Saudis Cede China Oil Market Share to Russia as Iran Risk Looms

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Saudi Arabia has a challenge in Asia as it battles to maintain market share: The Russians are coming and other OPEC members want a bigger slice.

It’s a market the Saudis have vowed to defend, leading the decision by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to sustain output as surging U.S. production crippled prices and pushed cargoes to Asia. While the origins of this competitive shift started with the American shale boom, the return of Iranian exports poses another test for the kingdom.

“No other region needs more oil in the future than the Asia Pacific,” Sushant Gupta, the head of Asia downstream research at Wood Mackenzie in Singapore, said by phone. “It’s an absolutely important market for Saudi Arabia.”

Asia is the biggest export destination for Saudi Arabian crude and its share of the market was about 65 percent in 2014, according to Wood Mackenzie. In China, the world’s second largest oil consumer after the U.S., Russia and Iraq have emerged as key rival suppliers.

While the Saudis face fierce competition in China, the kingdom has a firm hold on South Korea, commanding about a third of the market as other OPEC members battle for share. Qatar is challenging Kuwait for the No. 2 spot after Iran slipped out of the top five.

Japan is a tale of the top two. Like South Korea, Saudi Arabia has consistently held about a third of the market but the United Arab Emirates is closing the gap. Iran drifted out of the top five in 2012 as Russia clawed back share and Kuwait maintained a steady stream of cargoes.

Iran may play a bigger role in Asia after a nuclear deal was reached to lift sanctions. While analysts predict a steady gain in exports, the Islamic Republic is keen to boost output as quickly as possible, regardless of the price impact.

“The Asia Pacific will require a lot more crude and producers really need to be on the front foot to secure the demand for their own oil,” Gupta said.