Energy

New security fears jeopardize Saudi Aramco's public stock offering following attack

Key Points
  • Whether Aramco moves forward with its IPO is a key question following strikes on its oil facility.
  • Shareholders want to see volumes regardless of price, analysts told CNBC.
  • The attack took out roughly 5.7 million barrels per day of Saudi oil production, equivalent to 5% of global daily crude output.
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DUBAI ⁠— An attack that knocked out half of Saudi Arabia's oil production capacity has cast a shadow over state-owned oil giant Aramco and its long-awaited initial public offering, poised to be the largest in history.

Saudi Aramco CEO Amin Nasser told the media just last week that the mammoth company would list on the Riyadh stock exchange "very soon" as bankers from J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and Citigroup met in Dubai to kick-start work on the gigantic offering.

News of the weekend attack sent money streaming into safe haven assets Monday morning, and industry experts questioned the security of Aramco's assets and the confidence of its future shareholders.

"Saturday's attacks raise the fear of future attacks in a very real way for equities investors," Ellen Wald, president of Transversal Consulting and author of the book "Saudi, Inc." told CNBC via email Sunday.

"Those familiar with the company know that Aramco has been prepared for this for a very long time, but it likely is not something already priced into the opinions of the typical fund."

Riyadh has not offered a timeline for the recovery of all of Aramco's production capacity, a central factor to the direction of oil prices. Sources close to the firm say it could take anywhere from days or weeks to months. The strikes, which have been claimed by Yemen's Houthi rebels, but which some U.S. officials blame on Iran, took out roughly 5.7 million barrels per day of Saudi oil production — equivalent to 5% of global daily crude output.

Saturday's incidents exposed an Achilles Heel in the ability to defend a very important segment of oil infrastructure.
Samir Madani
co-founder, Tankertrackers.com

A key question for investors is whether the schedule for the IPO will go ahead as planned, which according to some reports had put the Riyadh listing date as early as November.

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"We will have to see if the Saudi monarchy chooses to delay the IPO as it focuses on this attack and the aftermath," Wald said. Saudi Aramco has not spoken on the matter and did not reply to CNBC requests for comment. Neither did Moelis & Co., the firm hired to advise it.

Like its energy infrastructure, the kingdom's markets are far from immune — Riyadh's stock exchange, the Tadawul, suffered a 2.3% drop as it opened on Sunday morning.

"Saudi Arabia should carefully consider what impact a future attack on a publicly listed Aramco could have on its stock exchange," Wald warned.

Pushing ahead?

Ayham Kamel, Middle East practice head at risk consultancy Eurasia Group, doesn't foresee alterations ahead in the leadership's plans.

"Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will push the company to demonstrate that it can effectively tackle terrorism or war challenges," Kamel wrote in a client note Sunday, while noting that geopolitical risks have not been adequately priced into valuation estimates for the company and its assets.

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The attack on Aramco's installations in Abqaiq and Khurais "will have only a limited impact on interest in Aramco shares as the first stage of the IPO will be local," Kamel said. However, he added, "the international component of the sale would be more sensitive to geopolitical risks."

Saudi Arabia's 'Achilles Heel'

Reuters reported last week that the kingdom plans to list 1% of Aramco on its local stock exchange before the end of this year and another 1% in 2020, as first steps ahead of a public sale of roughly 5% of the company.

The oil giant has delayed its IPO, originally scheduled for 2018, reportedly over Saudi concerns about public scrutiny of its finances and because of the complexity of its corporate structure. Crown Prince Mohammed has touted a valuation of as high as $2 trillion, while a number of bankers recommend a figure closer to $1.5 trillion. The oil price will be key to this.

"Saturday's incidents exposed an Achilles Heel in the ability to defend a very important segment of oil infrastructure," Samir Madani, co-founder of data firm Tankertrackers.com, said Sunday.

Fires burn in the distance after a drone strike by Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi group on Saudi company Aramco's oil processing facilities, in Buqayq, Saudi Arabia September 14, 2019 in this still image taken from a social media video obtained by REUTERS

"If customers aren't duly addressed with the volumes they ordered, it will reflect poorly for a company that is lining itself up for a gigantic IPO. Shareholders want to see volumes regardless of price. Shipments will naturally be addressed by storage draws, but the question is for how long given the variety of oil grades that need to be exported."

While markets await word from the Saudis, investors are likely asking themselves how the kingdom could have left itself so vulnerable, and what that means for the future.

"Saudi Arabia has always said their oil installations are safe. Suddenly that's no longer the case," Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at Energy Aspects, told CNBC on Monday. "Some production could come back quickly, some could take months."