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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turkmen President Welcomes Chevron

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has invited U.S. oil major Chevron to help develop the energy riches that lie beneath the Turkmen section of the Caspian Sea, a statement on his government's web site said Friday.

Berdymukhammedov told a visiting Chevron delegation late Thursday that Ashgabat would welcome the U.S. oil company and its technology, which Turkmenistan -- a hermit state under the late President Saparmurat Niyazov -- is sorely lacking.

The statement provided no details on the deal, and Chevron representatives in Moscow declined to comment on specifics.

The invitation is the latest sign that the country is likely to be more open to foreign investment under Berdymukhammedov, who became president after Niyazov's death in December.

"We believe Turkmenistan has all the opportunities for becoming one of the world's oil majors and hope Chevron will be capable of rendering support to the development of the Turkmen oil and gas sector," Sergei Kuznetsov, Chevron's director of policy, government and public affairs in Russia, said in e-mailed remarks.

Berdymukhammedov told the Chevron delegation that it could prospect for oil and develop oil fields in the Caspian shelf, the statement said.

The delegation was led by Guy Hollingsworth, managing director of Chevron Eurasia, and Ian MacDonald, the head of Chevron Neftegaz, the company's Russia unit.

"We are in Turkmenistan to explore whether there are upstream opportunities that Chevron could help Turkmenistan in realizing," Kuznetsov said.

State representatives and energy company officials have been flocking to the country since Niyazov's death, hoping to win a role in the exploitation of the vast oil and gas reserves believed to be in the country.

No one knows exactly how much oil and gas Turkmenistan has, since it refuses to allow independent assessments. According to the 2006 BP Statistical Review, the country holds proven oil reserves of 500 million barrels. For gas, proven reserves stand at about 2.9 trillion cubic meters, but the state often boasts of having up to 10 times that amount.

"It is important to treat [the Chevron deal] with a certain amount of circumspection," said Alexander Kliment, an analyst at risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

"The new leadership has just moved in, so they're still rearranging the furniture and meeting the neighbors," he said.

Berdymukhammedov was in Moscow late last month to meet President Vladimir Putin and is due to hold talks on Friday with Putin and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan.

During his talks with Putin on April 25, Berdymukhammedov promised Putin that he would ensure that economic cooperation with Russia would be a priority, especially regarding gas.

State-run Gazprom relies on imports of Turkmen gas to fulfill European export contracts, as the development of large new fields inside Russia has been delayed. "The new president is keeping his options open. It's going to be a slow process," Kliment said.

Julia Nanay, a senior analyst at PFC Energy, said the Chevron deal sent a key signal to Western energy majors, which have been locked out of the country for nearly a decade.

"Turkmenistan has had relations with Russia and is starting with China, but it's the West that's been left out," she said.

Only Malaysia's Petronas and United Arab Emirates' Dragon Oil currently operate in Turkmenistan's Caspian shelf.

The deal could refer to the disputed Serdar -- Kapaz oil field, which has been claimed by both Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Analysts have said the new Turkmen leadership could move toward resolving the dispute, which arose after the successor states to the Soviet Union struggled to reach agreement on Caspian Sea borders.