At the start of February, a major new find was jointly announced by the two largest emirates within the UAE: the oil-rich Abu Dhabi and the ambitious Dubai. Between them, they literally made the world’s largest natural gas discovery since 2005. Located at the border between the two sheikdoms, the Jebel Ali field is estimated to contain some 80 trillion scf of natural gas, the largest global find since the Galkynysh field in Turkmenistan.
Stretching over 5,000 square km, an exploration campaign by Abu Dhabi involving over 10 wells confirmed the enormous discovery in early January 2020. The shallow nature of the onshore reserves should make it easier to extract gas at lower costs, hastening the time-to-market. At current estimated figures, Jebel Ali would be the fourth-largest gas field in the Middle East, behind Qatar’s North Field, Iran’s South Pars and Abu Dhabi’s own Bab field.
The politics of the UAE can be complicated; each emirate is essentially self-governing with federal oversight, which is dominated by Abu Dhabi and Dubai (which always hold the President and Prime Minister roles, according to convention). This essentially means that each emirate has grew quite independently. Fujairah, for example, developed into a bunkering port, while Sharjah went into industry and manufacturing. Dubai is globally famous for its titanic real estate projects, pursued finance, services and media, while Abu Dhabi, the largest and most blessed of all with hydrocarbon resources, turned into an energy powerhouse. Oil & gas wealth in the UAE is mainly in Abu Dhabi; so while the Jebel Ali discovery is a welcome addition for Abu Dhabi, it is a game changer for Dubai, which imports most of its energy needs.
Speculation has raised that possibility that the Jebel Ali field could vault the UAE into gas self-sufficiency, because even Abu Dhabi imports gas. The UAE has a stated goal to be gas independent by 2030. On paper, that’s possible. Abu Dhabi’s ADNOC has agreed to develop the field with Dubai’s gas supplier, the Dubai Supply Authority (DUSUP), with the entire supply will be channel to DUSUP for use in Dubai. Jebel Ali could begin producing gas by 2023, and will likely be distributed domestically through pipeline. The enormous reserves could supply the entire UAE’s gas demand for nearly 30 years, assuming optimal recovery conditions. However, in practice, self-sufficiency might take longer to achieve.
Dubai and indeed, Abu Dhabi are currently reliant on Qatar for their gas supply. An existing sales agreement that expires in 2032 sees Qatar pipe 2 bcf/d of gas to the UAE through Abu Dhabi. The problem is that these neighbours are erstwhile friends. A division in the Middle East between the pro-Saudi Arabia and pro-Iran blocs has caused a rift. Led by Saudi Arabia, several Persian Gulf states including the UAE implemented a diplomatic and trade blockade on Qatar, isolating it. The blockade, slightly weakened, still continues today. Even now, planes flying into Qatar have to make strange manoeuvres when approaching to avoid encroaching on Saudi and UAE airspace. However, the gas supply arrangement remains in place.
And this is where the Jebel Ali discovery could come in handy. Qatar is already on track to be self-sufficient in gas terms by 2025, but will probably honour the Qatar deal until expiration. Dubai has been increasingly reliant on LNG through an FSRU for power generation, but has attempted over the years to kick-start a number of coal or solar-power projects. Jebel Ali won’t kick the addiction, but it could definitely reduce Dubai’s reliance on Qatari gas.
Jebel Ali wasn’t the only recent gas discovery made in the UAE. Further north, the Sharjah National Oil Corp and Italy’s Eni announced a new onshore gas and condensate discovery. Though tiny in comparison to Jebel Ali, some 50 mscf/d of lean gas and condensate. The cumulative effects of these discoveries could make gas self-sufficiency a reality sooner. At this point, the UAE consumes some 7.4 bcf gas per day, while marketed production is some 6.2 bcf/d. An ambitious plan to develop Abu Dhabi’s large gas fields was the rationale behind naming the 2030 self-sufficiency deadline. With the discovery of Jebel Ali, that can now be brought forward by a couple of years at least. And there might even be some left over to be exported as LNG
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On 10 December 2021, if all goes to plan Royal Dutch Shell will become just Shell. The energy supermajor will move its headquarters from The Hague in The Netherlands to London, UK. At least three-quarters of the company’s shareholders must vote in favour of the change at the upcoming general meeting, which has been sold by Shell as a means of simplifying its corporate structure and better return value to shareholders, as well as be ‘better positioned to seize opportunities and play a leading role in the energy transition’. In doing so, it will no longer meet Dutch conditions for ‘royal’ designation, dropping a moniker that has defined the company through decades of evolution since 1907.
But why this and why now?
There is a complex web of reasons why, some internal and some external but the ultimate reason boils down to improving growth sustainability. Royal Dutch Shell was born through the merger of Shell Transport and Trading Company (based in the UK) and Royal Dutch (based in The Netherlands) in 1907, with both companies engaging in exploration activities ranging from seashells to crude oil. Unified across international borders, Royal Dutch Shell emerged as Europe’s answer to John D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil empire, as the race to exploit oil (and later natural gas) reserves spilled out over the world. Along the way, Royal Dutch Shell chalked up a number of achievements including establishing the iconic Brent field in the North Sea to striking the first commercial oil in Nigeria. Unlike Standard Oil which was dissolved into 34 smaller companies in 1911, Royal Dutch Shell remained intact, operating as two entities until 2005, when they were finally combined in a dual-nationality structure: incorporated in the UK, but residing in the Netherlands. This managed to satisfy the national claims both countries make on the supermajor, second only to ExxonMobil in revenue and profits but proved to be costly to maintain. In 2020, fellow Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever also ditched its dual structure, opting to be based fully out of the City of London. In that sense, Shell is following the direction of the wind, as forces in its (soon to be former) home country turn sour.
There is a specific grievance that Royal Dutch Shell has with the Dutch government, the 15% dividend tax collected for Dutch-domiciled companies. It is the reason why Unilever abandoned Rotterdam and is now the reason why Shell is abandoning The Hague. And this point is particularly existentialist for Shell, since its share prices has been battered in recent years following the industry downturn since 2015, the global pandemic and being in the crosshairs of climate change activists as an emblem of why the world’s average temperatures are going haywire. The latter has already caused the largest Dutch state pension fund ABP to stop investing in fossil fuels, thereby divesting itself of Royal Dutch Shell. This was largely a symbolic move, but as religious figures will know, symbols themselves carry much power. To combat this, Shell has done two things. First, it has positioned itself to be at the forefront of energy transition, announcing ambitious emissions reductions plans in line with its European counterparts to become carbon neutral by 2050. Second, it is looking to bump up its dividend payouts after slashing them through the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic and accelerating share buybacks to remain the bluest of blue-chip stocks. But then, earlier this year, a Dutch court ruled that Shell’s emissions targets were ‘not ambitious enough’, ordering a stricter aim within a tighter timeframe. And the 15% dividend tax remains – even though Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s coalition government has been attempting to scrap it, with (it is presumed) some lobbying from Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever.
As simplistic it is to think that Shell is leaving for London believes the citizens of the Netherlands has turned its back on the company, the ultimate reason was the dividend tax. Reportedly, CEO Ben van Buerden called up Mark Rutte on Sunday informing him of the planned move. Rutte’s reaction, it is said was of dismay. And he embarked on a last-ditch effort to persuade Royal Dutch Shell to change its mind, by immediately lobbying his government’s coalition partners to back an abolition of the dividend tax. The reaction was perhaps not what he expected, with left-wing and green parties calling Shell’s threat ‘blackmail’. With democracy drawing a line, Shell decided to walk; or at least present an exit plan endorsed by its Board to be voted by shareholders. Many in the Netherlands see Shell’s exit and the loss of the moniker Royal Dutch – as a blow to national pride, especially since the country has been basking in the glow of expanded reputation as a result of post-Brexit migration of financial activities to Amsterdam from London. The UK, on the other hand, sees Shell’s decision and Unilever’s – as an endorsement of the country’s post-Brexit potential.
The move, if passed and in its initial stages, will be mainly structural, transferring the tax residence of Shell to London. Just ten top executives including van Buerden and CFO Jessica Uhl will be making the move to London. Three major arms – Projects and Technology, Global Upstream and Integrated Gas and Renewable Energies – will remain in The Hague. As will Shell’s massive physical reach on Dutch soil: the huge integrated refinery in Pernis, the biofuels hub in Rotterdam, the country’s first offshore wind farm and the mammoth Porthos carbon capture project that will funnel emissions from Rotterdam to be stored in empty North Sea gas fields. And Shell’s troubles with activists will still continue. British climate change activists are as, if not more aggressive as their Dutch counterpart, this being the country where Extinction Rebellion was born. Perhaps more of a threat is activist investor Third Point, which recently acquired a chunk of Shell shares and has been advocating splitting the company into two – a legacy business for fossil fuels and a futures-focused business for renewables.
So Shell’s business remains, even though its address has changed. In the grand scheme of things, never mind the small matter of Dutch national pride – Royal Dutch Shell’s roadmap to remain an investment icon and a major driver of energy transition will continue in its current form. This is a quibble about money or rather, tax – that will have little to no impact on Shell’s operations or on its ambitions. Royal Dutch Shell is poised to become just Shell. Different name and a different house, but the same contents. Unless, of course, Queen Elizabeth II decides to provide royal assent, in which case, Shell might one day become Royal British Shell.
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