Saudi Arabia looks both east and west

15 September 2023

MEED's October 2023 special report on Saudi Arabia also includes: 

Gigaproject activity enters full swing
Infrastructure projects support Riyadh’s logistics ambitions

Aramco focuses on upstream capacity building
Saudi chemical and downstream projects in motion
Riyadh rides power projects surge
Saudi banks track more modest growth path
Jeddah developer restarts world’s tallest tower


 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud has been enjoying the international limelight of late, with a trip to India to take part in the G20 summit on 9 and 10 September. There, he met a succession of international leaders, including India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A few days earlier, he had announced the launch of a new international body, the Global Water Organisation. Details of its purpose and funding remain limited for now, but it will have its headquarters in Riyadh and is expected to lead international efforts to better manage the world’s water resources.

All this activity is a sign that MBS remains intent on changing Saudi Arabia’s position in the world order – also evident in its decision in March to join the China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a dialogue partner.

That was followed on 24 August by an invitation to join the Brics group, along with the UAE, Iran and three other countries.

Saudi is engaged in extreme hedging … I think Riyadh has suggested reluctance to join Brics just to buy time and signal to Western partners that it is not too eager to join. But I believe Riyadh has long made that call
Cinzia Bianco, European Council on Foreign Relations

Weighing the options

Yet Riyadh also appears keenly aware of the potential pitfalls as it tries to carve out a different role for itself. That was clearly seen in its ambiguous reaction to the Brics invitation, with Foreign Affairs Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan saying it wanted to find out “further details on membership requirements” before committing to join.

Analysts saw those comments as an attempt to placate those in Western capitals concerned about China's growing influence in the Gulf region, and in the UAE and Saudi Arabia in particular.

“I think Faisal bin Farhan’s statement was one of trying to balance expectations and signal to the Biden administration that the Saudis are not definitively taking sides, but rather are seeking to maximise their own leverage in multiple relationships that they see as not mutually exclusive,” says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“There is a feeling in the Biden administration that, under Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE has made a choice to go its own way and do its own thing, but that with Saudi Arabia, there is still a chance to offer Mohammed bin Salman a package that can outdo anything China can come up with.”

Such considerations are nevertheless likely to delay rather than prevent Riyadh from taking up the offer to join Brics or deepen its involvement with the SCO.

There are good reasons for moving with some caution, though. Recent UK media reports have suggested that Saudi Arabia is lobbying to join a project by the UK, Italy and Japan to develop a next-generation fighter jet – something that would give it access to technology that would be hard or impossible to replicate from other, non-Western sources.

The issue will likely be on the agenda if and when Mohammed bin Salman travels to London in the coming months – a visit that has been suggested but is unconfirmed at the time of writing. Such visits remain controversial in Western capitals, where the diplomatic concerns that emerged over relations with Saudi Arabia in 2018 are far from resolved.

“Saudi is engaged in extreme hedging,” says Cinzia Bianco, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Indeed, I think Riyadh has suggested reluctance to join Brics just to buy time and signal to Western partners that it is not too eager to join. But I believe Riyadh has long made that call and will join Brics, as well as the SCO.

“I am not entirely sure what MBS can achieve in London. I know that they want in on the Tempest fighter jet and to sign a bilateral free trade agreement with the UK, but on both questions, there are substantial political obstacles.”

The challenge is that, as 2030 nears, so much of Mohammed bin Salman’s credibility has been vested in that year that officials will feel under intense pressure to deliver results, however they achieve them
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy

Domestic performance

On the domestic front, there are other, broader considerations for Mohammed bin Salman.

As was the case with the launch of the new Global Water Organisation, he often attaches himself closely to new initiatives – something also seen in Riyadh’s bid to host the Expo 2030 trade fair and the broader Vision 2030 strategy to remodel the economy. However, this creates risks if the new projects fail to create the stir that officials hope.

“There’s no doubt that the Saudi crown prince has wagered a substantial degree of financial and political capital as part of his transformation agenda for the country,” says Robert Mogielnicki, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

On the other hand, it might be that there is so much change under way that all the other activity overshadows any failures.

“Somewhat counterintuitively, the massive scale and scope of new investments and initiatives make it harder to point at any one specific area of underperformance as a reflection of the broader transformation process,” adds Mogielnicki.

At the same time, the whole apparatus of the Saudi state will be working hard to ensure that the crown prince’s ambitions are as close to being realised as possible.

“I agree that MBS risks running up reputational problems in the next few years, especially if 2030 nears and some of the gigaprojects show signs of lagging behind with little discernible development,” says Ulrichsen.

“The challenge is that, as 2030 nears, so much of Mohammed bin Salman’s credibility has been vested in that year that officials will feel under intense pressure to deliver results, however they achieve them.”


Image: New Delhi, 11 September 2023 – Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets India's President Droupadi Murmu at the Presidential Palace (Rashtrapati Bhavan). Credit: Saudi Press Agency

https://image.digitalinsightresearch.in/uploads/NewsArticle/11142936/main.gif
Dominic Dudley
Related Articles
  • Rainmaking in the world economy

    19 April 2024

    Commentary
    Edmund O'Sullivan
    Former editor of MEED

    The biennial IMF World Economic Outlook released on 16 April forecasts that global growth will hold steady at just over 3% in 2024.

    That is despite Russia’s war on Ukraine and the risk that Israel’s war on Gaza will trigger a regional conflict and jeopardise oil exports from the region.

    This is an unexpected prospect – rather like a meteorologist forecasting that the UAE will get the equivalent of a year’s rainfall in a single day, as it did in mid-April.

    A soft landing for the world economy despite the risks is by that standard less surprising. But these things don’t just happen.

    Just as the UAE’s greatest flooding incident since records began was exacerbated by creeping climate change, according to experts, global growth is believed to be robust because of determined action to keep prices down, cut inflation and boost the supply of goods and labour.

    The challenge to the rosy outlook, however, is not hard to find. Several key stress factors are in the US.

    The biggest threat to the IMF’s forecast is from events in the Middle East

    American fiscal policy under President Joe Biden has been extremely loose. The US budget deficit to 2030 is forecast to average 6% of GDP. Its debt-to-GDP ratio – now above 100% – will rise for the foreseeable future.

    Even the IMF, always reluctant to criticise its biggest shareholder, says this looks unsustainable. 

    More than 3 million migrants arrived in the US last year and the proportion of foreign-born residents in America is approaching an historic high. A more contentious issue is that more than 2 million undocumented migrants also entered the US in 2023 and the figure is rising.

    Donald Trump is making migration an issue in his campaign to regain the White House. This is fuelling concern among US voters that could precipitate restrictions on immigration.

    The biggest threat to the IMF’s forecast is from events in the Middle East. On the night of 13 April, Iran launched drones and missiles on Israel in retaliation for its attack on Tehran’s Damascus consulate two weeks earlier.

    Oil prices spiked ahead of Iran’s attack and eased back on expectations that there would be no wider regional conflagration. But higher levels of risk are being built in to forecasts of oil prices, which are around a quarter higher than they were in January. Even without an escalation, oil is heading towards $100 a barrel this summer.

    This doesn’t have to happen, however. With concerted international diplomatic efforts on stage and behind the scenes, the world has the capacity to block the path to a new Middle East war and all it entails. 

    But does it have the will? 

    Main image: Flooding in Dubai remains three days after the severe storm on 16 April  


    Connect with Edmund O’Sullivan on Twitter

    More from Edmund O’Sullivan:

    New shock treatment for Egypt’s economy
    Syria’s long march in from the cold
    Lebanon’s pain captured in a call from Beirut
    Troubled end to 2023 bodes ill for stability
    The Holy Land and delusions it inspires
    Region to mark golden jubilee of 1973 war
    Gulf funds help reshape football
    When a war crime is denied
    Embracing the new Washington consensus
    Trump, Turkiye and the trouble ahead


    https://image.digitalinsightresearch.in/uploads/NewsArticle/11698450/main.gif
    Edmund O’Sullivan
  • Masdar and Etihad plan pumped hydro project

    19 April 2024

    Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar) and Etihad Water & Electricity (Ethad WE) have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to develop several clean energy projects in the UAE's northern emirates.

    The planned projects include a solar photovoltaic (PV) project, a pumped hydro storage project and a potential battery energy storage system facility.

    The two companies signed the MoU on 18 April, the final day of the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.

    "This agreement aims to formalise the intention of the parties to further discuss the potential areas of collaboration and possible projects," Masdar said in a social media post.

    Etihad WE is responsible for the procurement and offtake of water and power production services in Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah, Ajman and parts of Sharjah.

    Masdar and Emirates Global Aluminium (EGA) announced an agreement to work together on aluminium decarbonisation and low-carbon aluminium growth opportunities during the same event.

    As part of the agreement, Masdar and EGA will also work together internationally to find opportunities through which Masdar will support EGA to power new aluminium production facilities with renewable energy sources.

    https://image.digitalinsightresearch.in/uploads/NewsArticle/11697806/main5424.jpeg
    Jennifer Aguinaldo
  • Ewec signs Ajban solar PV contract

    19 April 2024

    Abu Dhabi state utility Emirates Water & Electricity Company (Ewec) has signed an agreement for the development and operation of Abu Dhabi’s third utility-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) independent power project (IPP).

    A team led by French utility developer EDF Renewables and including South Korea's Korea Western Power Company (Kowepo) won the 1,500MW Al Ajban solar PV IPP contract.

    Ewec announced the official signing of the contract on 18 April, the final day of the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.

    As with previous solar PV projects in the emirate, Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar) will own a stake in the special purpose vehicle that will implement the project.

    It is the second major contract won by the French-South Korean team in the GCC since March last year. The team previously won the contract to develop and operate the 500MW Manah 1 solar IPP in Oman.

    EDF, along with Masdar and Saudi contracting company Nesma, also won the contract to develop and operate the 1,100MW Hinakiyah solar IPP project in Saudi Arabia in November.

    The EDF-led team submitted the lowest levelised electricity cost of 5.1921 fils a kilowatt-hour (kWh) or about 1.413 $cents/kWh for the Al Ajban solar PV IPP contract, as MEED reported in July 2023.

    Japan’s Marubeni submitted the second-lowest bid of 5.3577 fils/kWh.

    Ewec requested proposals for the contract in January 2023 and received bids in late June 2023. It qualified 19 companies to bid for the contract in September 2022.

    Delivering goals

    The Al Ajban project – similar to the 1,584MW Al Dhafra solar IPP, which was inaugurated in November, and the operational 935MW Noor Abu Dhabi plant – supports the UAE Energy Strategy 2050 and the UAE Net-Zero by 2050 strategic initiative.

    Ewec aims to install up to 17GW of solar PV capacity by 2035.

    The plan will require the procurement of about 1.5GW of capacity annually over the next 10 years. Over the intervening period, ending in 2030, Ewec plans to have an additional 5GW of solar capacity, reaching a total solar installed capacity of 7.3GW by 2030.

    Ewec expects its first battery energy storage system to come online in the late 2020s to boost balancing the grid's load as more renewable energy enters the system.

    The UAE published its updated national energy strategy in July last year. It includes a plan to triple the nationwide renewable energy capacity to 19GW by 2030.

    https://image.digitalinsightresearch.in/uploads/NewsArticle/11697793/main.jpg
    Jennifer Aguinaldo
  • Egypt resumes power cuts

    18 April 2024

    Power cuts resumed across Egypt on 15 April, with scheduled power outages lasting a maximum of one hour per grid zone between 11am and 5pm daily.

    The scheduled power outages began last year and were suspended during Ramadan.

    The electricity ministry has confirmed that, since no new amendments to the load reduction plan have been issued, the power cut plan will continue indefinitely, adding that the outages are expected to last "until at least the end of summer, due to increased grid demand during the hotter months".

    The government-initiated load-shedding programme initially aimed to rein in rising electricity consumption and reduce pressure on the country's gas network.

    According to the country’s Electricity & Renewable Energy Ministry, national electricity consumption reached 43,650MW in mid-July last year, up significantly from previous highs of about 31,000MW.

    While the record-high consumption level is still below the official generation installed capacity of close to 60,000MW, consumption levels of 34,000MW–36,000MW will require about 129-146 million cubic metres of gas and diesel a day.

    Barring load-shedding, any increase in consumption beyond 36,000MW will require a commensurate increase in gas and diesel, which is understood to be beyond the government’s capacity to procure.

    Crucially, the other side of the electricity rationing initiative has to do with the need to save gas for exports, to boost the government’s dollar reserves in the face of the ongoing currency crisis.


    MEED’s latest special report on Egypt includes:

    Cairo secures a cumulative $54bn in financing
    Egypt faces political and economic trials

    Cairo beset by regional geopolitical storm
    More pain for more gain for Egypt
    Egypt oil and gas project activity declines
    Familiar realities threaten Egypt’s energy hub ambitions
    Egypt’s desalination projects inch forward
    > Infrastructure carries Egypt construction

    https://image.digitalinsightresearch.in/uploads/NewsArticle/11694938/main5714.jpg
    Jennifer Aguinaldo
  • Ewec wants carbon-capture readiness for next gas power plant

    17 April 2024

    The request for proposals (RFPs) that will be issued for the next combined-cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plant in Abu Dhabi will explicitly require the developers or developer consortiums to accommodate the installation of carbon-capture facilities once they are commercially viable.

    "A key part of the RFP is to make a declaration that this project will be carbon-capture ready … that such facility will be installed as part of the project once carbon-capture solutions become commercially viable," Andy Biffen, executive director of asset development at Emirates Water & Electricity Company (Ewec), told the ongoing World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.

    As MEED previously reported, Ewec is considering issuing a tender in the next few weeks for its first gas-fired independent power producer (IPP) project since 2020.

    The greenfield Taweelah C gas-fired IPP is planned to reach commercial operation by 2027, according to a recent Ewec capacity procurement statement.

    "We understand that they might skip the expressions of interest and request for qualifications stage and directly invite qualified developers to bid for the contract," two sources familiar with the project previously told MEED.

    The planned Taweelah C gas-fired IPP is expected to have a power generation capacity of 2,457MW.

    Ewec awarded its last CCGT IPP nearly four years ago. Japan's Marubeni Corporation won the contract to develop the Fujairah F3 IPP in 2020.

    The state utility is considering new gas-fired capacity in light of expiring capacity from several independent water and power producer (IWPP) facilities.

    The plants that will reach the end of their existing contracts during the 2023-29 planning period include:

    •  Shuweihat S1 (1,615MW, 101 million imperial gallons a day (MIGD)): expires in June 2025
    •  Sas Al Nakhl (1,670MW, 95MIGD): expires in July 2027
    •  Taweelah B (2,220MW, 160MIGD): expires in October 2028
    •  Taweelah A1 (1,671MW, 85MIGD): expires in July 2029

    Ewec and the developers and operators of these plants are expected to enter into discussions before the expiry of the contracts to decide whether a contract extension is possible. Unsuccessful negotiations will lead to the dismantling of the assets at the end of the contract period.

    In 2022, MEED reported that Abu Dhabi had wound down the operation of Taweelah A2, the region's first IWPP. The power and water purchase agreement supporting the project expired in September 2021 and was not extended.

    https://image.digitalinsightresearch.in/uploads/NewsArticle/11690735/main2323.gif
    Jennifer Aguinaldo