Petrochemicals ambitions define Saudi downstream

9 March 2023


Saudi Aramco began a gradual pivot towards petrochemicals in 2007 when it partnered with Dow Chemical Company to build the Sadara chemicals project in Saudi Arabia.

Aramco’s majority acquisition of Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (Sabic) in June 2020, however, marked the formal integration of the kingdom’s oil and gas and petrochemical industries.

Just a month after completing the $69.1bn transaction with the Public Investment Fund to acquire a 70 per cent stake in Sabic, Aramco announced a reorganisation of its downstream business to create four dedicated commercial units: fuels (including refining, trading, retail and lubricants); chemicals; power; and pipelines, distribution and terminals.

Since taking these two significant steps in 2020 to bring Sabic into its fold and reshuffle its downstream business to make it more efficient and profitable, Aramco has sanctioned significant capex allocation to increasing petrochemicals production and broadening its products portfolio.

So much so that the volume of Saudi petrochemical projects in different pre-execution stages, valued at $36bn according to MEED Projects, dwarfs the pipeline of oil refining and gas processing projects.

Aramco/Sabic is currently overseeing progress on at least three mega petrochemical projects in the kingdom.

Amiral petrochemicals scheme

Saudi Aramco and Total Refining & Petrochemical Company (Satorp) is moving closer to awarding the main engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contracts for its estimated $7bn Amiral petrochemicals project in Jubail, Saudi Arabia.

The lowest bidders have emerged for the four main EPC packages of the project, which represents the expansion of Satorp’s crude oil refining operations in Jubail into petrochemicals production.

Satorp’s petrochemicals complex, which will be the centrepiece of the Amiral development, will feature the Middle East’s largest mixed-feed cracker, processing 50 per cent ethane and refinery off-gases and with the capacity to produce 1.5 million tonnes a year (t/y) of ethylene, 500,000 t/y of propylene and related high-added-value derivative products.

The Amiral petrochemicals facility, which has recently been chosen to receive support from the Saudi government’s Shareek programme, will be integrated with Satorp’s existing 440,000 barrel-a-day (b/d) capacity refinery in Jubail to give the upcoming complex competitive feedstock advantage.

Satorp and the Royal Commission for Jubail & Yanbu are calling on third-party investors to commit up to $4bn to build chemicals plants that will derive feedstock from the main Amiral complex.

Aramco slated to escalate upstream spending

Integrated Yanbu project

Sabic recently confirmed progress with another project to build an integrated refinery and petrochemicals project in Yanbu, on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast.

Sabic and its parent company Aramco signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec) in December for the Chinese chemicals company to partner in the planned petrochemicals project in Yanbu.

The aim of the MoU, signed on 15 December, is for the partners “to study the economic and technical feasibility of developing a new petrochemical complex to be integrated with an existing refinery in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia”, Aramco stated.

MEED understands that the MoU relates to a partnership for the planned Integrated Yanbu Project (IYP). The proposed project calls for integrating the Yanbu Aramco Sinopec Refinery Company’s (Yasref) existing refinery facility with a greenfield petrochemical-producing facility in Yanbu.

The petrochemicals unit will draw crude oil derivatives such as naphtha as feedstock from the Yasref refinery to process into chemicals.

Crude oil-to-chemicals complex

Sabic recently also announced the start of a feasibility study and initial engineering work to establish a large-scale complex that will convert crude oil and liquids into petrochemicals in Ras al-Khair, Saudi Arabia.

The planned complex has the capacity to convert 400,000 b/d of oil directly into chemicals.

Sabic said it would “announce progress on the [oil-to-chemicals] project in the next few years”, without providing other details, such as if it had appointed a consultant for the feasibility study on the project.

The petrochemicals giant announced in November last year that it was due to start the feasibility study into the proposed project in Ras al-Khair, located in the kingdom’s Eastern Province.

The plan to build an oil-to-chemicals facility in Ras al-Khair, instead of the previously selected location of Yanbu, is the latest move by Sabic over the past five years or so to establish such a project.

Sabic’s ambition to build a large-scale facility that converts crude oil and liquids directly into petrochemicals has faced obstacles in the past, mainly due to its capital-intensive nature and technological challenges.

Downstream oil and gas

These huge petrochemical projects aside, Aramco continues to advance projects not just to boost the throughput of its refineries and gas processing plants but also to improve its environmental credentials, in line with its net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 pledge.

Last year, Aramco awarded EPC contracts for a pair of projects to modify sulphur recovery units (SRUs) at its Riyadh and Ras Tanura refineries. French contractor Technip Energies secured the Riyadh refinery desulphurisation contract, which could be worth up to $250m.

Egypt-headquartered Engineering for the Petroleum & Process Industries (Enppi) won the main contract for the Ras Tanura refinery in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, estimated to be worth $300m-$400m.

The Saudi energy giant is now moving ahead with a major desulphurisation programme to modify SRUs at its key gas processing plants in the kingdom.

Aramco expects third-party investments of up to $2bn in the desulphurisation programme, which entails building a large downstream tail-gas treatment (TGT) facility to collect and process tail gas discharged from SRUs at identified gas plants.

The facilities will be developed on a build-own-operate-transfer basis, making it one of Aramco’s initial public-private partnership exercises in its main oil and gas business. Investors are preparing proposals for the scheme, which are due by the end of March.
Indrajit Sen
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