Opinion

No ‘Home Alone’ for Saudi’s Crude


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Saudi Aramco's plan to diversify its downstream portfolio reached another milestone last week, as the OPEC giant signed an agreement with India to invest in the planned 1.2 mmb/d Ratnagiri refinery in Maharashtra state. In return, Aramco receives a 50% stake in the refinery – itself a joint venture between Indian Oil, HPCL and BPCL, previewing a possible future where India's state refiners are merged into one – and assurances that Saudi Arabia crude will always find a home in India. Over the last year, Aramco planned a spat of deals designed to do exactly this – ensure that it has captive demand in key crude markets, particularly in Asia – and of late, the plans have taken a further dimension: expansion into petrochemicals.

In the US, Aramco is now the sole owner of the Port Arthur refinery under Motiva, having cajoled Shell into a divorce of their former joint venture. Post-divorce, Aramco quickly announced up to US$30 billion in investments up to 2023 for America's largest refining site – which some saw as a move to curry favour with the new Trump administration – and earlier this month, announced it was looking at adding a new 1.5 mtpa ethylene plant using ethane cracked from US shale fields in Texas. At home in Saudi Arabia, Aramco has signed a US$5 billion deal with France's Total to build a 1.5 mtpa ethylene plant that will be integrated with the existing joint venture 440 kb/d Satorp refinery in Jubail.

Notice a pattern emerging? It becomes more evident when considering Aramco's latest investments in Asia. Long entrenched in Japan, Aramco has been courting Chinese refiners to ensure continued market share in the most important energy market in the world, fending off competition from Russia, Iraq and Iran. The latest deal revolves around a stake in PetroChina's 260 kb/d Anning refinery in Yunnan, which has yet to be finalised, along with chatter that China will take a direct stake in Aramco through its planned IPO. But petrochemicals seem to becoming more important for Aramco. Last month, it formally concluded its US$7 billion participation in the US$27 billion RAPID refinery by Petronas in Malaysia, with a significant petrochemical portion of at least 3.6 mtpa. At the same time, there seems to be no movement on Aramco's planned investment in Indonesian downstream, including a plan to expand Cilacap, none of which include major petrochemical portions.

The plan to own half of Ratnagiri jives in with this approach. The US$44 billion Indian refinery will need crude, and what better way than to partner with the world's largest oil producer to secure that? In return, Aramco gains access to the world's fastest growing energy market and Ratnagiri's massive planned petrochemical capacity of 18 mtpa. With this concluded, Aramco now has downstream refining and petrochemical ‘silos' in the USA, Middle East, India, China and Southeast Asia; that's all of the major markets covered. The next step would be to deepen its ties in China, so watch what Saudi Aramco does next.



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