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Saudi Arabia’s efforts to broaden its share in the global petrochemicals market since the 1990s are paying off. An early start has given the Kingdom a sturdy foothold to fend off intensifying competition from Asia, the US and Iran in the rapidly-growing segment. Market growth also supports the diversification of Saudi Arabia’s oil-centric economy and broadens the local job market – both cornerstones of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.
The expansion will add 2.6 million mt/year of capacity to the existing 2.4 million mt/year of chemicals currently produced by PetroRabigh, a joint venture of state-oil giant Saudi Aramco and Japan’s Sumitomo.
Meanwhile, international alliances are extending the Kingdom’s influence. For example, one of the world’s largest petrochemical companies, Riyadh-based Sabic, signed a strategic cooperation agreement with China’s state-owned Sinopec Group in March to explore joint venture petrochemical projects in both countries.
As Saudi Arabia’s expansion plans continue, two points cannot afford to slip from the top of the checklist; continued investment in human capital and innovative research and development (R&D). Quality trumps quantity – an equation that cannot be diluted by market forces, including the fact that the supply of cheap gas feedstock is not as plentiful as it once was.
The GCC increased its year-on-year chemical R&D spend by 38% to $729 million in 2015, versus a 9.5% decline in the global market.
But the GPCA said the region’s overall contribution to global spending is still just 2%. GCC and global producers could also benefit from deepening their commercial acumen in sales, marketing and management of the supply chain.
Consultants BCG estimate that GCC producers’ product value loses 3-5% to middlemen due to an over-reliance on off-takers and traders to sell products. This is an unaffordable loss; global jostling for new business means each ton holds more competitive value than ever.
China and India are spearheading Asia’s rapidly growing market, with China potentially moving into Saudi Arabia’s ‘back garden’ if discussions with Egypt to establish a petrochemical industries complex in the Gulf of Suez gain traction.
In the US, the shale revolution has unlocked huge quantities of cheap natural gas liquids, including ethane, a primary feedstock for ethylene production, and encouraged nearly a decade’s worth of major investment into the country’s industry.
The American Chemistry Council estimates that approximately 15% of the world’s chemicals are now produced by the US’ chemical industry, while Platts Analytics said 2.7 million mt/year of new ethylene capacity will come online by the end of this year alone, at locations such as Freeport, Baytown and Cedar Bayou in Texas.
According to Platts Analytics, the US accounts for 18% of global ethylene capacity currently and by 2025, this is expected to increase to 21%, if all projects come online as planned.
Closer to home, the lifting of most of the Western sanctions on Iran in January 2016 has rejuvenated the petrochemical ambitions of a country that is home to the world’s second largest natural gas reserves and which benefits from plentiful feedstock from the giant South Pars field.
Based on projects that are most likely to come online in the next five years, Platts Analytics estimates that Iran’s ethylene capacity will climb by 54% from today’s 7 million mt/year to 12 million mt/year by 2025. Iran’s ability to source and inject up to $85 billion of the funds required for its petrochemical industry over the coming decade remains to be seen.
Saudi Arabia has long been abreast of the tide of change, embracing it while others shy away and risk being left out in the commercial cold. Such intellectual and operational flexibility will only become more valuable as the Kingdom needs to ringfence market share from well-equipped and ambitious challengers.
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