2005 Speech

Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal address to the Baker Institute
Address by HRH Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Saud Al-Faisal to the Baker Institute for Public Policy, Rice University in Houston, Texas, September 21, 2005. Topic: Saudi Arabia and the International Oil Market.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Allow me to convey my heartfelt condolences to the people of the United States for the suffering, death and destruction brought about by Hurricane Katrina. At the same time allow me to praise this great city of Houston for the noble generosity of its people in offering a very needed assistance in sheltering those who suffered most. Houston has always been a great city and I am very pleased to be here.

Many years ago, when I started my government career in the Ministry of Petroleum, one of your fellow Houstonians gave me advice about traveling in the oil-producing countries of the world. He was what is known in the oil industry as an “old redneck.”

We were sitting in my office in Riyadh on a very hot summer day when he volunteered this unsolicited advice: “When you get to one of them countries,” he said, “the first thing you do is to go to the nearest shop, buy some durable candy, stock up on candles, go to your hotel room, fill the bathtub with water, and wait for the revolution.”  I am sure I don’t need to do that in this oil city, I hope.

Before I proceed further, I must apologize to my friend and colleague His Excellency Mr. Al-Naimi, the Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources of Saudi Arabia, for delving into his turf. He has my wholehearted blessing to discuss matters relating to our foreign policy any time he wishes.

My topic today is of vital importance to both my country and yours – namely the structural flow in the oil industry. The severe increase in oil prices which we have experienced over the past several years is only a phase of a cumulative process that has been going on for some time.

The developments in the oil industry are important and warrant our full attention. High energy costs can create long term repercussions to the economies of the world that will affect all of us – consumers as well as producers, both in the industrialized and the emerging economies of the world. 

It is important, therefore, that our two countries, the largest consumer and the largest producer, make the time available to assess the situation. We must define the issues and review our options to resolve them before they become too severe to manage. This becomes a matter of urgency and priority for all of us, especially when Saudi-bashing has become fashionable, and allocating blame has become an end in itself.

Crude oil has doubled in price to over $65 per barrel since 2002. Escalating energy prices have already had some indication of a depressing effect on the global economy. 

The risks are too great to leave the solution to market forces alone. Because of global interdependence, depressions create social and political instability which cannot be confined to one region of the world. If not dealt with promptly and reasonably, such instability will spread regardless of the political and economic soundness of any individual nation.

What then is going on in the oil industry?

There are three sets of variables that need to be examined: Production, consumption, and political-psychological variables.

On the crude supply side, there is currently no shortage of oil.  However, and for the first time in decades, there is no sizable excess production capacity. This has understandably caused some heated debates about the long-term supply of oil.

Some pessimists, mostly geologists, contrary to their customary nature, are predicting dire shortages in the future, while some optimists, mainly economists, also contrary to their nature, are predicting higher prices would eventually reduce the growth rate of consumption while increasing the growth rate of production. However, all these predictions are at best educated guesses based on uncertain assumptions.

What is indisputable is the finite depletable nature of oil. However global proven oil reserves have increased from 550 billion barrels in 1970 to 1.2 trillion today, and there is no reason why this trend should not continue.

In addressing these uncertainties, I must emphasize Saudi Arabia’s proven record of meeting its production commitments irrespective of international crises and political turmoil or even wars. Yes, we have kept our commitment even when wars were being fought in our region, when oil tankers were being set ablaze in the Gulf and when our cities and oil facilities were being attacked by Scud missiles.

Saudi Arabia has made up for shortfalls in oil production levels by maintaining between 1.5 and 2 million barrels per day of excess capacity at great cost to our industry and economy for the last 20 years.

Saudi Arabia’s year-to-date production in 2005 has increased by 700,000 barrels per day from last year. This accounted for more than half of the increase in global demand for that period.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has declared its plan to increase its production capacity by 2.4 million barrels per day by 2009. This represents a net capacity increment of 1.5 million barrels per day while the rest will augment existing capacity. Barring any outside impediments that are beyond our control, we see no problem in achieving this ambitious target.

We have signed drilling contracts, selected project management teams, allocated funds and put the initial engineering plans on the drawing boards.  And unless the international companies use up the equipment we have on order and divert contractors from our oil fields to other projects, we see no problem in achieving our objectives.

It is estimated that the total investment needed to increase OPEC production to meet demand by 2025 ranges between U.S. $258 and 382 billion. The difference of  U.S. $124 billion is due to different estimates in demand projections based on different economic growth assumptions. This gives you an idea of the difficulty of planning investments by producing countries.

Yet, with an attitude of  “damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” we are now – in spite of what we have done and are doing – accused, of all things, of a lack of transparency.

This truly puzzles me. How can we lack transparency when we have published our production capacity, our oil and gas reserves, and our current and future production plans? And we have done so in a manner totally consistent with international norms and standards. In fact, our known practice is to err on the side of underestimating our reserves and potential production.

Let us face it, providing additional data will not stop endless questions and challenges raised by those who get publicity and consulting fees for questioning everything we do. No amount of data and analysis can convince a truly dedicated conspiracy theorist.

The focus on tarnishing proven Saudi performance is largely a distraction from the fact that the key price and supply issues affecting you are not about volumes of production, but rather about gasoline formulations, limited refinery capacities, lack of storage capacity, and the various other restrictions that have paralyzed the energy industry in the Western hemisphere.

Without minimizing the importance of the environmental issues, a balance must be reached between the need for further oil exploration and development and the preservation of the environment. In that respect, Saudi Arabia calls for increased research in this field.

We are ready to join others in developing uniform regulations that are environmentally responsive and sustainable while offering the most effective energy utilization.

In fact, the real energy issues that we need to address today have little to do with Saudi Arabia. Consider the situation with regards to some of the major oil companies. 

In recent years, we have witnessed unprecedented mergers and acquisitions on both sides of the Atlantic. Tremendous resources and capabilities have been concentrated within the hands of a few corporations. All of them have the resources and experience to invest in and manage the entire value chain of the oil industry.

The collective expectations were that the oil and gas industry would experience a tremendous revival as a result of such restructuring and integration. But this did not materialize.

It seems that over-regulation made it easy to avoid investing in the needed downstream operations, which are of marginal returns, by tempting investors to seek higher returns and safe investments. The result was a break in the value chain of investments in the industry.

At the risk of angering some of my good friends in the audience, oil companies may have forgotten that calculated risk-taking is the means to higher profit making. They may have opted for the ease of the cautious advice of corporate accountants instead of the spirit of adventure that has characterized the oil industry from its inception.

A critical shortfall in the industry’s refining sector has been created, which is totally beyond the control of oil exporters. This in turn has lead to a gap between the oil production of crude oil and consumption of refined products.

The consumers are clamoring for more fuels which cannot be supplied due to the lack of refining capacity. This gap traditionally has been bridged by the integrated operations of the oil companies.

To be fair to the oil companies, the main reason for the refinery shortages is the environmental and land use restrictions that limit the construction of domestic refineries. Refinery projects which already require years to construct have to wait for additional years for site approvals, if such approvals are forthcoming at all. In fact, not withstanding certain modifications and expansions in existing facilities, not a single refinery was built in the United States during the last three decades.

According to the Energy Information Administration, global refining capacity has only increased by 1.3 million barrels per day over the past five years. Meanwhile, oil demand has increased by over 7 million barrels per day. Today, global refinery capacities stand at 82.7 million barrels per day, over one million barrels short of global demand.

Yet in spite of these refinery bottlenecks, Saudi Arabia is called upon to increase its oil production on a daily basis. Clearly, additional oil production will do little to meet the fuel requirements of the world refined products. We, however, began adding to our refinery capacity in Yanbu and Jubail, our two industrial cities which are the major hubs for our petrochemical and refinery industries, and there is room for more expansion. We therefore invite all investors to join with us to build additional refineries and to expand existing ones, to alleviate the refined products bottlenecks.

This invitation does not require any delays in implementation that would create added cost to the consumers.  All it needs is the will to contribute to relieve the pressure that is building. At the same time, we are ready to join any efforts in building facilities in the U.S.

Over-regulation does much to limit supply and raise prices. Gasoline specifications often vary on a state by state basis. Applying standardization would increase the efficiency in managing refineries and allow better utilization of fuel products storage capacities.

The imposition of boutique fuel specifications on a state by state and country by country basis only confounds efforts to formulate global solutions for overall fuel shortages.

The reality is that as oil supplies from the North Sea, Alaska and continental U.S. lag behind demand, heavier crudes with higher sulfur contents will be increasingly needed to meet increased demand. Therefore fuel specifications must be standardized in order to modify refinery processes on a timely basis. This is something which we must resolve urgently if we are to ensure fuel specifications and optimum refinery efficiencies over the next decade.

The question of stability in the Middle East is a major concern in this regard. Conflicts in the region that contains over 65% of the world’s oil reserves and 45 % of its gas reserves have been allowed to spiral out of control.

Regional turmoil and military confrontations have created a volatile atmosphere that undermines investment in the region’s oil industry.

This volatility has in turn become a fertile ground for oil price speculation. Every tragic incident in the Middle East has become a green light for oil traders to set higher premiums on oil supplies.

The need to putting a just and equitable end to the Arab-Israeli conflict is a matter of extreme urgency. This would not only end decades of human suffering, but in the process rid us from the unhealthy speculations that have been so damaging to the oil markets.

I have taken a lot of time to cover these matters because they are of vital importance and yet have no simple resolution. Identifying the problems is always easier than seeking their effective solutions.

What is certain, however, is that we need to move away from the blame game, and to recognize the simple truth that the desired solutions can only be arrived at through collective cooperation.

Facing these challenges require a joint effort by oil producers, oil consumers and the oil companies. To institutionalize a fruitful dialogue among all concerned, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the Custodian of The Two Holy Mosques, took the initiative in setting up a Secretariat for the International Energy Forum in Riyadh.

One of its primary functions has been to facilitate data exchange and transparency through the administration of the Joint Data Initiative, which involves monthly submissions from producing and consuming countries. A few months ago, while in Dallas, he called for the convening of a conference under the auspices of this International Forum.

We look forward to increased cooperative effort and stand ready to work with the United States to do our part in addressing these challenges.

Let me conclude by quoting an old Chinese proverb: “It's better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

Thank you.