Brent, West Texas, and Now Dubai?

09/24/2012 8:45 am EST

Focus: COMMODITIES

Oil flows out of the Arabian Gulf have changed direction over the past couple of years, and the head of the Dubai Mercantile Exchange sees that as providing an opportunity to establish its futures contract as the benchmark for the commodity sold to markets in the East, writes Florian Neuhof of The National.

Ahmad Sharaf is an oil man. A petroleum engineer, the chairman of the Dubai Mercantile Exchange (DME) began his career in Texas before moving back to the UAE with the now de-merged ConocoPhillips (COP) a decade ago.

He has been at the helm of the DME since its launch in 2007, and from its outset, the exchange has focused on the commodity he knows best: crude oil. The DME is seeking to establish its futures contract as the benchmark for crude sold out of the Arabian Gulf to markets east of the Suez Canal.

Crude flows out of the Gulf have changed direction over time. Exports of 7.6 million barrels per day (bpd) to Europe and the US in 2000 have dwindled to 4.6 million bpd a decade later, according to DME figures. In the same period, exports heading east have increased by 2 million to 14.3 million bpd.

The predominant futures contracts in the oil markets today are Brent, which prices the crude sold into Europe, and West Texas Intermediate (WTI) futures traded in the US. Neither is tailored to the Asian markets, creating an opening for the DME.

But while the volume of contracts traded has been rising steadily over the years, Sharaf acknowledges the real shift will only occur once the big national oil companies in the region price their oil off the DME contract.

Sharaf says the dialogue between the exchange and the Gulf's big producers is ongoing, as the national oil companies are reluctant to move alone. "They understand the contract, and they like the contract. But they want [certainty] that when they shift to the contract it will be a methodical shift among all of them," he says.

All eyes are on Saudi Aramco, the world's biggest national oil company, the output of which, at about 10 million bpd, is well above others in the region. "The understanding in the market is that the largest producer should take that first step because the other producers don't want to be marginalized," says Sharaf.

The bourse received a boost to its efforts earlier this year, when the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), the world's largest commodity exchange, raised its stake in the Dubai organization to 50%. Access to the CME's state-of-the-art technology and expertise has already benefited the DME, and its vast experience with commodity futures is a huge shot in the arm for the Dubai crude contract.

"The CME is by far the best partner we could have for the exchange. We're benefiting greatly from their capabilities to build new contracts, and building a physical and a paper market around that," said Sharaf.

The expertise coming into Dubai from Chicago will find use beyond the oil markets. The exchange, located in the Dubai International Financial Centre, is eyeing other contracts, too.

From natural gas to metals to agricultural products, commodity futures contracts are not designed with the region in mind. This could soon change, should the DME decide to launch some of the contracts it has been considering. For now, the greatest promise continues to lie in energy, and the exchange had already initiated the process of launching natural-gas and jet-fuel contracts before deciding to concentrate on crude.

With the added backing of the CME and the growing status of its crude contract, the DME is now ready to restart that process. "In the short term, our focus is going to be on energy contracts. But then we will definitely start looking at other contracts," says Sharaf.

Given its increasing importance as an air transport hub, Dubai—alongside regional centers such as Abu Dhabi and Doha—could provide the basis for a jet-fuel futures contract.

"The trick behind that, just like with the crude contract, is getting physical backing. Once we can get ourselves comfortable around the physical backing, then certainly a jet-fuel contract would be very interesting for this region," says Sharaf.

Fujairah has developed into the region's largest bunkering hub for fuel oil, which powers ships. Its vast tank facilities, which also store crude from Abu Dhabi's oilfields, also provide the physical backing for a potential futures contract.

While natural gas is not an energy form that captures the imagination of the general public like oil, it constitutes a huge international market...and Qatar, the world's biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG), is nearby. Doha prices its gas according to contracts for the Asia-Pacific and the Atlantic region.

But Sharaf believes the boom in US shale gas production and increases in spot cargoes that are a consequence of slackening demand in recession-hit Europe have loosened up existing structures, creating conditions for a new futures contract.

The DME had previously been in discussions with Qatar to use its gas as the basis for a contract, and negotiations are likely to resume. "One thing we had considered and had originally had some dialogue on and which we want to kick off again very soon is the conversation about the LNG contract," says Sharaf.

He is not coy about naming further commodities that could become interesting to the exchange, such as metals. As cities and infrastructures expand, the Gulf is in need of large amounts of material, and the production base for metals such as aluminum is growing rapidly. But even agricultural commodities are not out of the question, and neither are financial products.

The geographical reach of the exchange's ambition equals the scope of potential new contracts, and reflects Dubai's penchant for thinking big. Sharaf defines the DME's target area as anywhere that can be reached within an eight-hour flight from Dubai.

With the crude oil contract still very much the focus of its efforts, however, it is Asia the bourse will pay the most attention to in the near term. After spending years studying the needs of the supply side, the DME is now engaging with the demand side to promote its crude oil contract.

Christopher Fix, the DME's new chief executive, who replaced Tom Leaver last month, was chosen with this in mind. A former head of marketing for commodity futures at the French bank BNP Paribas, he brings years of experience of trading in Asia.

"We have a thorough understanding of the producer base. We need a similar understanding of the large consumer bases," says Sharaf.

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