Thursday, October 1, 2009

International Projects Update: IWPP Finance in Oman and the GCC

After years of remarkable expansion followed by a precipitous decline in the wake of the global financial crisis, the credit market for international water and power projects (IWPPs) in Oman and the GCC appears poised for a recovery.

While 2008 saw a project volume in the Middle East of about US$50 billion, nearly six months passed before the GCC saw its first IWPP financing of 2009. Bahrain’s Addur IWPP closed on 29 June, raising US$2.1 billion and bringing the overall project volume for the region to US$6.7 billion for the year.

The financial crisis forced project lenders to write down the value of project debt, driving up the cost of borrowing. Further, it wiped out the secondary market for project loans as banks shunned the formerly popular practice of packaging debt in off-balance sheet vehicles.

The capital that commercial banks were willing to lend came at a higher cost and decreased tenor. Whereas tenors running from 15 to 20 years at 100 bps over Libor were once common, the Addur project received debt at a tenor of eight years at 350 bps over Libor. Today, the cost of capital averages at 250 bps over Libor.

The revival of IWPPs in the region has been driven by loosening credit conditions linked to new trends in IWPP finance. Specifically, banks are making increasing use of hard or soft mini-perm structures. In a hard mini-perm, debt is offered at a short tenor, in the range of seven years, requiring early refinancing. In a soft mini-perm, a longer tenor is used, but incentives are used to encourage the lender to refinance well before maturity.

Another key trend has been the rising profile of export credit agencies and international development banks. Export credit bodies provide access to large amounts of relatively inexpensive capital and offer added confidence to commercial banks. Development banks have also played a key role by providing an additional source of capital and a backstop for project debt.

Finally, banks have been favoring government supported projects. For instance, an IWPP with a concession or off-take agreement is a stronger candidate for financing given its relatively secure future cash flows. Additionally, governments may guarantee the obligations of state-owned parties entering into such agreements.

Increasing electricity and water demand has led the government of Saudi Arabia to tender projects in form of engineering, procurement, construction (EPC) contracts, rather than build, own, operate (BOO) or build, own, transfer (BOT) contracts.

Oman aims to avoid such a measure. Continuing on its program of privatization, Oman expects to see the close of a club financing of an IWPP in Salalah this year. RFPs have been released for projects at Barka, Sohar, Duqum, and Ghubrah, with another for an IWPP in Mirbat on the way. Additional projects are being studied, including a solar plant in the south of the country.

In past projects, the Oman Power & Water Procurement Company (OPWP) has entered into off-take agreements. In the case of the Barka and Sohar IPPs, the OPWC will purchase the output under a 15-year agreement.

IWPP finance and execution in Oman implicates a range of complex legal issues, including:

  • Licensing – procurement of generation and desalination licenses and exemptions from the Authority of Electricity Regulation;
  • Financing – the creation and registration of security interests in Oman, as well as review of loan and facilities agreements;
  • Land Issues – entering into a concession agreement with the Government and or any usufruct agreements as may be required;
  • Environmental – Compliance with the Environmental laws of Oman in coordination with the environmental authorities;
  • Labor and Employment – Fulfilling the Omanisation requirements during the life of the project.
In addition, it is often necessary to put in place all the project agreements in order to obtain IWPP finance. Depending on the project, these agreements may include:
  • Power and/or Water Purchase Agreement;
  • Electrical Connection Agreement;
  • Water Connection Agreement; and
  • Gas Supply Agreement.
As the credit market revives -- and as the oil prices rebound -- Oman grows increasingly likely to meet its goal of increasing output through an ambitious program of privatization.