x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Boardroom battle at Oxy translates to oil on troubled waters

A boardroom battle at Occidental Petroleum matters to the Middle East, and particularly to Abu Dhabi.

'He who excuses himself, accuses himself," as the French proverb has it. In this spirit, Occidental Petroleum denied last month that there was a fight at the top between the chairman and former chief executive Ray Irani, and the current chief executive Stephen Chazen. But on Friday, shareholders forced out Mr Irani, a year ahead of his planned retirement.

Occidental has a tradition of larger-than-life chief executives. The philanthropist and art collector Armand Hammer ran the company from 1957 to 1990, dealt extensively with the Soviet Union and pioneered oil in Libya. Mr Irani succeeded him, but in 2011 was kicked upstairs to chairman, after controversy over his long tenure and US$857 million of compensation received over a decade.

While he was chief financial officer, Mr Chazen had concentrated on cutting costs, Occidental's shares fell 18 per cent in the past year, after it expensively ramped up its US activities. In February, the Oxy board announced it was seeking a successor to him after just two years in the job, a move believed to be inspired by Mr Irani.

The result of this boardroom battle matters to the Middle East, and particularly to Abu Dhabi. Occidental is an unusual beast. At a market capitalisation of $73 billion, it is the same size as ConocoPhillips, and far bigger than any rival international oil company (IOC), other than supermajors such as Shell and ExxonMobil.

Outside the magic circle of supermajors, it is the only IOC to have a significant Middle East position. Mr Irani and the lead independent director, Aziz Syriani, have roots in the region, both born in Beirut. Occidental has established strong relations with Abu Dhabi and its strategic investment company, Mubadala.

Occidental holds a quarter of the Dolphin gas project (Mubadala holds 51 per cent), which supplies a major part of the UAE's gas needs from Qatar, and is developing Abu Dhabi's Shah field. It also works with Mubadala in both Bahrain and Oman and has assets in Iraq, Yemen and Libya. Shah, whose "sour" gas is laced with toxic, corrosive hydrogen sulphide, and Oman's Mukhaizna heavy oilfield, are giant, technically challenging projects that have suffered from budget overruns.

Another source of conflict with Mr Irani was Mr Chazen's apparent openness to a break-up of the company, which some analysts believe could raise its value by 30 per cent. Indeed, some investors, including Stephen Romick of First Pacific Advisors, see the company's Middle East position as more of a liability. Mr Romick wrote to the Occidental Board complaining about the region's long negotiation periods, tough contract terms and geopolitical risk.

Occidental's Middle East assets, accounting for 40 per cent of its production, could be worth $25 billion to $35bn. They might attract a supermajor or a deep-pocketed Asian national oil company such as PetroChina. Such a buyer might even team up with Mubadala itself to make a joint bid.

United States investors' negative view of the Middle East overlooks its positive features: giant, long-lived reserves and much lower production costs than in the US, a virtue that will become apparent if oil prices fall. And only from a vantage point in the US does it seem reasonable to conflate geopolitical risk in Libya and Yemen with that in the UAE, Qatar or Oman.

But Gulf governments should be worried when a company such as Occidental considers departing: it is not healthy to have the same shortlist of supermajors and a few Asian national oil companies competing for every opportunity.

Project awards need to be much faster and more transparent. Fiscal terms, even if stringent, need to be more flexible. And the region should market its hydrocarbon sectors better - including to the US investor community. A Los Angeles boardroom battle tells us that Middle East oil is no longer seen as the crown jewel it ought to be.


Robin Mills is the head of consulting at Manaar Energy and the author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis and Capturing Carbon.