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As US Retreats, China Expands Its Influence In The Middle East With Major Oil Deal


China continues to expand its influence in the Middle East through oil and infrastructure deals, and the latest deal with ADNOC is a great example of how Beijing looks to grow its presence in the offshore oil business

It is little surprise to see that China – again – figures in yet another concessions award in the Middle East, this time relating to the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). In the aftermath of Saudi Arabia’s second disastrous oil price war against the U.S. shale sector, virtually all major Middle Eastern state-owned oil firms are looking to plug varyingly significant operational deficits, as are their governments.

In the absence of a sudden major spike in oil prices, economic survival in practical terms now comes down to one of two broad options. The first is to sell off chunks of state assets in initial public offerings (IPOs) or stakes in ongoing oil and gas projects, which ADNOC recently did with the sale of a 49 per cent stake in its gas pipelines for just over US$10 billion to international investors. The second is to sell-off the same assets to companies from countries for which the immediate economic shortfall inherent in such deals pales into insignificance compared to the longer-term geopolitical and financial advantages. In this latter regard, Russia has its own financial constraints to deal with but China does not.

Specifically, ADNOC has announced the transfer of ownership rights in its Lower Zakum, and Umm Shaif and Nasr offshore concessions from the existing holding of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s (CNOOC) subsidiary, CNOOC Limited. This will be done by CNOOC acquiring a 40 per cent interest in CNPC’s majority-owned subsidiary PetroChina Investment Overseas (Middle East) Ltd (PetroChina) through its holding company, CNOOC Hong Kong Holding Limited (CNOOC HK). After the proposal has been approved by Abu Dhabi’s Supreme Petroleum Council (SPC) – a rubber-stamping affair – CNOOC will join the principal operating consortium in the Lower Zakum concession, comprising India’s ONGC Videsh (10 per cent stake), Japan’s INPEX Corporation (10 per cent), China’s CNPC (6 per cent), Italy’s Eni (5 per cent), and France’s Total (5 per cent). CNOOC will also join the principal operating consortium in the Umm Shaif and Nasr concession, comprising Total (20 per cent), Eni (10 per cent), and CNPC (6 percent). ADNOC will retain a 60 per cent majority ownership interest in both concessions.

Significantly, aside from the broader relentless expansion of China into the Middle East, in line with its multi-generational ‘One Belt, One Road’ programme, this deal marks the first time a dedicated Chinese offshore oil and gas company has joined in any ADNOC concession. These points did not go unnoticed by the chairman of CNOOC, Wang Dongjin, who said: “CNOOC will leverage our extensive expertise in the offshore sector and be dedicated to value creation in these concessions for our mutual benefit.”

In this context, this latest deal follows the signing on 22 July 2019 of a comprehensive framework agreement between ADNOC and CNOOC to ‘explore new opportunities for collaboration’ in the upstream, midstream, and downstream oil sectors as well as in liquefied natural gas (LNG). Described at the time by ADNOC chief executive officer, Ahmed Al Jaber as “far-reaching”, the deal is such a significant move by China into the core oil and gas interests of one of the U.S.’s few remaining vocal allies in the Middle East – the UAE – that the deal signing ceremony was attended in person by China’s President, Xi Jinping.

Although couched in the usual platitudes expected in such deals, even the official guidance on its contents highlighted its vast scope and scale. For example, ADNOC and CNOOC, according to the official published notes on the agreement, will ‘share knowledge, best practices and technologies in ultra-sour gas development to improve operational efficiency in gas processing and treatment, deliver efficiency, performance and reliability for drilling operations and develop field and reservoir development plans’.

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