Oil has seized the headlines because of soaring prices. But in little more than a decade, gas could overtake its liquid rival to become the biggest contributor to the Gulf economy.

Natural gas is an unstable mixture of methane, ethane, natural gas liquids (NGL) and sulphur dioxide. In the history of petroleum, it has killed many more people than oil, which pollutes and can burn but does not explode when ignited or poison the air as natural gas can and does.

The first project to convert Gulf gas into saleable products was the liquefied natural gas (LNG) complex on Das island. It dispatched its first shipment in 1977 and still accounts for all of Abu Dhabi’s offshore gas exports. In 1975, Saudi Aramco started work on its master gas programme. It involved building an NGL industry, the kingdom’s first gas-fed plastics industries and a 720-mile gas pipeline from the Eastern Province to Yanbu. And yet, Saudi sales gas output in 1991 amounted to little more than 2,000 million standard cubic feet a day (cf/d), the equivalent of less than 400,000 barrels a day (b/d) of oil.

Expensive to capture, difficult to transport and dangerous in all circumstances, gas is oil’s poor relation which has no international market or equivalent to OPEC to balance supply with demand. It still sells in most markets at less than half the price of oil with equivalent calorific value.

But this is an anomaly that cannot last.

Flexible

Gas, the most flexible of all hydrocarbons, is the green answer to global warming. It can be burnt to generate electricity, converted into environmentally friendly diesel and reformed into fertilisers, chemicals essential for industry and plastics so robust they can replace aluminium and steel in cars and planes.

The turning point for Gulf gas was Qatar’s decision to press ahead with the exploitation of the North field, the world’s largest non-associated gas reservoir, which straddles its border with Iran. The first Qatari LNG exports began in 1996.

Last year, Qatar’s LNG exports totalled 19 million tonnes. They are forecast to rise to 83 million tonnes (equivalent to almost 2 million b/d of oil exports) in 2010, when Qatari methane will generate up to 15 per cent of British electricity and meet a growing proportion of American energy needs.

Doha’s gas projects include: the 3,200 million-cf/d Dolphin gas pipeline which will soon supply Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Oman; a $30,000 million gas-to-liquids (GTL) strategy; and a petrochemicals programme to raise ethylene output by more than 400 per cent by the end of 2012.

Oman started LNG exports in 2000 and is due to open a third LNG train next year. It has unveiled more than $15,000 million worth of industrial projects in Salalah and Sohar, and those will be fed by gas. Bahrain, facing a looming gas deficit, plans to import from Qatar for industrial and electricity schemes.

Kuwait has made encouraging gas finds in its northern fields,which may be sufficient to feed a further expansion of its petrochemicals industry. Abu Dhabi is implementing a gas-gathering programme that will increase onshore gas supplies by 40 per cent by 2008.

Saudi frontier

The great gas frontier is Saudi Arabia, which has the Gulf’s largest energy needs. The world’s most ambitious gas exploration and development programme is now under way. It includes four gas concessions, awarded in 2003 and 2004, in the Empty Quarter (Rub al-Khali). If major non-associated gas finds are not made, Saudi Arabia could have a gas deficit after 2010 that might hinder the next phase of the kingdom’s petrochemicals development plan.

Emerging gas shortages in some Gulf markets are behind the rise of cross-border projects that echo the groundbreaking Dolphin scheme, initiated by Abu Dhabi. The most intriguing prospect is a major regional gas diplomacy i