Anglo-Australian firm BHP Billiton, TotalFinaElfof France with Conoco of the US, and Sumitomo Corporationof Japan have been negotiating individually for the development contract since 2001. The slow pace of discussions has taken its toll on both sides, and TotalFinaElf announced in May that it was planning to scale back operations in Syria as a result. After deciding to issue an open tender to widen the scope of competition, the government then considered abandoning the idea of using foreign companies altogether and handing the project over to state-owned Syrian Petroleum Company, industry sources say. The latest change of heart opens up the field to the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, the largest private investor in the country through its stake in Al-Furat Petroleum Company.

The ministry is aiming to draw as much as $800 million worth of foreign investment for the project. The development of the Palmyra fields, which will start in the south and then move to reservoirs further in the north, is expected to raise Syria’s gas production by up to 40 per cent. Total gas reserves are estimated at 240,000 million cubic metres.