China's slowing demand for oil is a serious concern for the Middle East

Key Points
  • The risk of declining Chinese demand for oil is worrying Middle East oil ministers.
  • Prices could rise due to Iranian supply being curbed due to U.S. sanctions.
  • But prices could also be hit by lower demand from China due to a trade war with the U.S.
Bahrain oil minister: The era of cheap oil is over
Bahrain oil minister: The era of cheap oil is over

The risk of declining Chinese demand for oil is worrying Middle East officials more than Iran's supply curbs as a result of U.S. sanctions.

Bahrain and Oman's oil and gas ministers both told CNBC Monday that China's demand for oil could decline on the back of its trade dispute with the U.S. that has seen tariffs imposed on a wide range of Chinese imports.

"I think there is a risk on the demand side," Bahrain's Oil Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Khalifa told CNBC's Hadley Gamble in Muscat, Oman. "Is demand going to continue as strongly as it did?"

"Obviously the trade issue is going to impact demand in a negative fashion if it continues and persists. You've got the strong dollar, which is another factor."

Oil prices have stabilized over the last two years largely thanks to a deal between OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers, including Bahrain and Oman, to curb oil output. The deal has worked with prices now between $70 and $80 a barrel.

However, the deal has come under fire from President Donald Trump, who said in July that higher oil prices are hitting consumers too hard. OPEC and Russia, the world's largest producers, promised to boost supply a few days afterwards.

Nonetheless, Trump's decision-making is affecting oil market stability too. His decision to re-impose sanctions on major OPEC oil producer Iran (with the restrictions due to kick in in November) could push prices even higher as Iran's contribution to global oil supply is restricted.

But Trump's attack on cheap Chinese imports, and his decision to impose trade tariffs on a wide range of Chinese goods entering the U.S., could damage China's economic growth and in turn lower its demand for oil.

Oman's oil minister, also speaking to CNBC, said not enough attention was being paid to how trade tensions could damage China's demand for oil.

Omani oil minister: Middle East is not in a stable position right now
Omani oil minister: Middle East is not in a stable position right now

"There is a danger that the demand will be impacted as well. People often focus on the supply side — what happens if Iran stops supplying — but what happens if China reduces its consumption? So we are looking at both sides of this discussion," Mohammed bin Hamad Al Rumhy told CNBC's Hadley Gamble Monday.

"I see that as a possibility as well. If there is a serious trade disagreement between the U.S. and China, the Chinese consumption of energy will be impacted negatively, from our point of view and the ability to produce and export will be impacted," he said at the World Heavy Oil Congress.

"And I think, and many people agree with me, that the demand will be impacted — so that's not good for us."

China surpassed the U.S. to become the world's largest crude oil importer in 2017, importing 8.4 million barrels per day (b/d), compared with 7.9 million b/d for the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In 2017, 56 percent of China's crude oil imports came from countries within OPEC, a decline from a peak of 67 percent in 2012 but still making it a significant market for OPEC and its Middle East members.

In fact, Russia surpassed Saudi Arabia as China's largest source of foreign crude oil in 2016, exporting 1.2 million b/d to China in 2017 compared with Saudi Arabia's 1.0 million b/d.

In terms of recent demand, China's crude oil imports recovered slightly in July after falling for the previous two months, according to Reuters. But the imports were still among the lowest this year due to a drop-off in demand from the country's smaller independent refineries. Oman is a principal supplier of oil to China with the Asian superpower buying almost 90 percent of its exports in 2017, according to the news agency.