Gulf to help EU as Syrian oil banned

Syria Sanctions: Nations in the Gulf are ready to replace Syrian oil supplies as fresh EU sanctions come into effect.

The EU relies on Syria for 1.5 per cent of its oil supply. Getty Images

The Gulf is poised to help Europe to meet its energy needs as a ban on Syrian oil comes into play.

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Yesterday, the EU formalised an embargo on Syrian oil, increasing pressure on the regime of Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president, to halt its violent clampdown on protests.

The fresh sanctions come at a particularly tough time for the EU, which relies on Syria for 1.5 per cent of its oil supply, as demand grows for winter fuel and oil production from Libya remains stalled.

"Europe needs a lot of oil ahead of the winter to produce more heating oil, and in the absence of Libyan crude it's not possible to replace all of these barrels," said Ehsan Ul Haq, a senior market analyst at KBC Energy Economics in the UK. Saudi Arabia, he added, could send more oil to Europe to replace Syrian oil.

Last year, Europe bought 95 per cent of Syria's crude exports, contributing €3.1 billion (Dh16.18bn) to the country's oil revenues.

The sanctions, which were negotiated last week and came into effect yesterday, make it illegal to enter into new oil import contracts or, after November 15, to fulfil existing contracts with Syria. That followed the US decision last month to ban Syrian energy imports.

In particular Syria's sulphur-laden oil is similar to Saudi crude, making it easy for Riyadh to step in to meet the gap. Syria currently exports about 160,000 barrels per day (bpd).

Also as the world's top exporter, Saudi Arabia holds most of the Gulf's spare pumping capacity and took the lead this year in replacing the loss of Libyan crude.

In July, Saudi Arabia pumped close to 9.8 million bpd, its highest level in 30 years, according to the International Energy Agency, an oil consumer watchdog in Paris. Every summer the kingdom burns extra oil to meet peak demand. "Electricity demand usually goes down after the summer, so they can send these additional barrels to Europe instead of decreasing production," said Mr Ul Haq. "They can easily send 200,000 [or] 300,000 barrels of oil to Europe."

However, a sustained increase in Saudi production could increase tension within Opec. Saudi Arabia and other oil producers clashed at June's meeting over whether to increase the oil organisation's pumping levels.

The mounting sanctions on the Syrian regime have also led companies to re-evaluate their exposure to Syria's energy industry.

"Obviously Syria can sell its oil in other places, but there's going to be a disruptive effect as traders look at Syria in their portfolio," said Catherine Hunter, an energy analyst at IHS Global Insight in London. "There will be the actual compliance of the letter of the law and there will be the cautionary compliance beyond that."

The Anglo-Dutch company Shell, Spain's Repsol and the Austrian energy company OMV, in which Abu Dhabi owns a 20 per cent stake, are among the oil companies that have contracts to ship Syrian oil this month.

Total, the French oil major, has said it will stop shipping Syrian oil and will cancel a cargo the company was to load this month. "I took this decision very clearly," Christophe de Margerie, the chief executive, said. "It's been stopped." The French company, however, has not announced any plans to pull out of an existing exploration venture in Syria.

Gulfsands Petroleum, a British oil company, halted payments last month to a cousin of Mr Al Assad and temporarily stripped him of voting rights. The cousin, Rami Maklouf, owns 5.75 per cent of the UK company.