Liquidity drives project finance appetite

27 October 2023


This report on project finance and PPP also includes: PPP activity rebounds in 2023

Activity in the Gulf region has triggered a boom in the project finance market, with Saudi Arabia leading the way on the back of schemes linked to its Vision 2030 strategy.

Deals are fanning out from power and water and infrastructure schemes into unexplored territory: hydrogen projects and ever-larger solar power plants have opened up opportunities for international and regional banks that are awash with liquidity and looking for long-term means to deploy it.

Deal advisers attest to the vibrancy of Saudi Arabia, the largest regional projects market with $1.2tn-worth of known work in the pipeline. The kingdom has seen the largest project financing this year, a facility worth at least $6bn arranged for the Neom green hydrogen project.

“Saudi Arabia is a market that really is firing on all cylinders,” says Rob Harker, a partner at law firm DLA Piper, which advised Neom Green Hydrogen Company in connection with its green hydrogen and ammonia project in Saudi Arabia.

“That demand is not limited to utility sector projects. In addition to the very large solar and wind projects – including a Saudi solar deal that is 1.1GW – we are also seeing a large volume of social infrastructure projects being procured across the GCC, including in education, healthcare, social accommodation and transport,” he adds. 

“Bank debt – both regional and international – is still the principal source of financing for these projects. However, robustly structured projects should also be attractive, particularly on a refinancing, to a capital markets issuance.”

Robust liquidity support

There is increased liquidity in the regional banking market, notes John Dewar, partner in international law firm Milbank’s global project, energy and infrastructure practice, which advised the export credit agencies (ECAs) and commercial banks in connection with Project Lightning, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company’s offshore power transmission project.

“With the bullish medium-term oil price outlook, there is significant liquidity in the Saudi and UAE bank markets, with these banks looking to on-lend their petrodollar deposits on a longer-term basis.”

This still poses some challenges. Analysts note that despite the bountiful credit availability, things can change.

“There is still a lot of liquidity in the system in the GCC, but some have voiced concerns that liquidity in the banking market could dry up in the future if they have to compete with projects that are much larger in scale,” says Christiane Kuti, a director at Fitch Ratings. 

“Overall liquidity in the market could get tight at some point, although we are not there at the moment.”

Even then, notes Kuti, a lower oil price could add impetus to the need to develop frameworks to make projects more bankable, and provide an opportunity for the capital market to play a bigger role.

Most of the larger deals are witnessing a heterodox mix of local and international banks participating. For example, a consortium of five local and international banks has agreed to provide $545m of financing for the Rabigh 4 independent water producer project in Saudi Arabia, with Standard Chartered Bank lining up alongside Bank of China and the local trio of Saudi National Bank, Riyad Bank and Saudi Investment Bank.

The Chinese bank presence is a pointer. “We have seen Chinese banks participating in project finance deals, and that is set to continue as they are not as constrained as some of the regional banks in terms of the tenor on which they can lend. Their ability to lend on a longer-term tenor is sometimes attractive for sponsors and developers,” a source tells MEED.

The flipside of this is that Chinese lenders are less knowledgeable about the market.

Global uncertainties

Despite the robust oil price climate, project financings across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region have had to cope with a choppy global interest rate environment, with inflationary pressures also impinging.

Higher interest rates have militated against the use of capital market instruments in some regional deals. For Abu Dhabi’s subsea transmission system deal, which reached financial close earlier this year, higher interest rates were responsible for adding $200m to the $3.8bn deal.

This has implications for other projects that are seeking refinancing on the capital market. In Saudi Arabia, BlackRock-led investors in Saudi Aramco’s gas pipeline network attempted early in 2023 to raise $4.5bn from a sale of bonds to refinance a multibillion-dollar loan. The 10-year mature sukuk (Islamic bond) tranche spread placed it about 120 basis points above where Aramco bonds maturing in October 2030 were trading, according to Reuters’ calculations.

Another consortium led by US-based energy infrastructure investment firm EIG Global Energy Partners had also looked to the bond markets to refinance.

“The EIG and BlackRock-led consortiums investing in Saudi Aramco’s oil and gas pipelines infrastructure have been looking to refinance more than $20bn of acquisition debt,” says Dewar. 

“Both have been active in the bond market, but the interest rate environment has moved against bonds, so there has been an increasing focus by borrowers on accessing other longer-term liquidity sources, particularly from the highly liquid regional banks.”

Capital market instruments

For the moment, capital market instruments are largely confined to refinancing rather than greenfield projects. However, once some of these projects are financed, it could encourage others to lend on that basis.

“Once a project has been up and running, and it has got consistent revenue from the offtaker of the electricity or the water, and they are paying an index-linked revenue stream that is 100 per cent take or pay and insulated from the erosion of any inflationary pressures, that is very attractive for bondholders, pension funds and other institutions that want stable revenues,” says one industry insider.

Beyond the Gulf, Egypt has managed to attract project finance for its renewable energy schemes, with significant ECA support. In March 2023, a $690m non-recourse financing was arranged for the 500MW Gulf of Suez Wind 2 project in Egypt. 

The renewable energy push has continued after Cairo’s hosting of the 2022 Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (Cop27). The drive has included the Amunet wind and Abydos solar projects closed by Amea Power, as well as the Gulf of Suez Wind 2 project sponsored by Engie, TTC-Eurus and Orascom.

“They are both important deals in a global context because they mark the first occasions on which the Japanese ECAs have co-financed with the International Finance Corporation and the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development, respectively, opening up important new financing opportunities in emerging markets,” says Dewar.

Support from ECAs is particularly valued in Egypt, given the economic challenges the country is facing. 

A planned polypropylene complex due to be developed in Egypt’s Suez Canal Economic Zone has been put on hold, with the $1.7bn project developed by Red Sea Refining & Petrochemical Company having been affected by the depreciation of the Egyptian pound.

More regional financing

Another emerging theme will be for the larger Mena banks to play a bigger role in regional project financings.

The likes of First Abu Dhabi Bank have been active across GCC borders, including in Saudi Arabia. Given their healthy liquidity profiles, the biggest banks in the GCC are better positioned for longer-tenor project finance deals than ever before. 

Not that it will be plain sailing. Structural impediments will still have to be overcome.

For example, most Saudi banks still need to get consent from the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (Sama) to participate in dollar loans. “That can constrain their ability to operate outside the kingdom,” says Dewar. 

“There is a regulatory preference for them to make Saudi riyal loans rather than dollars. But because of the increase in dollar liquidity, there is much more availability in the Saudi market than there was a year ago.”

Project finance will remain a critical part of the funding mix in the Mena region. As Fitch Ratings notes, the significant growth needed to achieve the GCC’s investment requirements cannot be attained using traditional financing channels, such as on-balance-sheet funding by governments. Instead, there is a need to broaden the investor base, including through project financing.

The likelihood of a more benign global interest rate environment in 2024 should pave the way for a reassertion of capital market-based deals, making the next few months busy ones for banks and deal-makers across the Mena region.

 PPP activity rebounds in 2023
James Gavin
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