Saudi Aramco Considers Privatization

Saudi Aramco could be broken up and partially privatized in a move which has excited the interest of western oil companies BP and Shell. The surprise move was announced by Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi, who confirmed separately his petroleum ministry had already started to establish a publicly owned energy services company. Saudi Aramco is a state-owned group which controls the country's production of 10 million barrels of crude a day, 12% of the world's total, while holding a quarter of all known reserves left in the ground.

Mr Naimi said his new support services firm would provide engineering, seismic survey and drilling work, adding "we are also studying the possibility of privatizing some of Saudi Aramco's operations". The disclosures came in a speech at the weekend to Saudi Aramco employees and Saudi crown prince Abdullah, who is in Texas after talks with George Bush about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

The remarks about Saudi Aramco were seen as highly significant given that western oil firms such as ExxonMobil, BP and Shell have recently been awarded contracts to work on gas projects in Saudi Arabia. Foreign firms have traditionally been kept out of the oil and gas sector.

Crown prince Abdullah - effectively the ruler now - has made clear he wants to modernize the economy to make it more efficient and to create more jobs.

BP said it was too early to jump to conclusions but said it was interested. "We would have to look and see how, when and where it [privatization] was to be done," said a spokesman. The world's second largest publicly traded oil group behind ExxonMobil is a participant in one of the three new gas projects and an industry expert who knows BP well said "every oil company wants to be close to where the major reserves are and Saudi Arabia is the heart of it all".

Shell said it "would not comment on this kind of thing" but sources pointed out that Shell was an operator on one of the new gas schemes in Saudi Arabia and had a downstream joint venture in the US with the Saudis known as Motiva, which includes refineries and 12,000 petrol stations. "Shell is very interested in Saudi Arabia," said the source.

While British oil groups will follow developments closely, they will be aware that delays and policy U-turns cannot be ruled out. The gas deals are behind schedule and have not been officially signed off yet amid wrangling over price and other critical issues. The 30% part-privatization of another industrial firm, Sabic, went ahead as expected but the anticipated sale of the remaining 70% never happened.