With little more than a year left before Saudi Aramco potentially ends the ventures, the oil majors are aware there is little room for error in the highly risky exploration business.

Their request to the Petroleum & Mineral Resources Ministry in August for extra time to review vast amounts of seismic data and proceed with the next phase of drilling was reasonable. It was hoped the ministry would welcome a request with the potential to give new impetus to the deal.

Yet Riyadh’s hesitancy in granting extra drilling time to three of the four consortiums is a lost opportunity. It also raises the issue of what upstream gas initiatives the ministry has planned for the future, should the Empty Quarter exploration fail.

The kingdom is running out of time to find new gas reserves to meet growing demand.

The ministry predicts that between 2006 and 2030, gas demand will surge by more than 300 per cent to 14.5 billion cubic feet a day.

After spending nearly 10 years enticing international oil majors into the country’s gas initiative, Riyadh would be foolish to end the deal early and lose the confidence of its joint venture partners.