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Oil producers dig into savings amid fiscal deficits

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Today many of the world’s major cities remain under lockdowns while their respective government is implementing work-from-home schemes. This has dramatically reduced the number of cars on the streets and cut the demand from the transportation sector. With WTI hovering around $10 and Brent on $20 a barrel, oil-producing nations are feeling the pinch. 

When planning their annual budget no government predicted such a bleak situation and oil-producing nations planned their budgets on higher than real prices, as a result, they are facing fiscal deficits.

Global oil demand for oil is down by as much as 30 million barrels a day, a 30 percent reduction.

IMF predicts West Asian economies to contract this year. “Vulnerabilities are high in certain countries” with “high levels of unemployment and low growth,” said Jihad Azour, the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia director.

Most nations are turning to their state-owned investment vehicles commonly referred to as Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) designed to buffer oil price shocks. Today’s situation shows the need for economic diversification among oil-producing nations.

The private oil producers, on the other hand, are either shutting down or reducing production levels and freezing new drilling projects for the time being.

In the Islamic Republic, a fund called National Development Fund of Iran (NDFI) was founded 2011. SWF’s real assets are not officially declared and in this piece, I will quote news agencies and other unofficial sources.

NDFI is reportedly worth $91 billion. On April 6, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved withdrawal of one billion euros from NDFI to help fight the coronavirus epidemic.

The funds will be used for revamping funding needs of the overstretched health care system and the unemployment insurance fund. President Hassan Rouhani has thanked the leader for his move on his website and added that the needs will preferably come from domestic products and knowledge-based companies.

However, the U.S. sanctions have eroded the country’s dependence on oil exports.and the impact of the oil price shock will be minimal. Prior to re-imposition of U.S. sanctions in May 2018, Iran was exporting 2.5 million barrels a day. By most estimates today Iran exports less than 200,000 barrels a day. 

Rouhani has said that Iran will not suffer as much as other countries from the oil price plunge as it is less reliant on crude exports. “The more countries rely on oil, the greater they suffer. But as our reliance on oil income has decreased, willingly or unwillingly, either by our own will or by the imposition of the enemy, our losses will certainly be less,” Rouhani said during a television meeting.

Iran’s budget for the present year (started March 20, 2020) has been planned with the expectation of an export of one million barrels a day with an oil price of $50. This aspect of the budget needs to be revisited due to the extraordinary circumstances created due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

IMF has warned Iran could face an $18 billion trade deficit in 2020 due to lack of exports, which could worsen if oil prices stay low.

Russia
Russian newspaper Vedomosti reported last week that a barrel of Russia’s Urals oil, where the price is determined by Brent, not WTI, was trading at $8.48 a barrel, the lowest since 1998. The current Russian budget is calculated at an oil price of $42 a barrel.  
Two-thirds of Russia’s export earnings and 40 percent of its budget is generated by oil sales.

Earlier this year the Russian Finance Ministry announced Russia could withstand prices as low as $25 a barrel for up to 10 years by drawing on a $150 billion National Wealth Fund to compensate for shortfalls of fiscal budget. Russia’s NWF has risen to $151.35 billion after the Finance Ministry channeled extra oil and gas revenues from 2019 to it, Reuters quoted the ministry in March.

Apart from low oil prices, Russia has to deal with the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and EU five years ago with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. The sanctions prohibit long-term financing for some major corporates and ban assistance to Russian oil and gas companies for Arctic, shale, and offshore projects.

During an annual press conference last month, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said while there was “nothing good about [sanctions]” but “Our economic – I can say this with full responsibility – has been able to adapt to external shocks, while our national currency has actually become much more stable, even with possible energy price fluctuations.”

Russia responded to sanctions in three ways: First tighten belt, cutting public spending, and forcing banks and major corporations to clean up their balance sheets. Second, it spent trillions of roubles to create domestic substitutes for imported goods, while food imports from the EU were banned to stimulate local production. Third, some income from energy exports diverted to national wealth fund, thanks to the steady rise in oil prices since 2014 Russia saved up to $124b in sovereign wealth fund (seven percent of GDP).

The results have been impressive. All the three levels of Russia’s government ran a budget surplus in 2018 and 2019, and its total public debt is about 15 percent of GDP. The EU average is 80 percent.

Sanctions have hampered FDI from an annual average of $54.5b between 2011 and 2013 to 19.2b between 2015 and 2018.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s fiscal revenues are projected to decline by 25 to 30 percent or about eight percent of the GDP this year impacting fiscal deficits, according to rating agency Moody’s. IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook report has forecast a negative 2.3 percent GDP growth for Saudi Arabia in 2020.

Producing 13 percent of world output Saudi Aramco is the world’s largest oil producer. Since there is no way to audit any information coming out of Aramco, the world is left to guess the actual breakeven cost. According to IMF March 9 report, the fiscal breakeven price of Saudi crude is around $80 per barrel.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” will need to be shelved for delays amid low oil prices, political instability in light of the recent crackdown by MBS amid a coup threat within the Saudi royal family and high unemployment amongst its youth.
Such instability does not encourage FDI and can put the Aramco IPO on hold for longer.

Founded in 1971 the Public Investment Fund (PIF) Saudi Arabia’s SWF, with estimated assets of $320 billion. Instead of bracing for a shock, the Saudi SWF went on a spending spree recently. Last week it built a $200 million stake in Norway’s largest crude producer Equinor. In the past, PIF has bought shares in Uber and Telsa, as well as European oil firms Royal Dutch Shell, Total, and Eni.

Saudi Arabia’s oil industry accounts for 70 percent of the country’s export earnings and half of GDP. According to Forbes magazine Saudi Arabia has approximately $500 billion in the SWF and the Saudis have the cash to ride out the low oil prices. With oil at present price, hovering less than $10 a barrel the kingdom is set to take a loss of $40 billion annual from total revenues.

With over one million people employed in its oil industry, the government will have to increase spending from its SWF. Given the population’s reliance on social programs, Saudi Arabia faces internal unrest if cuts run too deep.

Iraq
After Saudi Arabia, Iraq is OPEC’s second largest exporter. With 90 percent of government spending coming from oil revenues, the Iraqi government employs nearly eight percent of the country’s population.

Iraq does not have a SWF like many of its counterparts in West Asia. Essential public services like healthcare, education and policing, among others do not exist. If present situation persists one can expect return of more social unrest.

Norway
Producing two percent of global output, Norway does not plan output cuts because its oil production remains profitable despite the recent plunge, the country’s Minister of Petroleum and Energy Tina Bru told private local broadcaster.

A number of Norwegian fields would be profitable even at $10 per barrel, Bru said, adding unilateral action by Norway would not impact oil prices.

However, 10 exploration wells have been put on hold amid low oil prices.

Norway’s $930 billion SWF lost $114 billion in the first quarter amid the virus outbreak, reports Reuters.

Other producers

Qatar has a fiscal surplus and its economy is dependent on liquified natural gas exports, so less directly affected by oil prices, while the debt-burdened economies of small oil producers Oman and Bahrain are more vulnerable to price swings.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Tuesday Mexico will take more austerity measures in the face of oil price collapse. He vowed no layoffs of government employees according to Reuters.

Africa’s fastest growing economy Nigeria is also Africa’s largest country with population of 205 million. With oil making nine percent of GDP, Nigeria has a break-even oil price of $57. Oil accounts for over 90 percent of exports, a third of banking sector credit, and half of government revenues.

IMF expects unemployment will rise by 25 percent to approximately 25 million people in 2020, up from 20 million people in 2018.

Nigeria has a small SWF of approximately $2 billion that will be used spending to keep figures falling in the red zone.

From our partner Tehran Times

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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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