National oil companies no longer rely on internationals. Gulf states now have the upper hand as Asia opens as a new market
There has been, for many years, a pervasive argument for allowing the major and supermajor international oil companies (IOCs) access to the Gulf’s hydrocarbons bounty.
IOCs had vast experience in the exploration, processing and distribution of oil and gas. They were brilliantly managed corporations, among the biggest-earning firms in the world. National oil companies (NOCs) emulated them and sought their proprietary technology.
To get the most out of their abundant natural resources, the NOCs relied on the IOCs. The flipside of this arrangement was that international firms had ready access to the region’s cheaply produced reserves. The unspoken question was which needed the other more?
In the past, it was the NOCs who needed IOCs. Producing and refining oil is a relatively simple process in the Gulf, but still requires a degree of expertise. The Gulf states also needed access to the consumer markets the IOCs dominated, particularly western Europe and the US.
As the region’s hydrocarbon powers moved into the petrochemicals market, they again turned West, looking to major downstream producers for technology and marketing expertise. Today, the relationship is changing again.
IOCs have become highly skilled at producing hard-to-reach oil and gas supplies as efficiently and as profitably as possible, but this ability has come out of necessity. The oil fields they first produced last century are dwindling.
Access to new supplies is increasingly constrained. Margins for refining and petrochemicals production have, over the past two years, become far lower than they are used to. Only the Gulf states have cheap enough feedstocks to make them profitable in the long-term.
New markets have also emerged, particularly in China and East Asia, where the IOCs do not have the same pull as distributors as they do in the West. The Gulf states, meanwhile, still have 45 per cent of the world’s oil and 20 per cent of its gas. If IOCs want access to oil in the future, it will be their turn to kowtow.