Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, has long been a dominant force in the oil market — but has never been an oil trader.
That's changing now as Riyadh seeks to capitalise on its refining strength and run its own oil trading book — buying and selling gasoline, gas oil and other fuel to balance the needs of its expanding system, and to turn a profit.
A new Saudi state-owned company, Aramco Trading, is even venturing into derivatives such as futures and paper trading, a significant cultural change given Riyadh's deeply conservative business culture.
"We are shifting our mindset from that of a giant oil exporter to focus on adding value to products by trading," Aramco Trading chief executive Said al Hadrami told an energy conference in Bahrain this week.
The Saudi trading operation is a natural complement to Riyadh's ambitious downstream drive to double its refining capacity to 8 million barrels per day (bpd) in a decade.
The kingdom's extra refined oil product output will give it enough volume to trade on the world's spot market and optimise profits.
"We think that surplus refining capacity produces a lot of opportunities," said Hadrami.
At a time when the West's commercial oil majors are turning their back on refining operations, state oil company Saudi Aramco is seeking to become the world's largest integrated energy company — handling every stage of the supply chain from well to forecourt.
Its downstream push includes an extra 1.2 million bpd of domestic refining capacity that is due online by 2017 to help cover rocketing consumption in the kingdom.
Saudi domestic demand rose by more than 5 per cent a year from 2003-2010 to an average of 2.4 million bpd in 2010.
"Aramco products trading makes a lot of sense for a company that is evolving multi-million barrels of refining capacity across the world and needs to participate in the commercial as well as the production side of the sector," said a senior Saudi oil executive.
Aramco Trading, as cautious as its parent, will take things slowly at the start.
"The first priority will be to balance the kingdom's supply and demand requirements — selling excess naphtha and fuel oil and buying in gasoline and gas oil," said an industry source familiar with the company's strategy.
"But Aramco Trading is also looking to hedge its business."