Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Saudi Sprint in China Oil Race Shows Where Priorities Lie

Updated on
  • Saudis overtake Angola to become 2nd-biggest supplier to China
  • China is a priority for Saudi Arabia: ICIS-China’s Li Li says

Saudi Arabia has moved back up a notch in the race to supply oil to China, signaling its eagerness to compete for market share in Asia’s biggest crude consumer.

The world’s largest oil exporter shipped almost 4 million tons of crude to China in July, the equivalent of 946,000 barrels a day, a 3.7 percent increase from a month earlier, according to data released Wednesday by the General Administration of Customs. That puts the producer second only to Russia as the Asian nation’s top supplier after languishing in third over the last four months.

Competition over China, which has topped the U.S. so far in 2017 as the world’s biggest importer, intensified since last year’s deal between the Organization of Petroleum Producing Countries and its allies to curb supplies in a bid to raise oil prices. Saudi Arabia, which has borne the brunt of the reductions, may struggle to maintain its place after saying last month it would deepen export cuts from August in a show of commitment to eliminate a global glut.

“Saudi Arabia, which is traditionally the biggest seller to China, certainly wants to keep stable supplies to its largest buyer in Asia even though it’s cutting output at home,” said Li Li, analyst with Shanghai-based commodities researcher ICIS-China. “China has the priority seat when it comes to buying oil from Saudi Arabia. China has the same feeling -- Saudi oil is still a very reliable source.”

Saudi Arabia and Russia have been in a tussle over the top spot for much of this year, with Russia holding the lead since March. Though Saudi shipments increased month-on-month, they slipped 0.8 percent from a year ago. Meanwhile, purchases from Russia jumped 54 percent year-on-year to 4.97 million tons.

Imports from the U.S., OPEC’s biggest threat in reducing the global oversupply, were at 738,094 tons in July, down 33 percent from a month earlier, though up from nothing a year ago. Purchases from Iraq rose by 16 percent from last year to 3.64 million tons, keeping the country as the fourth-largest seller. Shipments from Angola, China’s third-biggest supplier, fell 17 percent on year to 3.91 million tons.

“For the foreseeable future, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Angola will be the top suppliers in turns,” Li said. “U.S. shipments will also pick up, but it will take a while for it to be a market-share threat for those three.”

— With assistance by Sarah Chen

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