Saudi Arabia is reportedly mulling 'nuclear option' of stripping the US dollar from oil trade

Key Points
  • Saudi Arabia has reportedly discussed selling oil in currencies other than the dollar if the U.S. passes anti-OPEC legislation.
  • Sources tell Reuters that Riyadh has floated the proposal within OPEC and mentioned it to U.S. energy officials.
  • The move would chip away at U.S. influence over global trade and the international financial system.
An Aramco employee walks near an oil tank at Saudi Aramco's Ras Tanura oil refinery and oil terminal in Saudi Arabia.
Ahmed Jadallah | Reuters

The U.S. dollar is the dominant currency in oil trading, but Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering selling its crude in other currencies if American lawmakers pass an anti-OPEC bill.

The discussions, reported by Reuters, suggest that Riyadh is preparing a strategy to deal with potential passage of the No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act, known as NOPEC. The legislation is widely viewed as a longshot, which means the Saudi move to marginalize the dollar is unlikely to come to pass.

Still, the kingdom has discussed the proposal with other OPEC members, two sources told Reuters. Another source said Riyadh has broached the subject with U.S. energy officials.

If the Saudis followed through, it would chip away at U.S. influence over global financial markets and Washington's ability to enforce sanctions on foreign entities. Efforts to diminish the greenback's role in oil trading have been fairly limited to date, but the Saudi plan would lend significant momentum to those efforts — and represent a coup for countries like Russia and China.

Helima Croft on Saudi Aramco
Helima Croft on Saudi Aramco

Saudi Arabia is the world's largest oil exporter, and its total crude output is surpassed only by U.S. and Russian production. It pumps enough oil to meet about 10 percent of global demand, while OPEC fulfills about a third of global consumption.

"The Saudis know they have the dollar as the nuclear option," one of the sources told Reuters.

The Saudi embassy in Washington did not immediately return CNBC's request for comment. The Saudi energy ministry and U.S. Department of Energy did not respond to Reuters. The State Department told Reuters it does not comment on pending legislation.

The NOPEC legislation would amend existing U.S. law, allowing the Justice Department to sue foreign countries for working together to limit oil supplies and influence prices.

That represents an existential threat to OPEC. The 14-nation producer group regulates global oil supply by setting output limits for each member during times of oversupply.

Capping output pushes up the cost of crude. Since OPEC nations depend on oil revenues to balance their budgets, the line between balancing the market and filling domestic coffers has always been blurry.

Saudi government expenditure has been rising steadily: Oil expert
Saudi government expenditure has been rising steadily: Oil expert

OPEC and a group of non-member allies led by Russia are currently trying to keep 1.2 million barrels a day off the market through the first half of 2018.

While some stakeholders — including many U.S. drillers — believe OPEC is essential to keeping supply and demand in balance, others say the group inflates prices to enrich its members at the expense of oil consumers. That latter view is popular with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who want to keep energy prices low for their constituents.

"For decades, Saudi Arabia has benefited from trading its vast supplies of cheap oil on an unfree market dominated by the OPEC cartel—at American expense," said Robbie Diamond, president and CEO of Securing America's Future Energy, a think tank that advocates for reducing U.S. dependence on oil.

"This report, if true, would only further prove that Saudi Arabia is willing to go to extreme lengths to protect its unfair advantage in the global oil market," Diamond said in a statement.