x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

How balance of power in supplies has shifted as East eclipses West

Oil 2014: The global configuration of Abu Dhabi's oil concession partners has been broken and coalesced several times, and geostrategic considerations are now based on a much-changed picture.

So what qualifies an international oil company to drill in Abu Dhabi?

When in 1939 the original players signed up to explore and produce onshore oilfields for the next 75 years, the world - and Abu Dhabi - was a very different place. The Second World War broke out that year and confirmed the strategic importance of access to oil.

The main concession partners hailed from the dominant western powers active in the Middle East - the United States, the United Kingdom and France. The global configuration of power has since broken and coalesced several times, and geostrategic considerations are now based on a much-changed picture.

While Middle Eastern crude was in the past typically shipped off to Europe or the US, the West now receives but a relative trickle of the oil making its way out of the Arabian Gulf. Tankers no longer take a sharp right as soon as they have passed through the Strait of Hormuz, but make their way through the Gulf to round the tip of India and into Asian waters. More than 85 per cent of Gulf oil finds its way to Asia, estimates the US energy information administration.

This massive shift in the consumer base haschanged the shape of Abu Dhabi's oil sector, as Asian players have pushed for inclusion. Japan's oil companies were the first to appear from the East, and have partnered with Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) in its offshore production.

Abu Dhabi has also paid tribute to the rise of China and Korea as economic powerhouses, and last year signed agreements that will allow oil companies from both countries to dig for hydrocarbons in as yet unexplored parts of the emirate.

Asian national oil companies also feature in the bidding for the main onshore concession that will be renewed next year, produced by the Adnoc subsidiary Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations (Adco). They are joined by the big existing shareholders BP, ExxonMobil, Shell and Total, and some smaller western players.

While the Asians believe they are in contention as the main recipients of Abu Dhabi oil, the existing operators talk of the importance of established ties and a long-time presence in the emirate. France's Total is most explicit about this, and billboard advertisements draw attention to the company's activities in Abu Dhabi over the past 74 years.

Its competitors begrudgingly acknowledge that Total has done a good job building relationships and remark in private that they should be "a bit more French" themselves.

The temporary exclusion of BP from the bidding process shows that the relevance of historical ties is limited, and overconfidence on the part of the established players would be misplaced. Partex, a Portuguese company that holds a small sliver in the current concession, is not on the list of bidders, despite the crucial role played by its founder, Calouste Gulbenkian, in bringing the partnership together in the 1920s.

The inclusion of relatively smaller companies such as Norway's Statoil shows that Adnoc understands the value of technology. With its oilfields maturing, enhanced oil recovery methods will become increasingly important. This is especially true because Adnoc has ambitious targets for recovery rates, set at twice the current average. Outfits with specialised knowledge could play a valuable part in future production.

For all the factors to be considered by the Supreme Petroleum Council, the body that decides on oil matters in the emirate, Abu Dhabi knows how to do business, and it will drive a hard bargain.

Regardless of trade flows, history and technology, companies will have to be prepared to pay the price for easily accessible oil in a politically stable country.