Saudi Arabia’s crude exports fell to a nine-year low of 6.82mn b/d in 2019 as Opec+ commitments took their toll. The impact of production cuts was felt across the board, but was sharpest on crude exports. Using data from Kpler, MEES takes a look not just at which were the key destinations, but also at the relative performance of Saudi Arabia’s export grades.

The most notable development during 2019 was the surge in volumes shipped to China. China decisively overtook Japan in 2019 to become the largest buyer of Saudi crude, with the kingdom sending a record 1.67mn b/d to the world’s largest importer, overtaking Russia as China’s top supplier in the process.

Indeed, the 500,000 b/d annual increase was enough to offset falls to other major Asian buyers as overall volumes to the region jumped above 5mn b/d. Despite it being a stated aim for years, Asian importers are failing to diversify their crude import slates and remain overly dependent on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states (MEES, 10 January).

Saudi Arabia’s top three buyers are all located in Asia, and the kingdom delivered 3.56mn b/d to the trio – China, Japan and India – in 2019. The kingdom was dependent on just these three countries for more than half of its total exports. Throw in Asia’s other major importer, South Korea, and the total rises to 4.34mn b/d – 63.6% of the total.

Given this, it’s little wonder that Saudi Arabia is actively pursuing measures to protect its market share in these key markets. In November, Aramco announced that it had signed a contract with five Chinese buyers to increase volumes by 151,000 b/d this year (MEES, 8 November 2019). Purchasing stakes in refineries can be an invaluable tool for securing crude sales. As it stands, Saudi Aramco has just a 25% stake in the 280,000 b/d Fujian refinery on China’s southeast coast, but it plans to take a 9% stake in the 400,000 b/d Zheijang refinery at Zhoushan, and 35% at the 300,000 b/d Panjin refinery which is due to startup in 2024 (MEES, 1 March 2019).

Moving to No.2 client, Japan, Saudi Arabia has a more difficult job given that the country’s crude demand is on a downwards trend. The IEA expects a further modest 40,000 b/d decline in 2020. That said, Saudi Aramco has a 15.1% stake in three refineries with gross capacity of 445,000 b/d.

In India, Saudi Arabia is actively seeking to develop a foothold in the fast-growing refining sector but as yet has had little luck. India’s Reliance, which operates the 1.82mn b/d Jamnagar refinery, acknowledges that plans to sell a 20% stake to Aramco for $15bn (MEES, 13 December 2019) won’t be finalized this quarter. Elsewhere, Aramco eyes 25% in the planned 1.2mn b/d Raigad refinery which is suffering from interminable delays and is unlikely to start operations until the second half of the decade.

Finally, in South Korea, Aramco has a 63.4% stake in the 669,000 b/d Onsan refinery and last month acquired a 17% stake in the 650,000 b/d Daesan refinery through its investment in Hyundai Oilbank (MEES, 20 December 2019).

Charts included Saudi's 2019 Crude** Export Destinations: China, Japan And India Account For More Than 50% Of The Total ('000 B/D)


Charts included Saudi Crude Reserves* By Grade (Bn Barrels)


Charts included China Is By Far The Largest Buyer Of Arab Heavy Crude (%)


Charts included More Than 50% Of Arab Medium Exports Are To China (%)

Charts included Large Volumes Of Arab Light Flow To The Mediterranean From Saudi Arabia's Red Sea Ports Via Egypt's Sumed Pipeline (%)

Maps included Key Saudi Oil And Gas Infrastructure

Key Saudi Oil And Gas Infrastructure


Global oil grades vary dramatically in quality, and the same is true within Saudi Arabia. The kingdom offers up five export grades (see chart 2) ranging from Arab Heavy (<29°API >2.9%S) to Arab Super Light (>40° API, <0.5%S), as well as small volumes of Khuff condensate. Once refined, the heavier grades yield a higher proportion of middle distillates, while the lighter barrels yield more light ends which can be used for petrochemicals feedstock.

Assessing the trade flows of the various Saudi crude export grades is no easy business, but the Kpler data helps shine a light on these dynamics.


China is not just the largest overall buyer of Saudi Arabian crude, it is also the largest single buyer of its three largest grades; Arab Light, Arab Medium and Arab Heavy.

For Arab Heavy, China was a long way out in front of other buyers, taking 37% of the total. Japan was in second place with 13% of Arab Heavy exports. Overall, six countries accounted for more than 80% of Arab Heavy exports. Taiwan and India also import sizeable volumes, and significant amounts are also delivered to Sumed facilities at Ain Sukhna in Egypt where it is either consumed domestically, stored, or delivered onwards to Mediterranean markets.

The two key sources of the Arab Heavy grade are the 1.3mn b/d Safaniya field and the 900,000 b/d Manifa field, both of which are located offshore. The expansion of Manifa to its current level was completed in 2015 (MEES, 3 June 2016). A further 600,000 b/d of Arab Heavy capacity is being added through the Zuluf project. US contractor Jacobs Engineering was awarded an EPC contract for onshore facilities in 2018.

Saudi Arabia’s reliance on China as a market increases further with Arab Medium. A whopping 58% of Arab Medium exports were delivered to China in 2019, followed a long way back by the USA on 14%. Overall, Arab Medium has a less diverse portfolio of destinations than Arab Heavy, with five countries accounting for 85% of the total.

Arab Medium is becoming an increasingly important element of Saudi Arabia’s export slate, and Aramco also aims to expand capacity here. A swathe of contracts to add 300,000 b/d to the 500,000 b/d Marjan field by 2023 were awarded last year (MEES, 12 July 2019).

Unsurprisingly, China is also the largest single buyer of Saudi Arabia’s key Arab Light grade, taking 16% of the total. Sizeable volumes also flow west through Egypt’s Sumed facilities, which accounted for a quarter of the total in 2019. These are primarily exported from the Red Sea export terminals of Yanbu and Yanbu South (formerly Mu’ajjiz), which MEES calculates exported around 700,000 b/d between them last year.

Exports of Arab Light through Sumed are set to rise again this year, with Poland’s PKN Orlen announcing this week that it is increasing purchases of the grade by 30% to 400,000 tons/month (around 100,000 b/d).

As Saudi Arabia’s largest export grade, Arab Light has the most diverse range of buyers. Along with the usual suspects in Asia, the US continues to consume nearly 200,000 b/d of the grade, despite having massively reduced its overall imports, due to its continued need for medium-heavy barrels. The likes of South Africa, Brazil, Canada and Pakistan are also regular buyers.

The key producer of Arab Light is Saudi Arabia’s supergiant 3.8mn b/d Ghawar field, although other major fields also produce sizeable quantities. Not least is the 1.45mn b/d Khurais field, where 300,000 b/d capacity was added in 2018 (MEES, 5 April 2019). Aramco is also investing to double capacity at the 250,000 b/d Berri offshore field by 2023.

Arab Light production was temporarily curtailed in September 2019 with the attacks on the Abqaiq processing facility and the Khurais field (MEES, 20 September 2019). Abqaiq is the key processing facility for the kingdom’s flagship Arab Light crude grade, as well as Arab Extra Light, but Saudi Arabia has successfully reduced its dependency on the site in recent years.

With Arab Extra Light, the largest buyer in 2019 was Japan, which took more than a quarter of the total. The US was the only non-Asian buyer to purchase sizeable volumes, taking 7% of Extra Light cargoes.

Japan has a large appetite for the lighter barrels coming out of the Middle East and is also the largest buyer of the much smaller Arab Super Light stream. Outside of Saudi Arabia, it is a major buyer of Abu Dhabi’s 39.6° API Murban export grade, the 48° API Kuwait Super Light and condensate from Qatar.