Last updated: 03:11 / Thursday, 24 April 2014
Notes by Investec AM

Saudi Arabia – Shifting Sands

Saudi Arabia – Shifting Sands
  • Stability in the region is far more important than the short- term oil price
  • With oilfield decline rates at 2-6% and strong domestic demand, the kingdom needs to replace 500,000 barrels/day each year if it intends to preserve the oil legacy for future generations
  • Significant investment in natural gas as well as oil recovery is going to generate a lot of drilling and service business for western providers

Tom Nelson, portfolio manager for the Global Energy Equity strategy at Investec AM, took a research trip took to Oman, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia last March comprising fifteen company meetings and four visits to production facilities. His main goal was to learn more about the reservoir performance and supply outlook in the world’s dominant petroleum province, as well as the social and political climate within the region. Some of the notes of his journey follow:

“In this note I intend to focus on Saudi Arabia, as the major OPEC oil producer (9.5 million barrels/day), but also as a country undergoing profound socio-economic change.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has the 20th largest economy in the world by GDP, larger than South Africa or Taiwan, making it by far the biggest economy in the MENA region (excluding Turkey). It has the largest proven oil reserves of any country (260 billion barrels), and is rightly considered the central bank of crude oil, as the only producing country with significant (1 million barrels/day+) spare capacity. Saudi Aramco is by my calculations the most profitable enterprise on the planet: 9.5 million barrels/day of production of crude oil, which trades for $100 and costs them $4-8 to extract. This translates into $350 billion revenue per year, with a 90%+ profit margin. Not surprisingly, the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA) has $550-600 billion in net foreign assets, making it the fourth largest sovereign wealth fund. These numbers will be familiar to many readers, who associate the Kingdom most immediately with oil wealth.

More striking is the social and demographic picture: 28 million people living in the 13th largest country in the world. 51% of the population are under the age of 25, and there is a 30% unemployment rate in the 20-25 year old bracket. The exciting perspective of Saudi Arabia is not the legacy wealth under the desert, but the implications for the young population living above it.

Local employment targets have been ratcheted significantly higher since the Arab Spring – not just in Saudi Arabia but across the region – and this was clear from all of our meetings with major Western oil companies. BP, Total, Occidental, Schlumberger, and Halliburton all talked about elevated targets for local employment and training. The most striking comment came from Schlumberger’s country manager for Saudi Arabia, a Lebanese national trained in 12 countries and 4 continents over a 28-year career at Schlumberger (including a Mechanical Engineering degree, an MBA at Insead, and a year at MIT). He assured us that Schlumberger in Saudi Arabia would soon be 60% staffed by local people and that in the event of turmoil in the Kingdom and an exodus of expats the company could continue to function effectively. Similarly, Occidental Petroleum in Oman is now the country’s third largest employer, with 82% of employees being Omani nationals.

I found myself rapidly becoming optimistic for the future of this young, primarily urban population as the extensive social program became clear. Increased diversification away from the core oil wealth (still 80% of budget revenues and 90% of export earnings) into banking, construction, and chemicals, should be facilitated by a huge free education program, unlimited free healthcare, and rising infrastructure spending.

Naturally, challenges persist: labor productivity ranks towards the bottom of the range, with the Arab Labor Organization estimating worker productivity in Saudi Arabia to be only 17% of the US industrial worker. Women have only been empowered to vote since 2011, and make up only 15% of the workforce. And despite the build- out of new roads, the safety on them is very poor. By deaths per 100,000 of population it is the most dangerous country in the world for drivers."

Interested in Saudi Arabia? You can read the full report through this link.