Two leaders of Saudi Aramco, set to announce the location of what is expected to be the biggest company flotation in history, suggested it will not be decided until at least the second half of 2018, or even early next year.

Speaking at the Saudi-UK CEO forum this week, Amin Nasser, president and chief executive of Saudi Aramco, said: "With regard to the IPO, I think all the requirements for Saudi Aramco will be completed by the second half of 2018. The question of when and where it is will be answered then."

In a separate interview, Khalid Al-Falih, who is chairman of Aramco, in addition to being energy minister, did not rule out the flotation being delayed until 2019.

"Between December 31 and January 1 there is no value lost for the kingdom," he said. He added that any such artificial deadline was not significant.

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The Saudi government hopes that the initial public offering of Aramco will raise US$100 billion ($137b) based on selling 5 per cent of the shares. That would give the company a valuation of $2 trillion. Most other estimates suggest that might be too generous with a figure of closer to $1t.

The UK Government has already offered the world's largest oil company a US$2b loan guarantee as the battle to host the Saudi oil giant's market debut heats up. The regime is still considering a range of venues for its float.

Saudi Arabia foresees around £65 billion ($124b) worth of trade and investment materialising with the UK in the coming years. With concerns growing over the country's economy and the future of the City of London as a global financial hub after Brexit, it may be needed.

Stronger ties with the Middle East powerhouse are a welcome boost to confidence in such uncertain times.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May greets Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman outside 10 Downing Street in London. Picture / AP
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May greets Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman outside 10 Downing Street in London. Picture / AP

But for corporate Britain, the real value of closer bonds with Riyadh will be securing London's role as the preferred location to list the kingdom's national oil titan, Saudi Aramco.

Hence the importance attached to the visit this week of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his entourage, which included Saudi oil minister Khalid al-Falih and Aramco's chief executive Amin Nasser.

No pomp has been spared for the heir to the Saudi throne, who is in overall charge of the kingdom's economic strategy. After meeting the Queen and Prime Minister Theresa May, even the Archbishop of Canterbury was wheeled out on parade for the 30-something Prince who goes by the acronym MBS.

A cornerstone of his vision to modernise the oil-rich state is a bold plan to list around 5 per cent of Aramco's shares on an international exchange. A decision is pending on where this should be, with London still a front-runner for the offering alongside New York and Hong Kong. MBS will make that momentous choice.

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The prize on offer is vast. Aramco is a behemoth producing more than one in every 10 barrels of oil consumed globally. Aside from pumping from the world's single largest oilfield, known as Ghawar, it operates a network of refineries and marketing units from China to Japan and the US. Founded in 1933, the company is bigger in production terms than Shell, BP and ExxonMobil combined.

Protesters in Whitehall, London, demonstrate against the official visit to the UK by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Picture/ AP
Protesters in Whitehall, London, demonstrate against the official visit to the UK by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Picture/ AP

The Prince hopes Aramco will command a valuation of US$2t wherever its shares are eventually listed, making it 10 times bigger than the combined market capitalisation of both Royal Dutch Shell and BP.

Critics argue raising the equivalent of US$100b from the IPO is unrealistic, especially given the price of crude currently hovering around US$65 per barrel. Other concerns over governance, the kingdom's tax regime and independence could also dampen investor appetite.

But perhaps the biggest doubt is over the size of Saudi Arabia's proven oil reserves. The current figure of around 260 billion barrels ranks among the largest in the world but some experts doubt the credibility of this assessment. Since Aramco's total worth can be calculated partly on the value of the remaining oil it is still to produce, the lack of transparency on this key number is a worry.

Regardless of these concerns, London has many distinct advantages over its rivals to become the preferred location for Aramco's shares.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II greets the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman, during a private audience at Buckingham Palace. Picture / AP
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II greets the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman, during a private audience at Buckingham Palace. Picture / AP

New York has deeper capital markets but it would also bring closer scrutiny of the company's reserves, future oil prices and demand forecasts. There is also the thorny issue of 9/11. The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act opens the kingdom up to lawsuits accusing it of helping to plan the terror attacks in 2011. Although Riyadh vigorously denies the allegations the legal risk cannot be ignored.

In contrast, the British Government appears willing to bend over backwards to please Riyadh. The Financial Conduct Authority may even tweak its listing rules on the ownership of state-controlled companies to lure Aramco on to the London Stock Exchange.

Brexit could complicate Saudi Arabia's decision with the UK's intention to leave the European Union adding uncertainty at an awkward time. Furthermore, the threat of political upheaval and the potential for a less friendly government installed in Westminster led by Jeremy Corbyn are risks that Riyadh may deem too great to take with their most prized jewel. Corbyn is a vocal critic of the kingdom and its record on human rights.

Hong Kong has the advantage of being at the centre of vibrant Asian markets and on the doorstep of mainland China, which would also like to take a strategic stake in Aramco in order to secure its future supplies of energy.

The world's second largest economy is also an increasingly important customer for Saudi crude. The kingdom supplied about 1.1 million barrels a day of crude to China at the beginning of the year but it has lost ground recently to Russia, which is now the biggest supplier to Beijing.

Although the UK isn't a major market for Saudi oil, the country has other assets to offer.

Khalid Al-Falih, who is chairman of Aramco, in addition to being energy minister, did not rule out the flotation being delayed until 2019. Picture / Getty Images
Khalid Al-Falih, who is chairman of Aramco, in addition to being energy minister, did not rule out the flotation being delayed until 2019. Picture / Getty Images

London's financial sector is geared towards servicing global commodities companies. Other than BP and Shell, the stockmarket plays host to some of the world's biggest resource companies and trading houses such as BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Glencore.

The City's merchant banks are also among the most active in providing finance to the sector. No surprise then that bankers made up a large proportion of the audience at a high-profile CEO forum held at Mansion House to promote UK and Saudi business opportunities alongside the Prince's visit. More than £1b-worth of deals were announced, most involving Aramco.

The kingdom is a major importer of UK defence equipment and a cornerstone export client for BAE Systems' Typhoon fighter plane. Securing more overseas buyers is essential for maintaining British jobs especially in the North West.

However, all eyes remain sharply focused on Aramco.

Of course, the decision may eventually come down to politics. The kingdom is fighting a bitter war against Iranian supported insurgents in Yemen and needs support to maintain its campaign.

President Donald Trump has been vocal in his desire to see Riyadh pick the New York Stock Exchange as its new home for Aramco's minority listing. MBS will next head to the US, which will be his first official visit to the kingdom's most important ally since he deposed his cousin.

Or, the Saudis could still call the whole thing off. A deadline to list by the end of this year will be tough to meet and may be pushed back to 2019.

The international listing could also be postponed with the initial flotation of only a very small share in the company going ahead in the first phase on the local Saudi bourse. Watering down the IPO may be an embarrassing climb down for MBS but it would still be better than selling Aramco for less than its worth.

Although the Prince still has time to decide whether to pull the trigger, the clock is ticking for the UK to win the biggest prize in oil for London.