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Oil market to become tight in next 2-3 years: Saudi energy minister

Abu Dhabi — The world could run short of oil by 2020 due to the recent sharp globaldownturn in upstream investment, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih saidThursday.

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"From what I can see, within two to three years there will be tightnessbecause many projects have been deferred and delayed," Falih told delegates atthe Atlantic Council Global Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi.

Increasing the likelihood of a medium-term swing towards tight oil supplywas the "not insignificant" natural decline in output from large, maturefields in the Middle East and elsewhere, he added.

For the coming year, Falih said there were too many variables at play forhim to predict market trends. However, he said he broadly expected global oildemand to continue growing while production from mature basins declined.

"Uncertainty about the future has impacted investment levels and jobs inthe industry, which is of particular concern to me. The good news is that weare moving towards a rebalanced market, too slowly for my liking. But the evenbetter news is that the pace of re-balancing will be accelerated by the recentagreements," he said, referring to OPEC's late November agreement to cutoutput by 1.2 million b/d in the first half of 2017 and the group's subsequentdeal with 11 oil producers from outside OPEC under which the non-OPECcountries agreed to cut by roughly a further aggregate 600,000 b/d.

Falih said near-term uncertainty over oil supply -- including the extentof an ongoing rebound in US shale oil production -- was the reason for thelimited duration of the OPEC deal.

"The agreement is for six months for the specific reason that we don'tknow what will happen by mid-year; and then we will consider renewing it," hesaid.

Falih stressed that ongoing cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia,the world's two biggest oil exporters, would be crucial for reducing oilmarket volatility and therefore uncertainty over future oil supply.

"Our collaboration and cooperation for the long term is essential forstability," he said. "If there is a need to bring non-OPEC countries with OPEC[in sustaining production cuts] in the second half of 2017, the Russian-Saudirelationship will continue, as it has before, to play a key part."

Falih said Saudi Arabia was seeking a middle path for oil prices aftertriple-digit prices had proved unsustainable, as had the prices below $30/breached early last year.

"We want to reduce volatility; we cannot eliminate it," he said.

DE-LINKING ECONOMY FROM OIL PRICES

Under its Saudi Arabia Vision 2030 master-plan for economic reform,OPEC's biggest oil producer is seeking to de-link its economy from oil prices.

"We want to do it sooner [rather] than later," Falih said.

Discussing a number of issues related the Saudi government plan forachieving economic stability, including a drive to privatize state assets,Falih said the planned initial public offering of up to 5% of Saudi Aramco wasstill expected in 2018.

The kingdom's currently state-owned power sector would also berestructured, with power transmission and generation functions to be separatedand all future generation to be undertaken by the private sector, he said.

Even the Saudi Stock Exchange, Tadawul, was to be opened to privateinvestment, with a share-listing planned for 2018, along with longer termplans for air and seaports.

"We must move on multiple fronts and do it now," said Falih, a keyadviser to Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the economicreform plan.

A key initiative in a plan to eliminate by 2020 the Saudi state budgetdeficit, which emerged following the latest oil price crash, would be theintroduction next year of a value-added tax on domestic sales of goods andservices, Falih confirmed.

Another notable Saudi budget-reduction measure introduced last year wasan abrupt decision to slash state subsidies on domestic fuel and electricitysupplies.

Reforms to energy prices introduced in early 2016 --increasing transportfuel prices by 50%, along with electricity and gas prices rises --have alreadyhad an impact. Saudi energy demand grew by only 0.5% last year, having grownat around 5% for the last few years, Falih said.

Further reforms to energy subsidies are expected in the coming years asFalih stressed the need for rapid and far reaching reform, including economicdiversification.

--Tamsin Carlisle, tamsin.carlisle@spglobal.com

--Adal Mirza, adal.mirza@spglobal.com

--Edited by Jonathan Dart, jonathan.dart@spglobal.com