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Weak finances a threat to Oman's oil, gas growth in post-Qaboos era

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No change in Oman oil and gas projects

New sultan faces growing tensions in Middle East

IPO of state energy company OQ planned this year

Oman's oil policy and energy development projects are expected to remain unchanged under the new sultan, but its weak financial resources could become a problem for the biggest Arab oil producer outside OPEC, analysts said.

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The smooth succession process that brought Haitham bin Tariq to power following the death of Qaboos last week after five decades of prosperous reign has helped allay fears that the post-Qaboos era could be messy. Qaboos helped create the sultanate's riches and played a key mediator role between rival nations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia and most recently Qatar and other Arab Gulf nations.

Sultan Haitham's reign starts at a tense time in the Middle East, with US-Iran warmongering stoking fears of disruption to regional oil supplies.

Oman is vulnerable to these tensions because it overlooks the Strait of Hormuz, a key waterway for energy vessels in the Persian Gulf that Iran has threatened to close in case of war.

"The new sultan will face some challenging trade-offs," Nour Samaha, a Middle East analyst at Eurasia Group, told S&P Global Platts. "Oil prices continue to be weak, and dependence on oil revenue means that Oman is subject to global oil industry dynamics. The new sultan will not want to disrupt or shake up the current order until he manages to secure himself."

OPEC+ member

Oman is a member of the OPEC-led coalition that has deepened oil output cuts to 1.7 million b/d in a bid to soak up excess crude supply in the first quarter of 2020.

Oman's production of crude oil and condensates in December averaged 970,466 b/d, down from 971,704 b/d in November, according to its latest report.

Analysts expect Oman's OPEC+ commitments to remain unchanged under the new sultan. It stands to benefit from the current cuts because Russia managed to convince the coalition to exempt condensates from quotas, at a time when the sultanate is ramping up total oil production.

In November, Oman's condensate output was 150,000 b/d compared with 820,000 b/d of crude.

"Omani output of crude and condensate by the end of the year could be hitting 1 million b/d," Tom Kenison, Middle East upstream oil analyst at FGE, said. "They have some scope on condensate because it is not included in the OPEC+ commitments."

Production of crude and condensate capacity can easily be 1.2 million b/d by 2025.

Natural gas

Condensate and natural gas production are key for Oman because its crude output from aging fields is declining and it needs to ramp up exploration and enhance oil recovery (EOR) projects if it wants to maintain its oil output.

"Moving forward I believe that most of the EOR projects would be key for oil and condensate growth because most of the historical fields that peaked in late 1990s they are all declining now," said Aditya Saraswat, an analyst at Rystad Energy.

That's why Oman's gas production could overtake oil output by 2025, he said. Gas output is forecast to be around 5.1 billion standard cubic feet/day by 2025, compared with about 4 billion scf/d currently, according to Rystad. The country's gas production is attracting the likes of Shell, Total and BP because the government doubled gas prices in 2012 and 2015.

"Oman will be producing more gas than oil in the next five to six years," Saraswat said. "I think the measures taken by the ministry of oil and gas thereby doubling gas prices and at the same time capital incentive EOR projects makes gas development more commercial than oil development."

Oil dependency

Oil and gas remain the main income for Oman, accounting for 70% of total revenue and 60% of exports, according to S&P Global Ratings.

This high reliance on oil income has prompted the government to think of ways to raise money from the industry on top of the foreign investment that is coming from international oil companies. Other steps being taken include an initial public offering of state-run energy company OQ and possibly introducing a value-added tax. It is grappling with implementing reforms while at the same time appeasing a populace that rioted in 2011 demanding better jobs and economic conditions.

IPO plans

The government wants to sell a 20%-25% stake in the rebranded OQ this year.

"The government is exploring privatizations as a means of generating additional funds," Zahabia Gupta, an S&P Global Ratings analyst, said. "We view the privatizations as a temporary measure that could provide near-term fiscal relief and reduce the pace of debt accumulation, while bringing in foreign direct investment inflows and supporting foreign exchange reserves. However, this may not help reduce the deficits in the medium term."

Currently, Oman uses most of its oil income to pay for wages, defense and energy subsidies. Its breakeven oil price needed to balance the budget this year is $85.90/b, according to the International Monetary Fund. Brent was trading at about $64/b on Thursday.

"As a result of some rigidity in spending, and still-low revenue diversification, the fiscal breakeven point will continue to be quite high for Oman," Gupta said. "It is unlikely to come down to the level where oil prices are currently."