By Hadeel Al Sayegh, Saeed Azhar and Alexander Cornwell
DUBAI (Reuters) - State-run oil producer Saudi Aramco beat analysts' forecasts on Tuesday with a 30% rise in first-quarter net profit and maintained its dividend payout, helped by strong oil prices.
Earnings by global energy companies such as Exxon Mobil have climbed on the back of rising crude prices, which are up by about a third this year, as fuel demand recovers from the pandemic and as a global surplus of crude shrinks.
"Given the positive signs for energy demand in 2021, there are more reasons to be optimistic that better days are coming," Amin Nasser, chief executive of the world's top oil exporter, said in a statement.
"And while some headwinds still remain, we are well-positioned to meet the world's growing energy needs as economies start to recover," he said.
Net income rose to $21.7 billion for the quarter to March 31 from $16.7 billion a year earlier. Aramco was expected to post net profit of $19.48 billion, according to an average of estimates by five analysts.
Aramco, which listed in 2019 with the sale of a 1.7% stake mainly to the Saudi public and regional institutions, said earnings were boosted by stronger crude prices and higher refining and chemicals margins, helping offset lower production.
The OPEC+ group, the alliance that groups the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Russia and several other producers, have cut output to support prices but agreed on a plan in April to start gradually easing those curbs from May 1.
Aramco, which reduced its output as part of that pact and as a result of Saudi Arabia's additional voluntary production cuts, said global demand for petroleum products was recovering from its lows in 2020 but remained below pre-pandemic levels.
Aramco declared a dividend of $18.8 billion for the first quarter, to be paid in the second quarter, in line with company guidance of a $75 billion dividend for this year.
"Aramco’s dividend commitment is already pretty ambitious, particularly given the continued volatility in the market," said Dmitry Marinchenko, oil and gas analyst at Fitch Ratings.
Aramco would possibly prefer to keep dividends stable, particularly in light of some uncertainty around the Shareek or Partner programme by the Saudi government, he said.
The programme encourages Saudi companies including Aramco to lead private sector investments in the domestic economy.
HSBC, in an equity note to clients, said the move could restrict headroom to boost dividends in the next few years.
Aramco average total hydrocarbon production came in at 11.5 million barrels per day of oil equivalent in the first quarter of 2021. That includes 8.6 million barrels per day of crude oil.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed has said more Aramco shares could be sold in the next year or two, including to international investors. He has said the kingdom was in talks to sell 1% to a leading global energy company.
(Additional reporting by Davide Barbuscia, Editing by Edmund Blair and Bernadette Baum)