China Secures Foothold In This Strategic Middle East Oil State

China Secures Foothold In This Strategic Middle East Oil State

The recent talks between Oman’s Assistant to the Chief of Staff for Operations and Planning, Brigadier Abdulaziz Abdullah al-Manthri, and the Chief of Staff of Iranian Armed Forces, Major-General Mohammad Bagheri, may mark a new phase in the already deep and broad relationship between Oman and Iran, and in the Sultanate’s drift into the Iran-China axis.

“The two countries [Iran and Oman] have conducted several joint naval drills in recent years, within the scope of securing the waterway from the Persian Gulf through to the Gulf of Oman from smuggling and other threats, including terrorism, but these [recent] talks were concerned with expanding that cooperation both in terms of the armed services involved beyond just the navy and the scope of their joint activities beyond anti-smuggling and dealing with terrorist threats,” an Iranian source who works closely the Petroleum Ministry told last week. 

The basic catch-22 for Oman that has expedited its move towards the Iran-China power axis is that it lacks the scale of natural resources to generate the financing required to keep its economy ticking over without any further industry but the industry that it is looking to diversify its economy with – petrochemicals – requires a lot of upfront financing before it pays off.

Consequently, with only around five billion barrels of estimated proved oil reserves (barely the 22nd largest in the world) and minimal natural gas reserves – Oman explored many options to bridge this financing gap but its budget problems were dramatically worsened by the Saudi Arabia-instigated Oil Price Wars of 2014-2016 and 2020. Even before the 2020 attempt by Saudi to severely disable the U.S.’s shale oil sector by using exactly the same strategy that had failed in 2014-2016 and had destroyed the budgets of its OPEC brothers as well, as analyzed in-depth in my new book on the global oil markets, Oman had been facing a budget deficit for that year alone of at least 18 percent of GDP and budget deficits averaging at least 15 percent per year over the next five years. 

In order to give it time to develop its answer to many of its financial problems – the rollout of the perennially-delayed but potentially game-changing Duqm Refinery Project and its corollary projects of a product export terminal in Duqm Port and Duqm refinery-dedicated crude storage tanks in Ras Markaz – Oman tried several options to raise money.

So determined was Oman to keep its fiscal deficit within manageable proportions that not only did it implement measures (including lower expenditure on wages and benefits, subsidies, defense, and capital investment by civil ministries) that reduced expenditure (in 2016 by around 8 percent of GDP) but also moved to rein-in hydrocarbons-related spending as well. In this context, the Sultanate’s Financial Affairs and Energy Resources Council formed a specialized working group to study public spending and the means by which to reduce it.

At the same time, it was made clear that the Omani government would apply zero-based budgeting in the ninth five-year plan of approving allocations for development projects only after all feasibility studies and real cost analysis of each of them had been completed. The Council also underlined that it aimed to avoid having any additional requests for funding from developers after any project had been started. 

However, Oman’s problems relating to the Duqm Refinery Project became worse in 2016 when the UAE’s International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC) said that the Duqm project no longer fitted its overall investment strategy, in light of the impending merger at the time of IPIC with the Mubadala Development Company, and withdrew from the project.

Although this was followed in November by the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Oman Oil Company (OOC) and the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation (KPC) for co-operation on the construction of the refinery, understands that this was not even half of the then-estimated cost of US$6 billion.

Given the negative international credit ratings outlook, and ratings downgrades in previous years, Oman’s options to raise money through conventional bond offerings remained constrained, and so did the appetite of international investors to buy into any part-privatization of any of Oman’s state-owned companies, even the once much-fancied Oman Oil Refineries and Petroleum Industries Company’s (ORPIC).  

It was at this point that China saw its chance to expand its foothold in Oman, which is a key land and maritime hub in Beijing’s multi-generational power-grab project, ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR). Specifically, at around the same time as IPIC withdrew from the project, the refinery operator – the Duqm Refinery & Petrochemical Industries Company (DRPIC) – in tandem with the OOC, appointed a number of global banks, led by regional heavyweight Credit Agricole, to advise on the optimal methods to obtain the funding for the project.

These overtures found particular favor with China, which as part of a broad-based investment into Oman pledged the required funding to cover the completion of the Duqm Refinery. However, it came with the usual Chinese caveats of it being allowed to build massive far-reaching infrastructure projects. 

Already accounting for around 90 percent of Oman’s oil exports and the vast majority of its petrochemicals exports, China was quick to leverage this by further pledging US$10 billion immediately for investment into the Duqm Refinery Project’s adjunct oil refinery – just after the implementation of the nuclear deal with Iran at the beginning of 2016.

At that point, Oman announced that the budget for the Duqm Refinery Project was being increased from the longstanding figure of US$6 billion to a combined US$18 billion for all elements of the Project. This, Oman’s government announced, would enable downstream production to increase from its current 15 million tonnes to 24 million tonnes by 2030, while the commodity sales volumes would nearly double from 21 million tonnes to 40 million tonnes by the same date.

Although further investment from China was geared towards completing the Duqm Refinery – including the export terminal in Duqm Port and the crude storage tanks of the Ras Markaz Oil Storage Park – Chinese money was also funneled towards the construction and building out of an 11.72 square kilometer industrial park in Duqm in three areas – heavy industrial, light industrial, and mixed-use. This has enabled China to secure deeply strategic areas of land in the geopolitically vital Sultanate vitally important Oman, which has long coastlines along the Gulf of Oman and along the Arabian Sea, away from the extremely politically sensitive Strait of Hormuz.

It also offers largely unfettered access to the markets of South Asia, West Asia, and Africa, as well as to those of its neighbors in the Middle East. Following the usual Chinese template of investment, it has also given China the opportunity to populate these areas its own people, from project managers to security personnel.

In line with these developments, the addition of Oman to its Middle East territorial acquisitions means that Beijing can fast-track the transport routes between Iran and Oman.  A long-mooted adjunct to China’s direct plans in this context has been the utilization by Iran of Oman’s unused liquefied natural gas (LNG) capacity.

This plan, long talked about between Tehran and Muscat, is part of Iran’s plans to become an LNG superpower based on its massive South Pars and North Pars non-associated gas fields. Oman for its part would allow Iran to use 25 percent of the Sultanate’s total 1.5 million tons per year LNG production capacity at the Qalhat plant. This could be done as part of a broader plan to build a 192-kilometer section of 36-inch pipeline running along the bed of the Oman Sea at depths of up to 1,340 meters from Mobarak Mount in Iran’s southern Hormuzgan province to Sohar Port in Oman for gas exports.

This, in turn, would re-open the possibilities for further pipeline routes running from Iran to Oman and then into Pakistan and then into China, and the other way around, all under the security protection of China, irrespective of any plans that the U.S. might have in the southern part of the Shia crescent of power in the region, as also analyzed in-depth in my new book.

Oilprice by Simon Watkins, January 11, 2022