Saudi oil in China: Back to where it belongs?

Saudi oil in China: Back to where it belongs?
Updated 26 March 2017

Saudi oil in China: Back to where it belongs?

Saudi oil in China: Back to where it belongs?

The year 2016 was a challenging one for Saudi crude oil heading to China, the world’s second-largest oil consumer after the US. But things are starting to improve this year.
Russia overtook Saudi Arabia in 2016 to become China’s biggest crude oil supplier for the first time ever, after Russian exports to China jumped by 25 percent from a year earlier, according to Chinese customs data.
Saudi Arabia came second, with its exports to China increasing only by 0.9 percent. Yet the race was tight, and Russian shipments averaged about 1.05 million barrels per day (bpd), the data showed, while Saudi Arabia exported around 1.02 million bpd.
This year the picture so far looks better as the custom data showed that Saudi Arabia has regained its position as China’s No. 1 oil supplier for the first two months in terms of volumes.
Yet, despite this improvement in the placement and the market share, Russian shipments are still growing year-on-year while China’s imports from Saudi Arabia are not what it used to be.
The data showed that the country’s crude imports of Saudi oil in February were down 12.9 percent compared to February last year after it was up year-on-year in January by 18.9 percent. On the other hand, China’s imports from Russia jumped by 36.5 percent in January, and 4.5 percent in February, compared to the same months in 2016.
This year the outlook is still in favor of Russian oil. According to state giant China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), the domestic demand for crude will hit 12 million bpd, which would necessitate a 5.3 percent increase in imports.
How can this change? To start with, the political support is already there and King Salman’s recent trip to China paved the way for more energy cooperation between the two countries.
Saudi Arabia and China are set to increase their cooperation in the oil sector as the growing Chinese market seeks oil supply, the two countries said in a joint communique issued on March 18, according to a transcript published by state news agency Xinhua. Both countries acknowledged the importance of a stable oil market, with China praising Saudi Arabia’s role of being a “safe and reliable” oil supplier, the statement said.
So with political support already there what is needed to secure Saudi Arabia’s oil position in the Chinese market will depend on the ability of Saudi Aramco to extend its marketing reach.
The company is doing many things on the ground. Aramco already has a venture with Sinopec and ExxonMobil to refine oil and produce petrochemicals in Fujian, with the plant operational since late 2009.
It is now talking to Chinese state-owned oil companies on more cooperation and has reportedly been on a hunt for a new refinery there. Aramco hopes to step up cooperation with China’s state-owned companies on crude oil trade, reserves and refineries, Aramco’s CEO Amin Nasser was quoted as saying in a statement after meeting with Sasac Vice Chairman Huang Danhua on March 17.
All this looks good, but the key element to sell more crude to China is by selling more to the independent small refiners, known as “teapot” refineries, which were behind the increase in Russia’s oil exports to China. This cannot happen without changing the marketing system that Aramco has had in place for decades. Aramco sells crude on long-term contracts to customers known as term customers. The teapots are very small in size and they buy crude from the spot market.
In the end, for Aramco to secure its market share in China and get it back to where it belongs, the company needs to choose one of two paths: Either changing its marketing system to include teapots, or keep talking with the big boys in China to build more refineries. Meanwhile, the Russians will keep shipping more oil to China via their pipelines, taking advantage of geographical proximity.