Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: June 26, 2020
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Business Trends
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The sale of a mere 5% stake in the oil world’s crown jewel, Saudi Aramco had captured the attention of the entire investment community last year. Pushing through after years of debate and delays, the sale on the Tadawul stock exchange valued Aramco at a whopping initial US$1.6 trillion. Investors were mainly connected Saudi individuals and wealthy families, with international buy-in limited as a planned parallel listing on the London or New York Stock Exchange fell through. Still, the deal was enough to unleash several thousand pages of speculation and opinion over potential liberalisation of the oil and gas complex in the Middle East, especially the upcoming post-oil and carbon-neutral environment.

Aramco may have captured all the main headlines, especially with its huge acquisition of fellow Saudi jewel SABIC but the true entity pushing the boundaries of privatisation and deregulation in the Middle East is elsewhere. Specifically, just east of Saudi Arabia, in Abu Dhabi – the largest and most influential of the seven emirates that make up the UAE.

The latest headline involving ADNOC, Abu Dhabi’s state oil firm, hasn’t really made the rounds beyond the industry’s eyes but it is crucial to understanding how the Middle East oil sector could adapt to the changing industry over the next few decades. Partnering with a consortium of six investors, ADNOC has sold a 49% stake in its ADNOC Gas Pipeline Assets subsidiary, retaining a 51% majority stake and control. The sale had been bandied around for over a year, seen as a sign of a gradual opening of a tightly controlled oil and gas region, and follows three other significant sales involving ADNOC. The first was in 2017, when ADNOC raised nearly a billion US dollars through an IPO of its fuels distribution unit on the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange, offering up 10% of its shares. Then late 2019, ADNOC partnered with Italy’s Eni and Austria’s OMV to nearly double oil refining capacity in Abu Dhabi to 1.5 mmb/d – the largest foreign participation in the Middle East downstream industry since the Shell Pearl GTL project in Qatar and Total’s Jubail refining and petrochemicals push over a decade ago. Around the same time, ADNOC also pocketed US$4 billion from US investment giants BlackRock and KKR through the sale of a 40% stake in its ADNOC Oil Pipelines subsidiary. And now it is the turn of ADNOC’s gas pipelines.

The chronology and regional aspect of ADNOC’s moves is interesting. While Aramco looks local, Abu Dhabi went abroad. The refining expansion involved established oil market players, Eni and OMV – and parallels a gradual unbundling of Abu Dhabi’s upstream concessions, where stakes have been offered to Total, PetroChina, Eni, Cepsa and India’s ONGC over the past five years. But the choice of new investors are now not from the industry. After the deep-pocketed BlackRock and KKR, ADNOC has once against turned to institutional investors for its latest, and largest, sale, with the US$20.7 billion gas pipeline and infrastructure deal going to a consortium consisting of Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP), Brookfield Asset Management, Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan Board, Singapore’s GIC sovereign wealth fund, NH Investment and Securities and Italy’s infrastructure operator SNAM. ADNOC called the deal a ‘landmark investment (that) signals continued strong interest in ADNOC’s low-risk, income-generating assets’. But it also illustrates two other points: institutional interest in strategic Middle East assets and the challenging environment within the industry because of Covid-19 that has led investment interest expanding to new capital that is currently reluctant to make risky bets in an unstable economic environment. So the choice of ADNOC’s safe assets and a captive domestic market is rather attractive.

ADNOC’s strategy differs from Aramco’s fundamentally. Where Aramco sold a stake of itself, ADNOC has parcelled out different parts of itself while keeping control of the main body intact. This is what Malaysia’s Petronas has done to a great degree of success, listing subsidiaries through IPOs and partnering with foreign investors on upstream/downstream projects, using the proceeds to finance a global expansion that now stretches across all continents. Replicating this strategy, as ADNOC looks to be doing, could pay dividends, particularly since ADNOC has a wider domestic base, as well as stronger export markets, than Petronas. Between Saudi Aramco and ADNOC, the OPEC duo seems to have kickstarted a liberalisation drive within the Middle East energy complex. Kuwait Petroleum and Bahrain’s BAPCO are already reported to be considering similar moves. Which model could this second wave follow: Aramco’s or ADNOC’s? Aramco’s is a shock-and-awe move, a potential wow factor at the size of any possible deal. But ADNOC’s more piecemeal approach could actually be far more stable and sustainable over time.

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$39-42/b, WTI – US$37-40/b
  • Signs that the oil demand recovery has been better-than-expected as economies re-open have been tempered by fears that a resurgence of Covid-19 infections is on the horizon
  • The US recorded its highest single-day case number this week, while Europe recorded its first increase in a month and cases in Latin America and India are accelerating, prompting fears that a second round of lockdowns was necessary
  • Economies will have more time to prepare for a second round of lockdowns, but the disruption will still snuff out any current nascent improvement in demand
  • This will weigh heavily on OPEC, as it now has to consider another extension beyond the end of July, although compliance has improved among the OPEC+ club as Iraq, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Angola, Gabon and Brunei all submitted new output schedules

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