Saudi Arabian Oil Co., or Aramco, invites many superlatives. It is the world’s largest oil company, accounting for about 10 percent of global production. Last year, it was the world’s most profitable company, far surpassing the earnings of companies such as Apple or JPMorgan Chase.
It’s also beset by risks, as the company lays out in a 658-page prospectus announcing its planned share sale, which is set to culminate Dec. 5. Fears about climate change could reduce demand for oil and increase the odds of Aramco getting sued, the company warns. Terrorist attacks and armed conflict also loom large, the company cautions, detailing several drone and missile strikes on its facilities this year, one of which briefly knocked out more than half of its oil production.
And with the kingdom planning to hang onto more than 98 percent of the company, minority shareholders face the risk that the government may lean on Aramco to spend money in ways not “consistent with the company’s immediate commercial objectives,” the prospectus warns.
Aramco says it plans to sell a 1.5 percent stake on the Saudi Stock Exchange in Riyadh, at a price in the range of $8.00 to $8.50 a share. That would raise roughly $25 billion, giving Aramco a total value of up to $1.7 trillion – less than the $2 trillion or more Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the company was worth in 2016.
A year after some financial institutions briefly gave Saudi Arabia the cold shoulder over the savage murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Western banks have flooded back to work on the IPO. Aramco has hired 28 banks to assist with the sale, including Citigroup, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.
As markets gear up for the offering, here’s what you need to know about Aramco:
– Size: In 2018, Aramco pumped 10.3 million barrels of crude oil a day. According to the prospectus, the company’s liquid petroleum reserves were about five times larger last year than the combined reserves of ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Chevron and Total. Much of Aramco’s oil is in easy-to-tap fields onshore or in shallow waters, giving the company a low cost of production. All of those factors made Aramco the world’s most profitable company in 2018, with net income of $111 billion. The company’s profitability has fallen this year with a drop in oil prices.
– History: Aramco dates back to 1933, when Saudi Arabia granted Standard Oil of California (Socal) a concession to explore for oil in the kingdom. Socal founded a local subsidiary, in which Texaco soon bought a 50 percent stake.
The subsidiary struck oil in 1938 and quickly began producing. In the 1940s, predecessor companies to Exxon and Mobil bought stakes in the Saudi venture, which by then was called Arabian American Oil Company. In the early 1970s the Saudi government began demanding an ownership stake, acquiring 60 percent by 1974, according to “The Age of Oil: The Mythology, History, and Future of the World’s Most Controversial Resource.”
Later that year, the kingdom informed its U.S. partners that it intended to fully nationalize Aramco, a process it completed in 1981. Led by Ali Al-Naimi, who later became oil minister, the company renamed itself the Saudi Arabian Oil Co. and began buying refineries, gas stations and other assets overseas.
– Future: Aramco grew into a giant by exporting to the West, but its current and future business depends heavily on Asia. The company has sent about 70 percent of its crude oil exports to Asian customers in recent years, according to the prospectus. And Asia will account for about 41 percent of global demand for refined petroleum by 2030, the document says.
– Climate risk: Fears about climate change could well reduce demand for hydrocarbons and put a crimp in Aramco’s growth plans, the company cautions. The International Energy Agency also has predicted a slowdown, saying oil demand could flatten out in the 2030s as consumers shift to more-fuel-efficient cars and electric vehicles.
Aramco warns that climate change also could have “physical impacts” on the company’s infrastructure and increase the risk of the company getting sued by cities, public-interest groups and others seeking damages. Worsening attitudes toward fossil fuels are part of the reason Saudi Arabia is selling a stake in Aramco – the kingdom wants to use the proceeds to help fund the diversification of its economy away from oil.
– Security risks: In 2019 alone Aramco facilities were hit by three aerial attacks, according to the prospectus, underscoring the company’s vulnerability in a volatile region. In May, a drone loaded with explosives struck the company’s East-West pipeline, briefly shutting it down. In August, five drones hit an Aramco gas facility at the Shaybah field in southeastern Saudi Arabia, causing $28 million in damage, Aramco said.
The next month, aerial attacks on Aramco sites in Khurais and Abqaiq caused massive fires and knocked out 54 percent of Aramco’s crude oil production. It took 10 days to restore production, according to the prospectus, which blamed the strikes on drones and missiles. Iran-allied rebels in Yemen, who have been fighting a Saudi-led military coalition since 2015, claimed responsibility for the September attacks. U.S. and Saudi officials all but explicitly accused Iran of launching the strikes from its territory, which Iran denied. The prospectus offers no conclusion about the source of the attacks. The document notes that armed conflict is underway in four nearby countries – Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Libya. “No assurance can be given that these political or security concerns or social unrest will not have a material adverse effect on the Company’s business, financial position and results of operations,” it says.
– Minority shareholder risk: Owning a small sliver of a company otherwise controlled by the Saudi royal family carries its own risks. The kingdom in the past has used Aramco as a piggy bank to fund pet projects, as the prospectus acknowledges. “The Government has directed, and may in the future direct, the Company to undertake projects or provide assistance for initiatives outside the Company’s core business in furtherance of the Government’s macroeconomic, social or other objectives,” the document says, noting that the government instructed Aramco to build a postgraduate university in 2007 and a research and policy center in 2009.
A 2017 law requires such dealings to be “on a commercial basis,” the prospectus says. But it adds: “If the Government directs the Company to undertake future projects other than on a commercial basis, the Company’s financial position and results of operation may be materially and adversely affected.”
– Leadership: The state controls Aramco’s 11-person board, holding the right to nominate six directors. Any shareholder owning a stake of more than 0.1 percent may nominate the other board members, but all must be approved by a shareholder vote, which the state will continue to control.
The current chief executive is Amin Nasser, a petroleum engineer who has spent many years working at Aramco. The prospectus calls Aramco’s top managers “qualified and experienced” but cautions that they have “limited experience managing a public company, interacting with investors and complying with the increasingly complex laws, regulations and other obligations pertaining to public companies.”