ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 7 (UPI) -- The world's oil majors are scrambling to get a piece of the biggest oil deal ever offered by the United Arab Emirates, the world's fourth largest oil exporter.
It looks like energy-hungry China is leading the pack, elbowing out the West's Big Oil leaders in a significant geopolitical shift in the Middle East's oil industry toward Asia.
The deal, involving half of the Emirates' production of 3 million barrels per day, is ensnarled with sensitive geopolitical issues that have cast a pall over BP's long-held stake because of British parliamentary criticism of the Persian Gulf federation's human rights record.
There's a general feeling the Western oil companies that have long partnered Abu Dhabi, the emirates' oil-rich economic powerhouse, in the 75-year-old concession are going to be shunted aside when the concession comes up for renewal in 2014.
The gulf producers are exporting increasing amounts of oil and gas to Asia, especially China, India and Japan, a trend that's likely to expand as the United States and the West develop immense shale oil reserves.
As the end of the current concession held by the state-owned Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations approaches, the China National Petroleum Corp. is widely viewed as a frontrunner among the bidders from 10 countries who seek to be part of the Adco-led consortium.
Beijing sent a delegation led by the deputy minister for China's National Energy Administration to Abu Dhabi, the emirates' capital, in January and its main objective seems to have been to make a pitch for the Adco concession.
"It is clear Adco is the largest United Arab Emirates energy deal at stake for Beijing," the Middle East Economic Digest observed.
The current consortium includes BP, Exxon Mobil of the United States, Total of France and the Anglo-Dutch Shell Group. They each have a 9.5 percent stake in the joint venture.
Portugal's Partex has a 2 percent stake, with Adco owning the 60 percent majority interest in the concession, which produces 1.4 million bpd.
BP, which has had a 70-year relationship with Abu Dhabi, got the cold shoulder last summer after British lawmakers criticized the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters by the Emirates' rulers.
They also condemned the arrest of alleged Islamists on charges of plotting against the state amid the Arab Spring upheavals that have alarmed the gulf monarchies. These allegations got wide media coverage, particularly on the BBC's Arabic language service, which has a large audience in the gulf.
BP was cut out of the bidding for the concession renewal in 2014 and the normally secretive Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. went public with its decision, underlining the displeasure of the country's rulers.
It looked like BP was back in the running after British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Abu Dhabi in October and interceded on the company's behalf but his effort apparently fizzled.
Abu Dhabi is the headquarters for BP's exploration and production operation across the Middle East, birthplace of the original Anglo-Persian Oil Co. a century ago when Britain controlled the region.
Losing the concession would deprive it of some 125,000 bpd, 3.5 percent of its total global production.
That's a significant amount given BP's battle to halt a slide in its production levels amid its tribulations with its Russian operation and the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
"The incident highlighted the sensitive geopolitical issues behind the deal and the commercial importance of the concession to Western states," MEED noted.
French President Francois Hollande followed Cameron to Abu Dhabi Jan. 15 to support Total's bid.
"The pressure's on Total and the other Western major such as Shell and Exxon Mobil, which not only have to compete with each other, but increasingly with companies based in Asia seeking a share of the United Arab Emirates pie," explained Siddik Bakir, Middle East energy specialist with the U.S. consultancy IHS.
Abu Dhabi "has asked South Korean and Chinese companies to invest in the emirates oil concession next year in order to attract more investments but also in a bid to create a stronger link with those countries, which represent key customers of the emirates' hydrocarbons."
China's been making a determined move into the Middle East and Africa to secure the oil supplies it needs to fuel its burgeoning economy.