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It may finally be crunch time in Iraq for ExxonMobil, which in late 2011 led the charge north when it became the first major to sign a contract for exploration blocks in Iraqi Kurdistan. After months of back and forth, and meetings between chairman Rex Tillerson and (separately) Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and Kurdish Prime Minister Massoud Barzani on 21 and 22 January, Exxon has apparently been told to decide once and for all between its 60% stake in the $50bn West Qurna 1 project in the south and its production-sharing agreements in blocks still being explored in Iraqi Kurdistan (Al Qush, Arbat East, Baeshiqa, Betwata, Pirmam and Qara Hanjeer).

Iraq
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Tehran’s insistence that it can continue selling its crude oil to customers across the globe is being tested – not least by signs that its once-staunch ally China may be wobbling under pressure from the United States. Conventional wisdom had it that Beijing’s strategic interests in Iran would compel it to challenge the US sanctions regime. However, Sino-Iranian trade seems to have dropped sharply since Washington imposed further sanctions on Iran in early November.

Iran
Free

The discovery of a reserve of more than 80bn barrels of shale oil in shallow waters off the west coast of Bahrain, first revealed on 1 April along with some significant new gas finds, could hardly have come at a better time for the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) region’s weakest economy. A few days earlier, the government had pulled a planned multi-tranche sovereign bond issue after being spooked by the high returns demanded by investors.

Bahrain
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It has been an eventful year in the Gulf. Against a backdrop of wider regional turmoil – the civil war in Syria and the overthrow of Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi (GSN 951/1) – the six Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states have been broadly stable, their political currents stirred but not redirected by events elsewhere. In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah Bin Abdelaziz seemed keen to get his house in order, promoting several younger members of the Al-Saud, and delivering on a promise made in 2011 to appoint women to the Majlis Al-Shura (GSN 948/5, 946/6, 942/1, 941/1, 940/1, 939/20).

Iran | Saudi Arabia | Bahrain | Yemen | United Arab Emirates (UAE) | Iraq
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The oil price remains volatile, but ministries of finance may take comfort in the views of their hydrocarbons sector counterparts – and a majority of international analysts – that crude won’t collapse once more this year. This reflects on the success of the Opec+ group – comprising the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Russia and nine other non-Opec producers – in raising prices in the past year. Opec’s co-ordination with non-Opec partners under the so-called Declaration of Co-operation encouraged crude prices to peak at around $85 a barrel (/bbl) in October.

Free

Leave aside for a moment the football politics, so often an opaque affair, and the disappointment of much larger and more established soccer-playing nations, whose hopes of hosting a World Cup were dashed by the Zurich-based Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa), the sport’s governing body. What does the success of Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup say about the nature of polities and geopolitics as the world remakes itself after a decade defined by the West’s unresolved interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and staggers to an end with European economies and the United States struggling to recover from the credit crunch?

Qatar
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Differences between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) and his Emirati counterpart, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (MBZ) have been mounting ever since Riyadh led the way towards reconciliation with Qatar at the Al-Ula summit in January.

United Arab Emirates (UAE) | Saudi Arabia
Free

Commerce spoke louder than diplomacy when the state-owned QatarEnergy announced a ten-year deal to supply condensate to the Dubai government-owned Emirates National Oil Company (Enoc). It represents the first major commercial deal since the two Gulf Co-operation Council partners (or mainly, in recent years, rivals) agreed in June to reopen their respective embassies.

United Arab Emirates (UAE) | Qatar
Free

The region’s more enlightened leaders and corporate players knew radical change was coming to the global energy industry long before the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP21)’s Paris Agreement to cut global greenhouse gas emissions was approved by 197 governments in December. Even the world’s leading oil producers have plans to install large amounts of renewable energy (RE) generation. Solar photovoltaic (PV) and other clean energy projects are being promoted across the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) region, while climate change denial is out of fashion.

Free

ExxonMobil’s audacious six-block deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has plunged a dagger into the already uneasy peace between Arabs and Kurds, giving an immediate public relations boost to the headline-chasing KRG natural resources minister Ashti Hawrami and pouring further misery onto Baghdad’s embattled deputy prime minister for energy affairs Hussein Al-Shahristani.

Iraq
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An election victory next May seems to be Presidential Hassan Rouhani’s to lose, but the big winners on the Iranian business scene continue to be the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC or Pasdaran) and other conservative factions – a harsh reality for oil majors considering investments and others hoping for a soft landing in Iran after the nuclear deal. Their powerful position signals that hardliners are in no way in retreat, even if many Iranians would like to see genuine change.

Iran
Free

As the low price of a barrel of oil begins to tip the fiscal balances of countries across the Gulf region, there is a cogent argument that says now would be an excellent time to wind down energy subsidies. In a time of relative austerity, so the argument goes, the population will find it easier to accept that it needs to assume its share of the burden; lower oil prices also mean the rise in cost to businesses and consumers need not be too dramatic.

Free

There are positive signs – but no yet conclusive evidence – that speed is picking up in Oman’s efforts to rebalance its economy, supporting the creation of a more diverse business environment in which a new generation of entrepreneurs can operate more easily. The shift away from hydrocarbons dependency could, ironically, be helped by higher oil prices, after three bleak years in which budget and fiscal targets have been missed.

Oman
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Few can feel comfortable in a region where Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries will need to borrow some $148bn next year to cover their budget shortfalls, as Moody’s Investors Service predicted in a report issued on 5 December. Fiscal deficits will not be closed any time soon, not least because new revenue generators like the value added tax (VAT) due to be introduced in Saudi Arabia and the UAE in January are often matched by new spending commitments to ensure social and political stability is maintained

Free

Suspicions about Saudi Arabia’s nuclear intentions are growing in the United States, amid evidence of undeclared uranium activities in the north and other undisclosed activity. The concerns led the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee in early August to insert a provision in the Intelligence Authorisation Bill which requires the US administration to investigate Riyadh’s efforts to develop a nuclear capability.

Saudi Arabia