Archive for ‘Riyadh’


China’s growing demand for clean energy and natural gas sparks contest in the Middle East

  • First Qatar, and now Saudi Arabia, are competing to dominate China’s fast-growing natural gas market, already the third largest in the world, as Beijing encourages the switch from coal to cleaner, greener energy
  • A PetroChina LNG tank at Rudong port in Nantong, Jiangsu province. China’s massive and rapidly growing appetite for natural gas is sparking off a scramble in the Middle East, as energy producers compete to become the biggest player in the market. Photo: Reuters
    A PetroChina LNG tank at Rudong port in Nantong, Jiangsu province. China’s massive and rapidly growing appetite for natural gas is sparking off a scramble in the Middle East, as energy producers compete to become the biggest player in the market. Photo: Reuters
    As more countries turn towards clean energy, the geoeconomic impact of natural gas as a fuel has become second only to that of oil. Over the past decade, the global demand for this carbon-free energy source has risen considerably and one major buyer is China.
    The third largest global market for natural gas, China has implemented government policies to replace the use of coal as fuel and millions of households are switching over to clean energy. Consequently, China’s market for gas expanded by a record 43 billion cubic metres last year to reach 280 billion cubic metres at the end of 2018.
    With the recent

    tax cuts in April

    , China’s gas consumption should continue to grow in the year ahead. As the demand spirals further, natural gas consumption in China is estimated to grow to around 620 billion cubic metres in 2030.

    Prioritising its energy security, Beijing last year approved a 22-year gas supply deal between QatarGas and PetroChina International Co. The agreement is PetroChina’s largest LNG supply deal by volume, and will provide 3.4 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas annually.
    With this deal, which QatarGas initiated with Total and ExxonMobil Corp as partners, Qatar achieved regional dominance and filled a vacuum left by major gas producer Iran, currently the target of US sanctions. Interestingly, Beijing has also unwittingly sparked off a competition between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the kingpins of the Middle Eastern energy industry.
    A vessel carrying Qatar LNG looking to berth in Shenzhen, China last August. Qatar’s recent deal highlighted the massive and growing Chinese appetite for natural gas. Photo: Reuters
    A vessel carrying Qatar LNG looking to berth in Shenzhen, China last August. Qatar’s recent deal highlighted the massive and growing Chinese appetite for natural gas. Photo: Reuters
    China to become world’s top natural gas importer in 2019: report
    By exporting gas, as well as oil, Qatar sail unruffled through the

    economic and diplomatic boycott

    imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in June 2017, over allegations that Qatar supports terrorism and is friendly with Iran, which the region sees as an enemy. Qatar denies this. Meantime, Qatar plans to further increase its gas output. To attract more buyers, it is offering attractive long-term supply contracts to other countries in the region.

    Inspired by the success of Qatar Gas, Saudi Arabia has stepped up its efforts to capture this new market. The Saudi state-owned oil giant Aramco plans to build an “energy bridge” between Saudi Arabia and China to better meet Beijing’s growing requirements for oil, gas, including LNG, said Aramco’s chief executive Amin Nasser at an industry event in Beijing in March.

    Aramco, already a major supplier of crude oil to China, would need to invest US$150 billion over the next decade to realise its plans to convert crude oil into chemicals, and eventually become a gas producer. “We need to help our stakeholders – including here in China and the wider Asia region – realise that oil and gas will remain vital to world energy for decades to come,” said Nasser.

    An Aramco employee near an oil tank in Saudi Arabia. Aramco has grand ambitions to become a major producer of natural gas. Photo: Reuters
    An Aramco employee near an oil tank in Saudi Arabia. Aramco has grand ambitions to become a major producer of natural gas. Photo: Reuters

    The vision of Saudi Arabia as a major natural gas producer is in in line with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic plan Vision 2030. Riyadh has only Qatar to beat, with Iran on the back foot. Under sanctions pressure, Tehran, despite plans to increase gas exports, has clung on to just 1 per cent of the natural gas market, exporting 36.24 million cubic metres daily. Yet Iran was once part of the so-called regional gas troika along with Russia and Qatar, and is located at the cusp of several energy transit corridors. China, defying sanctions, continues to buy oil from Iran.

    In around five years, Riyadh could become a major gas exporter. Saudi Arabia has already replaced Iran as the main energy provider in countries such as China, Pakistan and India, and has made huge investments in energy projects in these countries.

    However, Qatar is also playing smart, sharply lowering its prices to clinch deals and make the right business connections. The competition for the growing natural gas market is a long game. The main possible setback for Riyadh is that its gas reserves do not match those in Qatar and Iran.

    Source: SCMP


Oil tanker attacks: did Iran’s ties with China just go up in smoke?

  • Washington has blamed Tehran for an attack on two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, putting pressure on Iran’s allies like China
  • Beijing usually backs its trade partner – but experts say the trade war with the US and problems with Huawei may have changed the equation
A tanker burns in the Gulf of Oman after a mystery attack that the United States has blamed on Iran. Photo: AFP
A tanker burns in the Gulf of Oman after a mystery attack that the United States has blamed on Iran. Photo: AFP
Shinzo Abe

headed to Tehran this week for the first visit by a sitting Japanese prime minister in four decades, some in the diplomatic world imagined he could be the man to bring


back to the negotiating table with the

United States


Those hopes were torpedoed on Thursday when, on the same day Abe was meeting Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, explosions ripped through two oil tankers, one Japanese and one Norwegian, near the Strait of Hormuz, a strategically significant shipping lane.
The attack immediately overshadowed an earlier success for Abe, who had met President Hassan Rowhani a day before and was assured Iran would stick to the terms of a 2015 agreement limiting its nuclear activities.
Washington accused Iran of being behind the attack on the tankers, releasing a video on Friday that it said showed Iran’s revolutionary guard removing an unexploded mine from one of the ships, and warning that it would “defend its interests”.
Iranian President Hassan Rowhani and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. Photo: Reuters
Iranian President Hassan Rowhani and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. Photo: Reuters

Tehran, for its part, claimed to have been set up, with its foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif saying “suspicious doesn’t begin to describe” the incident. So much, then, for hopes of mediation.

US President

Donald Trump

, who had encouraged the Japanese leader’s visit, admitted on Twitter soon afterwards that when it came to negotiating, “they are not ready, and neither are we!”

Still, the incident exposed more than just the naivety of those hoping for an Abe-led breakthrough. In raising the stakes in Washington’s confrontation with Tehran, it also threw the spotlight on Iran’s dwindling number of allies – and perhaps most significantly on its largest trading partner, China – which face mounting pressure to rethink the relationship.

Tanker attacks: world divided over Iran role as Saudi prince breaks silence
The day after the attack, China’s President

Xi Jinping

said Beijing would promote its ties with Iran “however the situation changes” – a comment made during a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rowhani on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Kyrgyzstan – but diplomatic observers question just how far China can go in accommodating its controversial trading partner.


Iran has long been able to count on support from China, which accounts for 30 per cent of the Islamic republic’s exports and imports, and its willingness to defy US pressure is a gamble at least partly based on an assumption it can continue to count on Beijing’s support.

As Iran’s largest economic partner – Chinese direct investment in Iran hit a record high of nearly US$4 billion last year, according to data analysis project ChinaMed – Beijing already plays a key role in relieving US pressure on Iran, said Mohsen Shariatinia, assistant professor of regional studies at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran.

But experts warn that reliance will come into question as China becomes increasingly hamstrung by its own problems.

China has enough problems of its own, starting with US pressure on Huawei. Photo: EPA
China has enough problems of its own, starting with US pressure on Huawei. Photo: EPA
Chief among Beijing’s headaches are its

trade war

with Washington and the related assault on its




– which, as analysts point out, originally ignited over allegations it was defying US sanctions on Iran. Beijing will also be well aware of the need to keep

Saudi Arabia

, its second-biggest oil supplier and Tehran’s critic-in-chief, happy.

On the other hand, analysts say, China will be wary of being seen to abandon its old friend, as doing so would send a message to other nations at odds with Washington that they could no longer look to China as a diversification strategy.
“This could mean Chinese investment is vulnerable to US interference,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder of Bourse Bazaar, a media company that supports business diplomacy between Europe and Iran.
Sanctions drive Iranian students away from US towards Asia
Doing so, Batmanghelidj said, would put a question mark over one of China’s most significant foreign policies of recent years – President Xi’s signature

Belt and Road Initiative

to fund infrastructure across Eurasia.

Tensions between Iran and the US have reached boiling point in recent weeks, after the Trump administration last month ended waivers on sanctions for nations importing Iranian oil – a move the US says is aimed at making the republic “radioactive to the international community” and which Rowhani has described as an “economic war against Iran”.
So far, China has largely stuck by the Islamic Republic, continuing to buy fuel from it despite the latest wave of US sanctions on Iranian oil that followed Trump’s decision last year to withdraw the US from the landmark 2015 agreement curbing Tehran’s nuclear development.
The deal had been widely lauded as a triumph of multilateralism and the dawning of a new economic era for Iran.
US releases video of ‘Iranian forces removing unexploded mine’ from ship
Part of its eagerness to support Iran has stemmed from the Islamic Republic’s key position in the Belt and Road plan. In 2017 alone, China signed deals for more than US$15 billion in Iranian infrastructure investment, according to the

Chinese Communist Party

mouthpiece China Daily.

Planned projects include high-speed rail lines, upgrades to the nation’s electrical grid, and natural gas pipelines. The two nations have also vowed to boost bilateral trade to US$600 billion in the next seven years.
“China sees Iran as its Western gateway, where not only is it a big market in itself, but it will also be the gateway to the rest of the 
Middle East

and ultimately to Europe for China,” said Anoush Ehteshami, professor of international relations at Durham University in Britain.

Nisha Mary Mathew, at the Middle East Institute in Singapore, said that China’s relationship with Iran was not just economic – but primarily strategic, with both nations envisioning an international order that was no longer dominated by the US and its Western allies.
If the belt and road gives China good reason to stick with Iran, there are plenty of voices urging just that action. As Andrea Ghiselli at Shanghai’s Fudan University pointed out, US sanctions until now have only strengthened the hardline factions in Iran’s government.
The combination of the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal – which had the support of the international community – along with Europe’s tepid efforts to rescue it, may have emboldened those favouring resistance over negotiation.
Xi’s supportive comments in Kyrgyzstan were only the latest in a string of remarks from China that could encourage such factions.
If Trump kills off Huawei, do Asia’s 5G dreams die?
After China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Beijing last month, the ministry’s spokesman Lu Kang said China’s economic relationship with Iran was “reasonable and lawful”.
Two months prior to that, China’s Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan, while hosting his Iranian counterpart Farhad Dejpasand, had claimed China’s “determination to maintain and develop the China-Iran comprehensive strategic partnership is unshakeable”.
Chinese President Xi Jinping with Iranian President Hassan Rowhani. Photo: AFP
Chinese President Xi Jinping with Iranian President Hassan Rowhani. Photo: AFP

Even so, the pressure is getting to some. In February, Foreign Minister Zarif temporarily resigned, in what Andrea Ghiselli at Fudan University in Shanghai called a clear sign of the “changing and precarious power balance with Iran’s foreign policy establishment”.

And nowhere is the pressure felt more keenly than the economy and China’s ability to serve as a lifeline.

“The real anxiety in Iran right now is about market share,” said Bourse and Bazaar’s Batmanghelidj. “If you’re exporting zero oil and your customers are buying oil elsewhere, you lose market share.

“The government wants to know if it agreed to go back to the negotiating table and the US promised sanctions relief, that there are people who are going to buy in significant volume.”


For many analysts, the event most likely to have changed the equation in Beijing’s eyes is the arrest by the Canadian authorities of 

Meng Wanzhou

, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecom giant Huawei.

Meng’s arrest came at the request of the US government, which claimed her company had violated sanctions by selling equipment to Iran.
Many observers saw the action as Washington’s way of signalling to Chinese companies that they would face repercussions if they eased the pressure on Iran by continuing to trade.
Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou. Photo: Reuters
Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou. Photo: Reuters

“Going after Huawei was about going after Chinese enterprises – signalling that they can no longer trade with Iran with impunity,” Batmanghelidj said.

Since then, Chinese firms have shown increased skittishness towards trading with Iran. According to China’s General Customs Administration, Chinese exports to Iran declined by more than half between October 2018 and February 2019, from over US$1 billion to just under US$500 million.

Mohammad Ali Shabani, a researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said other countries in the region were now watching to see if China would blink in the face of US pressure. “This could have dire consequences for China’s image as a reliable partner,” he said.


There are reasons beyond US pressure that may factor into Beijing’s thinking. It has long stated its opposition to Iranian nuclear weapons development, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said that China is “ready” to take on “its due responsibilities and make a greater contribution to world peace and common development”.

Trade war: here are Beijing’s options – and none look any good

Zhao Hong, at the Research School of Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University, said that in stepping up as a responsible world power Beijing faced a dilemma over its approach to Iran.
“Chinese leaders have to painfully balance an impulse towards economic cooperation with Iran against other vital interests, including convincing Washington that China is a responsible stakeholder,” he wrote in the Journal of Contemporary China.
Saudi Aramco's Ras Tanura oil refinery. The country is China’s second-largest oil supplier after Russia. Photo: Reuters
Saudi Aramco’s Ras Tanura oil refinery. The country is China’s second-largest oil supplier after Russia. Photo: Reuters

Then there is China’s relationship with Iran’s chief adversary, Saudi Arabia, to consider. Riyadh is China’s second-largest oil supplier, behind Russia, and it plays a central role in Beijing’s energy strategy.

According to International Trade Centre data, more than 12 per cent of China’s imported oil came from Saudi Arabia last year, compared with just 6 per cent from Iran. Last year, Saudi Arabia shipped 56.73 million tonnes of oil to China, or 1.135 million barrels per day.

Why would Kim Jong-un trust Trump, now that he’s ripped up Iran’s nuclear deal?

This April, China imported 6.3 million tonnes of oil from Saudi Arabia, nearly twice the 3.24 million tonnes it imported from Iran, according to China’s General Administration of Customs.

Iran’s comparatively small share of China’s oil imports market and its heavy reliance on China as a trading partner add up to a deeply uneven relationship, experts say, and it is this imbalance that will encourage the US that China may be open to rethinking its ties.

As Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at Washington DC think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, pointed out, while China was Iran’s largest trading partner, Iran represented less than 1 per cent of China’s international trade.

“Iran needs China,” Alterman said. “But to China, Iran is expendable.”

Source: SCMP


Saudi Arabia strikes $10 billion China deal, talks de-radicalisation with Xi

BEIJING (Reuters) – Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman cemented a $10 billion (7.7 billion pounds) deal for a refining and petrochemical complex in China on Friday, meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping who urged joint efforts to counter extremism and terror.

The Saudi delegation, including top executives from state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, arrived on Thursday on an Asia tour that has already seen the kingdom pledge investment of $20 billion in Pakistan and seek to make additional investments in India’s refining industry.

Saudi Arabia signed 35 economic cooperation agreements with China worth a total of $28 billion at a joint investment forum during the visit, Saudi state news agency SPA said.

“China is a good friend and partner to Saudi Arabia,” President Xi Jinping told the crown prince in front of reporters.

“The special nature of our bilateral relationship reflects the efforts you have made,” added Xi, who has made stepping up China’s presence in the Middle East a key foreign policy objective, despite its traditional low-key role there.

The crown prince said Saudi Arabia’s relations with China dated back “a very long time in the past”.

“In the hundreds, even thousands, of years, the interactions between the sides have been friendly. Over such a long period of exchanges with China, we have never experienced any problems with China,” he said.

Crown Prince Mohammed, who has come under fire in the West following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October, said Saudi Arabia saw great opportunities with China.

“The Silk Road initiative and China’s strategic orientation are very much in line with the kingdom’s Vision 2030,” he said according to SPA, referring to Saudi Arabia’s sweeping economic reform programme.


Trade between the countries increased by 32 percent last year, he said.

China has had to step carefully in relations with Riyadh, since Beijing also has close ties with Saudi Arabia’s regional foe, Iran.

China is also wary of criticism from Muslim countries about its camps in the heavily Muslim far western region of Xinjiang, which the government says are for de-radicalisation purposes and rights groups call internment camps.

Xi told the crown prince the two countries must strengthen international cooperation on de-radicalisation to “prevent the infiltration and spread of extremist thinking”, Chinese state television said.

Saudi Arabia respected and supported China’s right to protect its own security and take counter-terror and de-radicalisation steps, the crown prince told Xi, according to the same report, and was willing to increase cooperation.

Meeting the crown prince earlier on Friday, Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng said the two countries should enhance exchanges on their experiences in de-radicalisation, China’s official Xinhua news agency said in a separate report.

Chinese state media made no direct mention of Xinjiang in their stories on the crown prince’s meetings.


Aramco agreed to form a joint venture with Chinese defence conglomerate Norinco to develop a refining and petrochemical complex in the northeastern Chinese city of Panjin, saying the project was worth more than $10 billion.

The partners would form a company called Huajin Aramco Petrochemical Co as part of a project that would include a 300,000-barrels per day (bpd) refinery with a 1.5-million-metric tonnes per year ethylene cracker, Aramco said.

Aramco will supply up to 70 percent of the crude feedstock for the complex, which is expected to start operations in 2024.

The investments could help Saudi Arabia regain its place as the top oil exporter to China, a position Russia has held for the last three years. Saudi Aramco is set to boost market share by signing supply deals with non-state Chinese refiners.

Aramco also signed an agreement to buy a 9 percent stake in Zhejiang Petrochemical, Saudi state news agency SPA said. This formalised a previously announced plan to gain a stake in a 400,000-bpd refinery and petrochemicals complex in Zhoushan, south of Shanghai.

China sees “enormous potential” in Saudi Arabia’s economy and wants more high-tech cooperation, State Councillor Wang Yi, the Chinese government’s top diplomat, said on Thursday.

But China was not seeking to play politics in the Middle East, the widely read state-run tabloid, the Global Times, said in an editorial.

“China won’t be a geopolitical player in the Middle East. It has no enemies and can cooperate with all countries in the region,” said the paper, published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily.

“China’s increasing influence in the Middle East comes from pure friendly cooperation. Such a partnership will be welcomed by more countries in the Middle East.”

Source: Reuters

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