Sour grapes: A wider context to Saudi refinery attack aftermath

The complex nature of the oil market and geopolitical context was not fully understood by countries outside the Iran-Saudi Arabia or US-China relations realm.

ARAMCO IS heading for an IPO but the September incident has repercussions. (photo credit: REUTERS)
ARAMCO IS heading for an IPO but the September incident has repercussions.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There are several different contexts to analyze the attack on Aramco’s refinery on September 14, ranging from energy market to military strategic.
The basic context is a geopolitical dispute between Middle Eastern powers having a proxy war in Yemen, oil shipping route disputes getting out of hand and the testing of boundaries of US and international response.
It becomes much more complex when you consider that Saudi oil giant Aramco is on the cusp of the largest IPO ever, valued at up to $2 trillion. It becomes even more complex in light of the data that according to Reuters, China’s September refinery throughput rose by 9.4% year to year. China’s oil storage data and consumption is correlated to a variety of economic indexes that go far beyond China and Asia and deep into European and global economic indicators. Any disruption to prices and supply could impact this “well oiled” mechanism. To make matters even more complex, according to the IEA, OPEC faces “serious challenges” if it wants to defend oil prices in 2020 due to risks on the demand side.
It seems that this context was not lost on Aramco’s end. For a short period of time, there was a drop to production, but Aramco lived up to its promises and made restoration to facilities in record time, releasing its own oil reserves while raising production in other fields. If anything, this event showed how resilient and adaptive Aramco is as a company. However, there is no doubt that if similar attacks occur again, it will have a significant impact on Aramco and the region. The relevant parties clearly understood the intertwined nature of the situation and are believed to have worked out some understandings in the face of the US and China’s geopolitical interests as well as their own.
There is a risk, however that the complex nature of the oil market and geopolitical context was not fully understood by countries outside the Iran-Saudi Arabia or US-China relations realm. Middle Eastern countries that are not oil providers could overlook the financial aspect of the Aramco deal and the Chinese oil demand patterns and focus their efforts and understanding of reality on the military-geopolitical aspect alone. Asian countries reliant on oil to continue growing their GPD, could very well focus on the financial aspect, and how the attack had little long-term impact on the market and price and overlook the significance of the attack from a geopolitical standpoint when moving from a proxy war to a direct attack. This risk must be analyzed from all aspects, including by US energy market traders, mostly used to the sophistication of the US oil storage markets and supply-and-demand models that are nothing like the Chinese patterns, which are much more opportunistic in nature. 
Will such an attack happen again soon? It’s tempting to analyze that it might, as once a threshold has been crossed, it could be easier to repeat. However, if the market was different and geopolitical risks were not on the oil demand side as they are now, the outcome could have been very different, and it would be quite a risk for such an attack to happen again.
The author is a GARP-ERP (Energy Risk Professional).


Tags oil