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THE NEW YORK TIMES: Natural Gas Makes Qatar Richest Country: “In 1971, when Shell's prospectors found the gas bubble while drilling for oil offshore, gas was seen as a useless byproduct, flared off when recovering oil.”: “The world has changed since then. Demand for clean-burning gas for heating and power plants has soared. And gas resources in the industrialized world are drying up.” ( Posted 25 April 05




DOHA, Qatar (AP) -- Beyond the fishing boats moored on this city's seaside corniche and under the sandy bottom of the Persian Gulf lies a giant bubble of natural gas that is fueling a historic economic boom.


This Connecticut-sized land, an isolated thumb on the Arabian peninsula that had no schools or hospitals until the 1950s, stands to become one of the world's richest nations as it taps into the 900 trillion cubic feet of gas locked in its North Field. Foreign companies are investing, spurred by big and accessible gas reserves, a pro-Western government willing to offer attractive contracts and a belief that long-term investments will be safe in this stable country with a huge U.S. military base.


Developing the field -- the world's largest -- is already sucking in mountains of investment cash: $23 billion in just one weekend in February.


It is also spawning a cottage industry in superlatives.


For instance, a $12.8 billion joint venture announced in February between state-owned Qatargas and oil majors Exxon Mobil and Total became the largest energy deal in history. And a single $7 billion plant to be built by Exxon Mobil, aimed at turning natural gas into clean-burning diesel fuel, is the largest-ever investment from America's largest company.


More billions are being poured into other ventures in liquefied natural gas, or LNG, and a pair of pipelines.


''I'm feeling like I'm living in history here,'' said Wayne Harms, who heads Exxon Mobil in Qatar. ''There haven't been many intense energy developments like this one in the world, ever.''


As plants under construction come online in the next two years, Qatar will become the world's largest LNG exporter, surpassing Indonesia and Malaysia. By 2012, when the dust has cleared, Qatar's liquefied gas exports will have jumped sixfold, from four billion cubic feet per day to 25. At today's prices, that much gas is worth about $17 billion.


With dollars flowing in, this desert sheikdom of 840,000 inhabitants -- only about a quarter of them citizens -- will likely have the highest per-capital income in the world, many economists believe.


''It's a good time to get into gas,'' said Qatargas Chief Executive Faisal al-Suwaidi. ''There aren't too many areas that can offer the same thing.''


Chatting over clove-scented coffee delivered by his Nepali secretary, al-Suwaidi said Qatar's payoff was already on view from his office window. He waved his arm, cloaked in a traditional white robe, at the vista of Doha's sparkling skyscrapers arrayed along the crescent-shaped corniche.


''The new generation here is used to wealth. They will be much wealthier,'' al-Suwaidi said.


At the same time, residents of Europe and North America will grow even more dependent on Middle Eastern energy, a state of affairs long rued by politicians, particularly Americans.


A tanker shipload of LNG costs between $10 million and $15 million at current prices, which are running near historic highs, buoyed by the price of oil, said Jim Jensen, an LNG consultant based in Weston, Mass.


Technology improvements have paired Qatar, with gas reserves it never dreamed of being able to sell, with customers like Britain and America, that lie far beyond pipeline reach. Gas is cooled to minus-162 degrees Celsius and stored aboard giant tanker ships for transport. The biggest importers are Japan, South Korea, Spain and the United States.


Despite the big numbers, analysts say Qatari LNG won't dent markets or prices. The gas will be most useful satisfying increasing Asian demand and replacing shrinking supplies in the United States and Europe.


''World markets will be able to accommodate these supplies,'' said Muhammad-Ali Zainy, an energy economist with the London-based Center for Global Energy Studies. ''Qatar's supplies won't depress the price.''


Qatar's good fortune is only just becoming apparent. For more than 25 years, mammoth North Field -- big enough to supply America's current needs for 30 years -- has done Qatar little good.


In 1971, when Shell's prospectors found the gas bubble while drilling for oil offshore, gas was seen as a useless byproduct, flared off when recovering oil. Since the North Field holds no oil, it sat abandoned, too far away from markets to warrant building a pipeline.


''It was a big disappointment,'' al-Suwaidi said. ''If there was a local market, even a regional one, they would have built a pipeline. They shut it down.''


The world has changed since then. Demand for clean-burning gas for heating and power plants has soared. And gas resources in the industrialized world are drying up.


Qatar is doing a good job making big oil firms comfortable, investing billions on contracts spanning 25 years, even though the companies won't break even for a decade or longer.


Terms of the contracts are unusually favorable for foreign firms in the Middle East, said one executive who asked not to be named. Companies are guaranteed a reasonable return and receive a bonus when energy prices are high, as now.


Also enticing is Qatar's adherence to contract law and reforms that are bringing about an elected parliament.


The big U.S. military base at al-Udeid, which Qatar offered the U.S. after its troops were ejected from Saudi Arabia in 2002, also helps.


''This was done to preserve the stability of Qatar,'' said Youssef Ibrahim, director of the Dubai-based Strategic Energy Investment Group. ''The Qataris are insured now.''


Little noticed, Qatar has reversed the typical role of the producer country, which simply opens its territory to oil companies to explore, and takes a cut of whatever they find.


Not only does Qatar own the majority share of each LNG joint venture, but it will also own delivery ships and stakes in import terminals in Europe and the United States. The arrangement allows Qataris to profit from processes and sales far beyond its borders, elbowing into a business that was once the sole province of big oil.


''There's no doubt it is unique,'' says Harms. ''Their logic is pretty sound. It is to participate in every part of the value chain.''


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