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The Bigger Picture: Convergence of Geopolitics and Oil

Osama Rizvi

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The rising tensions in Middle-East and the rising oil prices only show how strong the link between oil prices and geopolitics is. There are many fronts: Israel and Gaza, Trump and Iran deal, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Then there are vested interests, wherein Trump, Saudi Arabia and Israel form one alliance and Russia, China and Iran another. All in all unrest in Middle-East is reshaping relationships and shaking markets. Understanding the bigger picture while delineating relevant factors can help provide us track the potential implications of matters in this region and thereof of oil prices in posterity.

Adding an influential voice to the chorus of energy analyst, Pulitzer Prize winning author, Daniel Yergin recently said that oil prices might hit $85 in July. Bank of America, last week, caused quite a stir saying that oil can hit $100 by next year. Not to mention an oil hedge fund manager who, see oil at $300, a possibility (he deleted his tweets afterwards). Over all the market sentiment is very bullish and rightly so.

What are the underlying reasons? Declining Venezuelan production, sanctions on Iran and of-course the geopolitical wildcards: war in the ever raging Middle East.

Production in Venezuela has been in decline, from 2.3 million bpd in 2016 to 1.5 mbpd in April 2018. However, it is only its combination with Trump’s decision to repudiate Iran deal (with it the fear of sanctions and a reduction in supply) that the oil prices haverallied up to levels not seen after 2014: $80 for Brent and $72 for WTI.

Few days back the inauguration of U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and the ensuing protests, wherein many people were killed, can have spectacular consequences in future and can trigger another rally. One can recall the time of intermittent Arab conflicts between Israel and Muslim countries. Below we dive into a complex geopolitical soup that can shape the future ofoil prices.

Taking Iran as the focal point, we can disentangle the present and future possibilities. Iran and Saudi Arabia have always been vying for the regional balance of power. Any move that is perceived to tilt that balance in either direction has caused protest from the other side. Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Action of Plan (JCPOA) commonly known as Iran deal, was probably one of the most important acts that Saudi Arabia perceived to be threatening to the existing balance of power and therefore, regional stability.Therefore, Trump’s move was welcomed by the Saudi’s. The consequences despite having a strong geopolitical and security dimension have a commensurately important economic side as well: Oil prices. The cancellation of the deal will ease the markets off by anywhere between 300,000bpd to 500, 000 bpd. It is instructive to note that it comes at a time when both Iran and Saudi Arabia are party to what is called the Vienna Agreement—the prime reason for the rebalancing of the markets.

As Saudi Arabia vows to use its spare capacity to offset the effects of sanctions on Iran this represents nothing short of a dilemma for the Kingdom. MbS’ plan to transform the Saudi economy into a diversified one rests on Aramco’s IPO scheduled for 2019. To get desired evaluation the country needs oil prices to rise. $80 is desirable. Now, the question arises why Saudi Arabia would stop oil prices from rising, which suits them, and that too without cutting further production? Also, doing so may hurt the Vienna agreement as other might protest. There is another factor, China, one of the largest buyer of Iranian crude, is exempt from any sanctions by U.S. hence free to do business with Iran. It’s record oil consumption which made headlines few days back, shows that it will not be difficult for Iran to sell those sanctioned barrels to China making the overall effect of supply zero or insignificant. Some have even said that this can threaten Petrodollar dominance in oil trade.

The next front is that of Israel. Further unrest in Gaza will lead to a heated rhetoric about Hamas which brings in Iran that further drags Saudi’s completing the picture for conflict. This can spill over to war in Yemen. All of this can make the geopolitical risk premium stay for a very long time hence, prospects of oil prices sky-rocketing ($100, may be?).

But here is the opposite scenario. One should remember (and expect), quite gleefully, that such tensions cannot go for good. Either they end in a military escalation, a war of sorts, or some agreement is reached. If the latter happens we can bring in another factor into the puzzle that is not temporary: rise in U.S. shale production. The number of rigs, 844, now stands at highest since 2015. The production has surpassed 10.7 mbpd. Shale drillers are exercising restraint and tackling some bottlenecks, but for how long?

We can pose the same question regarding Vienna agreement. How long can the oil producing countries continue cutting production? Can the pact afford a disgruntled Iran which might leave the oil pact? What about Russia’s commitment . . . if matters in Middle-east turn out ugly, Russia will evidently side with Iran rather than Saudi Arabia.

Also, if production is increased that would undermine or even jeopardize the deal and if it doesn’t that will, if on one side serve the Kingdom’s purpose of increasing oil prices (due to a fall in supply), on the other hand help U.S shale producers drill even more. Higher oil prices, if on one side reduce demand; at a certain point can also jeopardize the Vienna pact itself as the countries will have no incentive to continue it.

Lastly, if oil prices continue to rise then demand might slow down, at the same time when Shale production continues to rise. As an article in The Guardian noted, the oil prices might “come back to earth with a bump”. It is therefore quite early to call whether we’ll see a three digit oil price very soon. We are in the middle, prices can go both ways. All depends upon how events will unfold in Middle-East in the days to come.

Independent Economic Analyst, Writer and Editor. Contributes columns to different newspapers. He is a columnist for Oilprice.com, where he analyzes Crude Oil and markets. Also a sub-editor of an online business magazine and a Guest Editor in Modern Diplomacy. His interests range from Economic history to Classical literature.

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Energy

Bids open for Somalia’s first-ever oil block licensing round

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Somalia has announced that it is opening licensing rounds for seven offshore oil blocks. This comes days after the Federal Government of Somalia approved the board members of the newly established Somali Petroleum Authority (SPA), which will serve to be the regulatory body of Somalia’s oil and gas industry.

Somalia’s Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Abdirashid M. Ahmed stated that the establishment of a regulator leadership is the first critical step of the implementation of Somalia’s petroleum law which was passed earlier this year and signed by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmaajo”.

The Petroleum Law asserts that the regulatory body serves to design a financial and managerial system that fosters international competition and investment into Somalia’s oil and gas industry. While also ensuring the citizens of Somalia, and the Federal Member States see their fair share of oil and gas revenue based on the revenue-sharing agreement.

Somalia has been plagued with civil war, drought and famine for nearly three decades, tapping into Somalia’s vast oil reserves which are estimated to be approximately 30 billion barrels would greatly contribute to the rebuilding and the development of the country’s infrastructure, security, and the economic and social sectors. Exploration for oil in the East African nation started well before the nations collapse in 1991. ExxonMobil and Shell previously had rights to five offshore oil blocks in Somalia and has recently renewed its previous lease agreement with the government of Somalia. Both companies have agreed to pay $1.7 million per month in rent for the leased offshore blocks.

The Office of Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources stated that the 7 blocks which are up for bidding process are among “the most prospective areas for hydrocarbon exploration and production in Somalia”

The licensing round will take place between August 4th, 2020, and March 12th, 2021.

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Armenia’s attack against Tovuz is also an attack against Europe’s energy security

Dr. Esmira Jafarova

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The recent escalation of tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, this time along the international border in the direction of the Tovuz district of Azerbaijan in the aftermath of an armed attack launched by Armenia on July12–14, 2020,had been brewing for some time before finally boiling over into full-fledged military clashes, the worst in recent years, that caused causalities and destruction on both sides. Azerbaijan lost more than 10 servicemen, including one general and a 76-year-old civilian. There are many reasons why this attack happened in this particular border area (and not along the Line of Contact, as usual) and at this particular time, but in this piece I want specifically to focus on one of them and, in concurrence with other internationally recognized scholars in this field, assert that this attack against Azerbaijan should be considered as an attack against Europe’s energy security and well-being.

To begin, a brief review of the history of recent developments in conflict resolution testifies that, although the year 2019 was relatively incident free along the Line of Contact between the Armed Forces of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and for the first time in many years mutual visits of journalists took pace, the year was also identified as the “lost year for the conflict settlement” owing to the lack of progress in the negotiations. This absence of progress was accompanied by incendiary rhetoric employed by Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan who, having ascended to power on the back of the many alluring promises of the so-called “Velvet Revolution,” found himself grappling to deliver on those ambitious reform pledges. The harbingers of heightening hostility were seen in Pashinyan’s infamous declaration during the pan-Armenian games held in Khankendi on August 5,2019, when he said that “Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenia, and that is all;” as well as his continuous insistence on changing the negotiation format –already established by the relevant decisions of the OSCE –to include representatives of the puppet regime in the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region as an independent party to the peace negotiations.

The year 2020 started off with the January meeting of the Foreign Ministers in Geneva, and in April and June two virtual meetings were held because of COVID-19 lockdowns; however, hopes for any positive progress quickly subsided in the wake of other negative developments. The so-called “parliamentary and presidential elections” that were held by Armenia in the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan on March31, 2020, were condemned by the international community. These mock elections later culminated in the Shusha provocation,in which the “newly elected president” of the puppet regime in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan was “inaugurated” in Shusha – a city that carries great moral significance for Azerbaijan. The last straw in a hostile build-up was the denial by Pashinyan of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s comments about a staged, step-by-step solution to the conflict; Pashinyan denied that this was ever the subject of negotiations. The very recent threats by the Armenian Ministry of Defense, which publicly threatened “to occupy new advantageous positions” in Azerbaijan, further testified to the increasingly militaristic mood among Armenia’s upper echelons.

This litany of discouraging events relating to the peace process over the last year and a half in some ways heralded what we witnessed on July12–14, 2020.This attack against Azerbaijan along the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan reflects the deep frustration of the Pashinyan regime in its inability to bring about the promised changes. Economic problems were heightened by the COVID-19-induced challenge and decreasing foreign assistance, and this was all happening against the backdrop of Azerbaijan’s increasing successes domestically, economically and internationally. Azerbaijan has long been established as an important provider of energy security and sustainable development for Europe through the energy projects that it is implementing together with its international partners. The Baku–Tbilisi–Supsa Western Export (1998) and Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (2005) oil pipelines and Baku–Tbilisi–Erzurum (2006) gas pipeline have enhanced Azerbaijan’s role as an energy producing and exporting country, and the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) is already becoming a reality. This 3500-km-long Corridor comprises four segments – the Shah Deniz-II project, Southern Caucasus Pipeline Extension (SCPX), Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) and its final portion, the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). The Corridor passes through seven countries – Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania and Italy – with Italy being the final destination receiving Caspian gas. Turkey is already receiving gas via TANAP and is contracted to accept up to 6 billion cubic meters of gas via this pipeline. Europe is expected to receive 10 billion cubic meters of Azerbaijani gas per year, and the first gas has already arrived on Albanian territory. The SGC is scheduled to be fully operational by fall 2020 and TAP is almost complete. Things are progressing uninhibitedly and even the COVID-19 pandemic has been unable topreventthe success of the SGC. This Corridor stands as one of the guarantors of Europe’s energy security by providing diversification of energy sources and routes, even despite Europe’s Green Deal, which also acknowledges the continent’s long-term demand for gas.

Such critical infrastructure, vital for Europe’s energy security, passes close to the border area that includes the Tovuz district attacked by the Armed Forces of the Republic of Armenia on July12–14. Armenia is the only country in the South Caucasus that is isolated from these regional energy projects owing to its policy of expansion and occupation. It is thus the only country that does not have anything to losefrom creating chaos and destruction around this critical energy infrastructure. Jealousy and the feeling of self-imposed isolation from all regional cooperation initiatives have no doubt increased Armenia’s hostility toward these energy projects. Further vivid evidence of Armenia’s belligerence against Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure was provided by its threat to attack the Mingachevir Dam, a civilian infrastructure project that is also a vital component of Azerbaijan’s largest hydroelectric power plant. Hydroelectric power comprises the largest component in Azerbaijan’s renewable energy potential, today standing at around 17–18%ofthe overall energy balance of the country. It is not difficult to imagine the magnitude of civilian causalities in case such a destruction materializes. 

By conducting this act of aggression against Azerbaijan along the international border in the direction of Tovuz, Armenia wanted firstly, to divert attention from its own internal problems. Secondly, the regime desired to disguise its failures on the international front, especially recently when Azerbaijan initiated the summoning of a special session of the United Nations General Assembly related to COVID-19,convened on July 10, that was supported by more than 130 members of the UN. Thirdly, Armenia wanted to drag in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) against Azerbaijan by invoking Article 4, which states: “… if one of the States Parties is subjected to aggression by any state or group of states, then this will be considered as aggression against all States Parties to this Treaty…”.Fourthly, and the central thesis of this article, Armenia intended to target critical energy infrastructure implemented by Azerbaijan and its international partners, thereby jeopardizing the energy security of not only the neighboring region, but also of the greater European continent. The aforementioned existing oil and gas infrastructure aside, the SGC is set to be fully operational by fall 2020, and this multibillion-dollar megaproject offers economic, social and many other benefits to all participating countries involved in the construction and implementation of this project. Any damage to this critical infrastructure would deal a heavy blow to the current and future sustainable development of Europe.

Europe must therefore be vigilant regarding such provocations. International actors, including the European Union,OSCE Minsk Group, United Nations, United States, and the Russian Federation, called for an immediate cessation of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, given what is at stake,including this time the crucial energy infrastructure, had Armenia’sattack not been proportionately parried by the Azerbaijani Armed Forces, the statement made by the European Union about this recent military attack could have contained stronger language beyond just “…urging both sides to stop the armed confrontation, refrain from action and rhetoric that provoke tension, and undertake immediate measures to prevent further escalation… .” Naming and shaming the aggressor appropriately is indispensable in this situation. As Mr. Hikmat Hajiyev, Head of Foreign Policy Department of the Presidential Administration and Adviser to the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan on Foreign Affairs, also noted: “the EU should distinguish between the aggressor and the subject of aggression.”

In the 21st century, the international community should not tolerate such flagrant violations of international law; disrespect of UN Security Council resolutions (822, 853, 874, and 884) and other relevant international documents calling for an end to the occupation of Azerbaijani territories; and the feeling of impunity in instigating an attack against a sovereign state, a neighbor, and a crucial player in the realization of critical energy infrastructure projects key to Europe’s own energy security. Azerbaijan has long put up with such aggression and the occupation of its internationally recognized territories in Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven adjacent districts, and has opted for negotiations toward a peaceful solution of the conflict. Yet the aggressor cannot be allowed to continue its attacks against other parts of Azerbaijan– this time Tovuz –thereby jeopardizing not only the latter, but also energy security and sustainable development of the greater European continent just because such provocations seem to offer an escape from the regime’s domestic and external problems. Such practices should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. This should be done not only for the sake of Azerbaijan and regional security in the South Caucasus, but in the name of Europe’s own energy security and well-being. 

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Palestine Plays Regional Power Politics with Proposed Energy Deal

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Faed Mustafa, Palestine’s ambassador in Ankara, Turkey

When Faed Mustafa, Palestine’s ambassador in Ankara, expressed interest in June in negotiating with Turkey an agreement on the delineation of maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean and cooperating on the exploitation of natural resources, he was repositioning Palestine in the larger struggle for regional dominance and the future of his state.

“We also have rights in the Mediterranean. Palestine has shares in oil and gas located in the eastern Mediterranean. We are ready to cooperate in these areas and sign a deal,” Mr. Mustafa said.

Mr. Mustafa did not spell it out, but Palestine would bring the Gaza Marine gas deposit, 36 kilometers off the Gazan coast, to the table. Discovered in 1999, the field, believed to have reserves of 31 billion cubic meters, remains unexplored as a result of multiple armed Israeli-Palestinian clashes, Israeli obstruction, and repeated changes in the consortium that would have ultimately exploited the field.

Palestine’s efforts to hook up with Turkey, at a time when relations with Israel have all but broken down, coincide with stepped up Israeli attempts to stymie Turkish inroads in Palestine paved by support for activists in Jerusalem and funding of historic and cultural facilities, in the wake of US President Donald J. Trump’s 2018 recognition of the city as Israel’s capital.

The Palestinian move also is a ploy to counter several steps taken by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to confront Turkey in Jerusalem and the eastern Mediterranean, facilitate a US plan to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that endorses annexation, and influence the succession of ailing 84-year old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed last week in a speech celebrating the change of status of Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia – originally built as a Greek Orthodox church in 537 AD, then renovated into a mosque before becoming a museum by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in 1935 – to a mosque once again this month, that it would be “the harbinger of the liberation of the Al-Aqsa mosque.”

Al-Aqsa on the Harm-e-Sharif or Temple Mount in Jerusalem is Islam’s third holiest shrine. Backed by Israel, Saudi Arabia has sought to muscle its way into the Jordanian-controlled endowment that administers the Harm-e-Sharif.

A Palestine hook-up with Turkey could complicate Palestinian membership of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, dubbed the OPEC of Mediterranean gas, that also includes Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, and Jordan. France has applied for membership in the Cairo-based grouping while the United States is seeking observer status.

Founded in January and backed by the UAE, the Forum is virulently opposed to Turkish attempts to redraw the maritime boundaries in the region on the back of an agreement with Libya. Turkey refused to join the Forum.

While it is unlikely that the Gaza field will be operational any time soon, production would reduce Palestinian dependence on Israel. Palestinian officials said early this year that they were discussing with Israel an extension of Israeli pipelines to send gas from Israeli gas fields to Palestine but that the talks, contrary to Israeli assertions, did not include development of the Gaza field.

In a twist of irony, Qatar, the UAE’s nemesis, would support a pipeline agreement by guaranteeing Palestinian payments for the gas. The Israeli pipeline along a 40-kilometer route adjacent to the Gaza border with three pumping stations would enable Gaza to operate a 400 MW power plant in a region that has, at the best of times, an energy supply of 15 hours a day.

The status of the talks remains unclear given an apparent delay of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation plans amid international condemnation and US insistence that the Israeli leader postpone his move that had been scheduled for July 1.

Qatar reportedly threatened to cut off millions of dollars in aid to Gaza, provided in coordination with the Israeli government, if the Jewish state pressed ahead with annexation.

In June, Israel  approved the transfer of US$50 million from Qatar to Gaza in a bid to dial back mounting tension with militants in the Strip that could spark renewed military confrontation as both Israel and Palestine struggle to get a grip on the coronavirus.

Some Palestinian analysts see the pipeline deal as an attempt by the Palestine Authority (PA) to enhance its influence in Gaza and undermine Hamas – its Islamist rival that controls the Strip – by a significant contribution to a surge in the power supply and a dramatic reduction of the cost of electricity. The risk, these analysts say, is that the pipeline would increase Palestinian dependence on Israel.

Economist Nasr Abdel Karim argued that Israel would only allow enhanced flows of gas, including from the Gaza field, if it leads to an even deeper split between the territory and the West Bank.

“Israel will not allow the Palestinians to benefit from the gas field for economic and political reasons. Israel might allow this in one case — if this plan is part of a bigger project to develop Gaza’s economy so that it splits from the PA and the West Bank,” Mr. Abdel Karim said.

Author’s note: An initial version of this story was first published in Inside Arabia

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