Dubai: Tucked between the Gulf of Oman and a craggy mountain range, the dusty port Fujairah isn't an obvious base from which to try and revolutionize the Middle East's oil markets.
But on Monday, when Abu Dhabi begins selling futures contracts for its oil and then shipping the barrels from Fujairah, it will mark an aggressive shift by the emirate. It hopes to change the way nearly one-fifth of the world's crude is priced.
Gulf states pump nearly 20 million barrels of oil a day and Abu Dhabi wants the futures for its flagship Murban grade to become the region's main benchmark.
The Gulf's biggest producers — including Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates — have traditionally priced their barrels based on benchmarks from other regions. They've mostly sold their crude directly to refiners or international companies with stakes in their fields. Crucially, they've prevented those customers from re-selling the oil and benefiting from arbitrage opportunities that exist in global energy markets.
Now, Abu Dhabi's removing those curbs with the aim of opening up its oil to financial as well as physical traders. Investors globally are clamouring for commodities because of their high yields relative to other assets and to protect themselves against any rise in inflation.
Once sold on an exchange, Murban will be sent by pipeline to Fujairah, where Abu Dhabi's desert fields physically connect with global markets.
"If successful — and I think the chances are good — Murban futures could be a pivotal moment for Middle East crude pricing," said Vandana Hari, founder of Singapore-based oil consultancy Vanda Insights. If "a sizable chunk of Middle Eastern crude trades freely in the spot market," that could push other regional producers to follow Abu Dhabi's lead, she said.
To help its cause, Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., the state energy firm, is spending around $900 million to build 40 million barrels of storage space in caverns beneath Fujairah's mountains. That, and tanks Adnoc already has at the port, will ensure there's plenty of Murban on hand to manage any future supply disruptions, Khaled Salmeen, the company's head of marketing and trading, told reporters this month.
Adnoc can pump about 2 million barrels a day of Murban and has pledged to provide the exchange with half that amount over the next year — in line with or greater than the supply of today's major oil benchmarks such as Brent and West Texas Intermediate.
Liquidity's "critical to the whole equation," said Chris Bake, a director at Vitol Group, the largest independent oil trader, which is backing the exchange.
Creating a new benchmark will hardly be easy. Oil traders dislike change, especially when they believe markets already do a good job matching supply and demand. S&P Global Platts caused uproar this year after announcing it would overhaul Dated Brent, the world's main crude price. It was forced to shelve the plan indefinitely.
Murban will also face competition regionally. Platts publishes price assessments for Dubai oil and the Dubai Mercantile Exchange trades futures for Omani crude. Both act as benchmarks for Middle Eastern shipments to Asia.
Yet Abu Dhabi says the combination of high supply, easy access to oil-consuming markets from Fujairah and the absence of trading restrictions will attract plenty of buyers to its exchange. Philippe Khoury, a former HSBC Holdings Plc energy banker who Adnoc hired in 2018 to build its trading operations, said Murban may even compete with Brent and WTI.
The futures platform will be run by Atlanta-based Intercontinental Exchange Inc. and called ICE Futures Abu Dhabi. Last week, ICE approved Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Citigroup Inc. and 22 other banks and brokers as exchange members.
Adnoc's plan underscores the UAE's wider ambition to monetise its hydrocarbon resources faster in case oil demand starts shrinking with the global shift to greener energy. The country aims to increase output capacity from about 4 million barrels a day now to 5 million by 2030, which would make it OPEC's biggest producer after Saudi Arabia.
The Murban exchange and the capacity boost could raise tension within the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, according to Hari of Vanda Insights. The Gulf states dominate the group and tend to prize unity. They also began unprecedented production cuts last year to bolster prices as the coronavirus pandemic spread.
Still, the UAE says Murban futures won't affect OPEC or its ability to stabilise oil prices.
"We definitely hope" other regional producers adopt Murban as a benchmark for their own crude, Adnoc's Khoury said this month at the Fujairah Bunkering & Fuel Oil Forum.