Middle East, Asia draw European gasoline as prices crash

* Exports to Middle East surge to 158,000 bpd in Jan -Kpler

* Reformate exports to China jump after long hiatus

* European gasoline cracks near six-year lows

* Europe to Middle East exports: https://tmsnrt.rs/2RJDaja

* ARA weekly gasoline stocks: https://tmsnrt.rs/2HbZii7

LONDON, Jan 15 (Reuters) - European exports of gasoline to the Middle East and Asia have surged so far in January as high inventories in the Atlantic basin and a drop in fuel prices sparked bargain-hunting around the world.

Profit margins for distilling crude oil into gasoline in Europe have held near a six-year low since late October after global demand for the road fuel disappointed during the peak summer driving season.

Exports from Europe to the U.S. East Coast, traditionally the main outlet for surplus gasoline, dropped in the second half of 2018, leading to sharp stock builds.

In recent days, however, bookings to carry gasoline and blending components out of Europe to the Middle East and Asia have shown strong signs of a recovery.

So far, some 158,000 barrels per day (bpd), or roughly 587,000 tonnes of gasoline, have been booked out of Europe to the Middle East in January, according to data intelligence company Kpler.

The January figure, which is expected to rise further, already represents a 50 percent increase from the full December figure, according to the data.

Middle East demand has been strong since a gasoline-producing unit at Abu Dhabi's 800,000 bpd Ruwais refinery was destroyed in a fire more than two years ago.

The 127,000 bpd residue fluid catalytic cracker (RFCC) is expected to come back online in the first quarter of 2019.

At the same time, exports to China of reformate, a component blended into gasoline in order to increase its octane content, surged in January, according to traders.

Around six tankers carrying roughly 240,000 tonnes of reformate have been booked out of Europe for January, according to shipping data. That compares with no deliveries in the second half of January, according to traders.

Most gasoline exports from Europe in recent months headed to West Africa, where Nigeria regularly buys large volumes, as flows to the United States eased.

Exports to West Africa, however, came to a near standstill in recent weeks due to congestion outside ports, traders said.

"The arbitrage from Europe into the U.S. East Coast isn't open, leaving Asia and the Middle East as the only outlets," said Robert Campbell, head of global oil products at consultancy Energy Aspects.

"Global demand has been surprisingly weak, particularly in the United States but also in places like Mexico, where distribution disruptions led to a drop in U.S. exports," he added.

Global inventories of gasoline and light distillates rose sharply in recent months, and in the first week of January were 16 million barrels higher than a year ago, according to consultancy FGE.

The gains were driven mostly by an 8.1-million-barrel gain in stocks in the United States. European gasoline stocks remain close to an all-time high.

(Reporting by Ron Bousso, editing by Louise Heavens)