Oil crown jewels no longer off limits in Gulf

Big deal: Saudi Aramco engineers working in eastern Saudi Arabia. The world’s biggest crude producer says a US-led group would invest US$12.4bil in its oil pipelines. ─ AFP

NEW YORK: There was a time when the Middle East’s petrostates recoiled from using their crown jewels to raise money from foreign investors.

Not any more. In the space of a few weeks, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Oman and Kuwait have all accelerated multi-billion-dollar plans to sell energy assets or issue bonds off the back of them. Capping that trend, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Tuesday the kingdom was in talks with an unidentified “global energy company” to sell a stake worth about US$20bil (RM82bil) in state oil firm Aramco.

The shift underscores how countries in a region home to almost half the world’s oil reserves are taking advantage of the recovery in energy prices following last year’s coronavirus-triggered crash to bolster their ailing finances. The global transition to greener energy is only adding to the urgency, with governments requiring fresh funds to invest in new sectors and diversify their economies. And investors, hobbled by record low interest rates, are grabbing the opportunity.

“It makes sense for these countries to sell stakes when valuations are good, ” said Justin Alexander, chief economist at MENA Advisors, a United Kingdom-based consultancy. “Some of it’s fiscal. Some of it’s a growing recognition of the speed of the energy transition and the need to realise value from these assets.”

Oil exporters in the Middle East saw their budget deficits balloon to 10.8% of gross domestic product (GDP) last year from barely 3% in 2019, according to the International Monetary Fund. GDP in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar shrunk the most in about three decades.

Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest crude producer, and Adnoc, which pumps almost all the UAE’s oil and gas, have been the most active of the region’s state companies. Both started privatisations before the pandemic, with Aramco listing on Riyadh’s stock market in 2019 and Adnoc selling part of fuel-distribution business in late 2017, also through an initial public offering (IPO).

The deals have since increased in number and sophistication – as has the focus on foreign money. On April 10, Aramco said a United States-led group would invest US$12.4bil in its oil pipelines. Its next deal may be an offering of a stake in its natural-gas network. For its part, Adnoc is planning IPOs of drilling and fertiliser units. These would follow a string of transactions from June 2020 that saw the likes of Brookfield Asset Management Inc and Apollo Global Management Inc invest about US$15bil in the Abu Dhabi-based firm’s gas pipelines and real estate.

Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, sees Aramco as a key part of his Vision 2030, the grand project designed to boost everything from tourism to investments in solar parks and pharmaceuticals. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE has similar ideas for Adnoc, and in March gave himself more control over the firm he’s shaking up to wring more cash out of.

Amid the flurry of activity, the companies have been careful to structure transactions such that they don’t lose sway over marquee assets. When subsidiaries are sold down, they keep hold of the bulk of the shares. With the pipeline deals, Aramco and Adnoc offered decades-long leasing rights rather than direct equity. Boutique Wall Street bank Moelis & Co is acting as adviser to both firms.

“The Gulf national oil companies have realised they can sell bits and pieces of their empire, raising cash without giving up control, ” said Ben Cahill, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “For the companies and governments, it is a pretty good combination.”

Elsewhere in the Gulf, Qatar Petroleum and Omani state companies such as OQ SAOC are planning to tap the dollar-bond market for the first time. Qatar Petroleum is seeking as much as US$10bil to increase its capacity to export liquefied natural gas.

Qatar is among the world’s richest countries per capita and in the past the government may have funded the US$29bil project using its own money. But it’s now trying to reduce a debt load that swelled last year, Fitch Ratings Ltd said in a report on Monday. Leveraging state-owned firms allows the government to protect its own balance sheet.

Oman’s OQ on Wednesday started the sale of at least US$500mil of seven-year Eurobonds. Energy Development Oman, another state firm, may follow later this year as it seeks to raise US$3bil of debt. The plans are part of a broad shake-up of the oil sector since Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq came to power little more than a year ago. He’s seeking to attract foreign funding and rejuvenate the battered economy.

Meanwhile, Kuwait Petroleum Corp is considering its first international bond. ─ Bloomberg

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