US-headquartered petrochemicals specialist Lummus Technology is expecting to grow rapidly in Saudi Arabia over the next decade, according to the company’s chief technology officer Ujjal Mukherjee.
Mukherjee is in the process of moving his entire team from the US to Saudi Arabia in order to capitalise on opportunities in the Middle East.
“The Middle East and North Africa are a key focus for us because of the scale of the planned capital expenditure in our industry,” he says.
“Within the region, Saudi Arabia is the most important to us because of the investments in petrochemicals that are planned.
“Qatar is also important because of its plans for natural gas and petrochemicals, but in terms of investment, Saudi Arabia is not just leading the region, but the entire world.”
Lummus is anticipating as many as 10 or 11 ethane crackers to be installed in Saudi Arabia over the next seven to eight years
Lummus says that Saudi Arabia’s plans to develop facilities with the capacity to convert 4 million barrels of crude oil to chemicals represent $100bn-$200bn in investment.
As part of the push to boost crude-to-chemicals production, Mukherjee is expecting at least four or five greenfield complexes to be developed in Saudi Arabia.
On top of this, he says there are several opportunities to upgrade existing facilities in the country, both in the eastern Jubail area and in the west coast’s Yanbu region.
Across all of these greenfield and upgrade projects, Lummus is anticipating as many as 10 or 11 ethane crackers to be installed over the next seven to eight years.
“This is a huge investment – and that is why everyone in the world of petrochemicals is focused on Saudi Arabia,” says Mukherjee.
“Elsewhere, China is slowing slightly and the Russian market is off limits. There are opportunities in Southeast Asia and India specifically, but the GCC nations are the most important.”
In addition to the GCC states, Lummus has significant interest in markets across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region, including Egypt and Turkiye.
Turkiye is of particular interest because of its stated aim of becoming self-sufficient in terms of petrochemicals production, according to Fadi Mhaini, Lummus Technology’s managing director for Mena.
Turkiye is also in a financial position that means investments in world-scale petrochemicals plants are feasible.
The investment climate in Egypt is more challenging, but it remains of interest because of its significant reserves of oil and gas, large population and internal demand for petrochemicals products.
“There are 100 million people living in Egypt and there is a great demand for polymers and plastics,” says Mhaini.
Per capita consumption of plastics in Egypt is estimated to be 21.8 kilograms (kg) a year. This is compared to more than 130kg in the US.
Lummus sees this as a potential sign of pent-up demand for plastics and says new facilities that come online in Egypt could see significant success by supplying the local market.
While there are big opportunities in Saudi Arabia’s petrochemicals sector, Mukherjee says it remains a market with significant challenges.
“The biggest challenge we have is getting subject matter expertise in the complex technologies that we license, especially with the focus on employing local skilled labour,” he says.
“We have a lot of graduates coming from good universities there, but you need a certain degree of experience in absorbing these complex technologies.”
A key area of focus for Lummus is growing the number of experienced specialists that it employs and accelerating the transfer of knowledge from its experienced workers to the local talent pool in Saudi Arabia, as well as in other markets, including the UAE.
In order to achieve this goal, the company plans to create centres of excellence across the Mena region.
It has already created one in Bahrain, and says that it has proven effective at providing education for local operators in complex technologies and advanced computing tools.
By recruiting locally and relocating experienced staff from around the world, Lummus expects to grow its Saudi Arabia office from an initial size of about 50 employees to more than 200 in the next three to four years, according to Mukherjee.
While the cornerstone of business activities for Lummus is technology licensing, it plans to use its Saudi office to work with local companies to provide a wide range of services, including the provision of engineering work and of spare parts and equipment.
Since Lummus was spun off by McDermott in a $2.7bn deal in 2020, one of the key strategic changes is a renewed focus on project streamlining and reduced project completion times.
Mukherjee says this has positioned the firm well to win contracts in Saudi Arabia, where the country’s leadership is keen to execute large-scale projects on an accelerated schedule.
“As soon as we learned that we were going to be an independent company, we decided to take advantage of all of the engineering tools that are part of our ecosystem and use them to accelerate the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) processes,” he says.
“We have used very advanced engineering tools to dramatically reduce the time it takes us to do early engineering and front-end engineering and design work.
“This means that we have to work with very highly skilled engineering contractors and get them started very early on in the procurement cycle.”
As part of Lummus Technology’s new focus on executing projects on an accelerated schedule, it has started to work more closely with several EPC contractors.
“Closer working relationships with these companies are a key way of creating a win-win situation for everyone involved,” he says.
Lummus estimates that the upcoming greenfield oil-to-chemicals projects in Saudi Arabia are each expected to be worth $20bn-$35bn.
“The size of these projects means that there is no EPC contractor in the world that can take them on alone,” says Mukherjee.
Fear of risk
One of the key challenges in Saudi Arabia’s petrochemicals projects sector is that several large international contractors are less keen to take on contracts that use the EPC model due to the potential risks.
Many companies are worried that unpredictable price inflation could mean the EPC contract model would leave them out of pocket if the cost of materials and equipment suddenly increases.
“Even working in consortium, there are very few companies globally that are well equipped to execute complex projects on this scale on an accelerated time schedule,” says Mukherjee. “The technology is there, but there is a risk averseness among many large EPC companies that have been burnt in the past.”
While the projects are difficult and will require close cooperation between different contractors, Mukherjee is confident that his company will play a key role in many of the planned petrochemicals facilities in Saudi Arabia.
He says it is likely that his company will win contracts on many of Saudi Arabia’s upcoming petrochemicals projects, and that the firm is expanding the office so that it can cooperate closely with clients and subcontractors in the country to provide quicker response times to any queries.
“By moving there, we want to make sure that [clients and subcontractors in] Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE know that they will not have to cross time zones to get immediate responses,” Mukherjee says.
Ujjal Mukherjee, Fadi Mhaini and the Mena team
Lummus is optimistic about how Saudi Arabia’s investment in petrochemicals production will benefit the country’s economy in the long term.
Mukherjee says Saudi Arabia could become an increasingly powerful force in global petrochemicals markets in the coming years if it manages to successfully execute the planned projects to an accelerated schedule.
“What Saudi Arabia has is one of the cheapest raw materials for petrochemicals production. The same is true for Qatar and Abu Dhabi,” he says.
“Very cheap oil and gas gives Saudi Arabia a huge advantage and competitive edge over places like South Korea.”
Mukherjee says that, in the past, South Korea maintained a competitive edge in terms of managing project schedules and costs.
He adds that a petrochemicals project that could be completed in 36-42 months in South Korea would previously have taken 60-72 months in Saudi Arabia.
Now, the difference is being reduced by Saudi Arabia’s plans to execute projects using an accelerated schedule.
“If Saudi Arabia can do it, it will put itself in a position where it will be a dominant force when it comes to manufacturing certain polymers,” he says.
Aligning the scheduled start-up of Saudi Arabia’s new wave of planned petrochemicals projects with trends in the global market is likely to be key to the kingdom's success, according to Mukherjee.
In the past year and half, the prices of key petrochemicals products have been subdued as large projects have come online in China and other locations.
This temporarily created an oversupply in certain chemicals despite global per-capita consumption having increased, Mukherjee says.
He believes global prices will stabilise after 2030 and that demand will outstrip that for both gasoline and diesel.
By the end of this decade, Mukherjee expects that demand for polyethylene in particular will start to grow robustly, as is demand for polypropylene – and that Saudi Arabia will be well positioned to take advantage of this growth.
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