x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Qatar impresses in energy but cannot rest on its laurels

Qatar's money is no accident - it is the result of choices it has made. Some of those choices were cautious and sensible, some bold, some lucky. Their success shows up the failings of other countries that could not capitalise on their resources.

An LNG tanker is loaded with gas at the Ras Laffan port in Qatar, which is also home to the world's largest gasfield. AP Photo
An LNG tanker is loaded with gas at the Ras Laffan port in Qatar, which is also home to the world's largest gasfield. AP Photo
Discussion of the abdication of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, has paid much attention to his country's outsize role in international politics. Much discourse seemed to assume the country's wealth, used to fuel its rise to eminence, was almost a fact of nature, an inevitable side effect of owning the world's largest gasfield.
But Qatar's money is no accident - it is the result of choices made by Sheikh Hamad and his advisers, and even well before them. Some of those choices were cautious and sensible, some bold, some lucky. Their success shows up the failings of other countries that could not capitalise on their resources.
The North Field, the world's largest gasfield, was discovered by Shell in 1971. But it took some years for its immense size to be appreciated. Even then, with barely over 45,000 Qataris and 66,000 expatriates, there was simply no local need for the gas. Qatar's 1977 nationalisation of Shell's assets - at the time Shell was the world's leading liquefied natural gas (LNG) company - did not help.
In 1991, production finally began for local use, but the real prize was exports. During the 1980s, plans to sell LNG to Japan had advanced at a slow pace hardly distinguishable from paralysis. Global oil and gas prices were low and BP withdrew in 1992 - a decision it must now bitterly regret. Sheikh Khalifa, then Qatar's emir, was financially extremely conservative, personally signing all cheques over US$50,000.
But these years also brought key developments. In 1990, Qatar had decided to make Ras Laffan, a remote and empty spot on its northern tip, the site for all gas industries and began building a $1 billion port. In 1992, Sheikh Hamad was given a bigger role in running the country's oil sector, the gas mastermind Abdullah Al Attiyah became energy minister and Mobil was enticed into the LNG project to replace BP.
Sheikh Hamad became emir in 1995; in January 1997 the first LNG tanker from Qatar arrived in Japan. The timing was extremely fortunate. The LNG business, from a niche industry mostly serving East Asia, was about to go global.
Exxon, which acquired Mobil in 1999, brought its unique blend of gigantism and micromanagement. Qatar, once remote from markets, now exploited its central location between Asia, Europe and North America. Remarkably, this small country went in a decade from zero to being the leading LNG exporter, without serious delays or cost overruns. And from 2003, world oil and gas prices soared.
When the financial crisis struck in 2008, and the United States disappeared as an LNG market thanks to its shale gas boom, Qatar was able to act like a one-country Opec, reducing output to maintain premium pricing. Its economic importance guaranteed it US security backing; its wealth fuelled development and lavish social spending at home, ambitious investments and political influence abroad.
Qatar's success contrasted sharply with its giant neighbour across the water - Iran, which developed South Pars, its share of the North Field, mostly for domestic use, and failed to build LNG plants or major export pipelines.
Other gas-endowed countries, such as Venezuela, Turkmenistan and Nigeria, also failed for a variety of political and geographic reasons to compete with the Qataris.
Qatar took decades to make its gas industry an overnight success. It built constructive international relations, chose the right partners, negotiated tough but stable investment terms, made long-term strategic investments with short-term flexibility, and kept its eyes on ultimate goals. These principles apply to all resource-rich countries.
The new emir, Sheikh Tamim, can continue to follow these principles. But to maintain Qatar's commanding heights, he also needs to anticipate challenges to the gas-fuelled economic model.
 
Robin Mills is the head of Consulting at Manaar Energy and the author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis and Capturing Carbon