissed from all positions in September 2019

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Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Prince Salman Khalid al-Falih Sabic Aramco Saudi Arabia Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman
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Saudi Aramco Moves Into Russia’s Backyard

International expansions for Saudi Aramco – the largest oil company in the world – are not uncommon. But up to this point, those expansions have followed a certain logic: to create entrenched demand for Saudi crude in the world’s largest consuming markets. But Saudi champion’s latest expansion move defies, or perhaps, changes that logic, as Aramco returns to Europe. And not just any part of Europe, but Eastern Europe – an area of the world dominated by Russia – as Saudi Aramco acquires downstream assets from Poland’s PKN Orlen and signs quite a significant crude supply deal. How is this important? Let us examine.

First, the deal itself and its history. As part of the current Polish government’s plan to strengthen its national ‘crown jewels’ in line with its more nationalistic stance, state energy firm PKN Orlen announced plans to purchase its fellow Polish rival (and also state-owned) Grupa Lotos. The outright purchase fell afoul of EU anti-competition rules, which meant that PKN Orlen had to divest some Lotos assets in order to win approval of the deal. Some of the Lotos assets – including 417 fuel stations – are being sold to Hungary’s MOL, which will also sign a long-term fuel supply agreement with PKN Orlen for the newly-acquired sites, while PKN Orlen will gain fuel retail assets in Hungary and Slovakia as part of the deal. But, more interestingly, PKN Orlen has chosen to sell a 30% stake in the Lotos Gdansk refinery in Poland (with a crude processing capacity of 210,000 bd) to Saudi Aramco, alongside a stake in a fuel logistic subsidiary and jet fuel joint venture supply arrangement between Lotos and BP. In return, PKN Orlen will also sign a long-term contract to purchase between 200,000-337,000 b/d of crude from Aramco, which is an addition to the current contract for 100,000 b/d of Saudi crude that already exists. At a maximum, that figure will cover more than half of Poland’s crude oil requirements, but PKN Orlen has also said that it plans to direct some of that new supply to several of its other refineries elsewhere in Lithuania and the Czech Republic.

For Saudi Aramco, this is very interesting. While Aramco has always been a presence in Europe as a major crude supplier, its expansion plans over the past decade have been focused elsewhere. In the US, where it acquired full ownership of the Motiva joint venture from Shell in 2017. In doing so, it acquired control of Port Arthur, the largest refinery in North America, and has been on a petrochemicals-focused expansion since. In Asia, where Aramco has been busy creating significant nodes for its crude – in China, in India and in Malaysia (to serve the Southeast Asia and facilitate trade). And at home, where the focus has on expanding refining and petrochemical capacity, and strengthen its natural gas position. So this expansion in Europe – a mature market with a low ceiling for growth, even in Eastern Europe, is interesting. Why Poland, and not East or southern Africa? The answer seems fairly obvious: Russia.

The current era of relatively peaceful cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Russia in the oil sphere is recent. Very recent. It was not too long ago that Saudi Arabia and Russia were locked in a crude price war, which had devastating consequences, and ultimately led to the détente through OPEC+ that presaged an unprecedented supply control deal. That was through necessity, as the world faced the far ranging impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. But remove that lens of cooperation, and Saudi Arabia and Russia are actual rivals. With the current supply easing strategy through OPEC+ gradually coming to an end, this could remove the need for the that club (by say 2H 2022). And with Russia not being part of OPEC itself – where Saudi Arabia is the kingpin – cooperation is no longer necessary once the world returns to normality.

So the Polish deal is canny. In a statement, Aramco stated that ‘the investments will widen (our) presence in the European downstream sector and further expand (our) crude imports into Poland, which aligns with PKN Orlen’s strategy of diversifying its energy supplies’. Which hints at the other geopolitical aspect in play. Europe’s major reliance on Russia for its crude and natural gas has been a minefield – see the recent price chaos in the European natural gas markets – and countries that were formally under the Soviet sphere of influence have been trying to wean themselves off reliance from a politically unpredictable neighbour. Poland’s current disillusion with EU membership (at least from the ruling party) are well-documented, but its entanglement with Russia is existential. The Cold War is not more than 30 years gone.

For Saudi Aramco, the move aligns with its desire to optimise export sales from its Red Sea-facing terminals Yanbu, Jeddah, Shuqaiq and Rabigh, which have closer access to Europe through the Suez Canal. It is for the same reason that Aramco’s trading subsidiary ATC recently signed a deal with German refiner/trader Klesch Group for a 3-year supply of 110,000 b/d crude. It would seem that Saudi Arabia is anticipating an eventual end to the OPEC+ era of cooperative and a return to rivalry. And in a rivalry, that means having to make power moves. The PKN Orlen deal is a power move, since it brings Aramco squarely in Russia’s backyard, directly displacing Russian market share. Not just in Poland, but in other markets as well. And with a geopolitical situation that is fragile – see the recent tensions about Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian borders – that plays into Aramco’s hands. European sales make up only a fraction of the daily flotilla of Saudi crude to enters international markets, but even though European consumption is in structural decline, there are still volumes required.

How will Russia react? Politically, it is on the backfoot, but its entrenched positions in Europe allows it to hold plenty of sway. European reservations about the Putin administration and climate change goals do not detract from commercial reality that Europe needs energy now. The debate of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is proof of that. Russian crude freed up from being directed to Eastern Europe means a surplus to sell elsewhere. Which means that Russia will be looking at deals with other countries and refiners, possibly in markets with Aramco is dominant. That level of tension won’t be seen for a while – these deals takes months and years to complete – but we can certainly expect that agitation to be reflected in upcoming OPEC+ discussions. The club recently endorsed another expected 400,000 b/d of supply easing for January. Reading the tea leaves – of which the PKN Orlen is one – makes it sound like there will not be much more cooperation beyond April, once the supply deal is anticipated to end.

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Market Outlook:

-       Crude price trading range: Brent – US$86-88/b, WTI – US$84-86/b

-       Crude oil benchmarks globally continue their gain streak for a fifth week, as the market bounces back from the lows seen in early December as the threat of the Omicron virus variant fades and signs point to tightening balances on strong consumption

-       This could set the stage for US$100/b oil by midyear – as predicted by several key analysts – as consumption rebounds ahead of summer travel and OPEC+ remains locked into its gradual consumption easing schedule 

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