A review of other countries' data provides additional insights. Among OECD member countries, only Japan shows a marked summer dip in Saudi imports. But that seasonal pattern closely tracks the underlying seasonality of Japanese oil demand, which shows strongly defined winter peaks. Japan's oil demand seasonality is a remarkably close mirror image of Saudi Arabia's own seasonal demand cycle. Customs receipts for non-OECD member countries collected by the Global Trade Information Service also fail to reveal any seasonal variation in Saudi crude cargo arrivals. This suggests that Saudi Arabia, the world's largest crude exporter, successfully utilizes its proprietary tanker fleet and ample crude storage capacity, both within the Kingdom and closer to export markets in East Asia, Europe, South Africa and the Caribbean, to manage the seasonality of its internal demand and its effect on crude export availability and deliveries. Available statistics fail to fully capture the complexity of the scheduling and logistical arrangements, including crude prepositioning near export markets, entailed by exports on such a large scale. Whether Saudi demand for direct crude burn is as high as some analysts suggest is also far from clear. JODI data do not specifically break out direct crude burn as a category and are less than transparent on the matter. Although it is possible to try and strip "other products" from the estimate of direct Saudi crude burn (by subtracting crude runs, net exports and stock changes from crude production estimates), all methods of calculation yield implied numbers rather than observed volumes. The more elaborate the method of calculation, the more likely it is to compound the underlying uncertainties in each of the underlying data series. Although there are anecdotal reports of increased Saudi crude burn for power generation in the summer months, it seems somewhat doubtful that Saudi power plants have the dedicated crude storage capacity required to accommodate such massive swings in inputs as some estimates would suggest. Much of the base load, as well as the seasonal variation, in power generation demand is still met with products, particularly distillate, likely supplemented by small amounts of condensate.
The fact that Saudi Arabia was in the past able to weather seasonal spikes in air conditioning demand without significant adjustment to its exports is of course no guarantee that it will do so this year, when the challenge is not only to meet what could be new highs in domestic demand, but also to make good on a pledge to steeply boost crude production and help offset continued disruption in Libya. Also, however overstated market concerns about short-term Saudi crude availability may be, there is no doubt that reconciling the twin goals of supplying world markets and sustaining its own economic growth will be a growing challenge for Saudi Arabia in the longer run.
What current market concerns illustrate most of all is the glaring need for more non-OECD oil data. Despite remarkable progress toward greater transparency in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, the shift in oil market growth from the OECD to non-OECD countries has left large gaps in supply, demand and inventory statistics. The need for more detailed non-OECD oil statistics is more apparent than ever at times of heightened market uncertainty, such as we are currently experiencing.