Since the 1970s, the US dollar has been the undisputed reserve currency around the globe. Agreements with Saudi Arabia (and many other Middle Eastern countries) cemented the global oil trade in the greenback currency. Trading oil and gas futures denominated in the US dollar solidified the position of the United States as the hegemon of Global trade – a shift from the traditional gold standard. While the Euro surfaced as a strong contender in the 90s, the dollar-denominated finance still flourished. And economies like China and Russia had no choice but to hold US Treasury securities and accumulate massive dollar reserves. However, multiple geopolitical and economic factors are now turning the tide against the supremacy of the US dollar. Rapid globalization was already a ticking bomb situation for the greenback. But now, China’s rise as the next potential powerhouse and Russia’s exclusion from the dollar-embedded SWIFT system is catalyzing this historic transition.
The tread towards de-dollarisation is not exactly a novel phenomenon. The infamous drift to exclude the US dollar originally spurred in Latin America in the 90s. In response to US sanctions, Venezuela attempted to shift away from the status quo by opting for oil payments in yuan over the US dollar. Chile resorted to Consumer Price Index (CPI) indexation to attract foreign investments in local securities over US Treasuries in the secondary market. However, due to weak supplementary monetary policies and crippling economic crises, the trend of de-dollarisation steeply reversed during the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, no significant development has threatened to derail the dominance of the US dollar. Yet, the booming Asian markets and the implicit rift between the United States and Saudi Arabia could be the next bad omen.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest Crude exporter, amounting to about 17.2% of the Global Crude oil exports (by value). Over decades, Saudi Arabia has been one of the core allies of the United States in the Middle East. Economically, the kingdom has served as the largest Crude supplier to the United States. Moreover, as Saudi Arabia leads the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the United States has enjoyed a sway over Global oil prices. Since the oil trade is denominated in the US dollar, it has allowed successive US governments to run massive trade deficits without any budgetary concern. Geopolitically, the Saudi kingdom has been a US proxy in the Middle East to counter its arch-rival Iran. After the landmark Iranian revolution in 1979, Saudi Arabia further climbed the ladder of US preference in the region. However, with a shift from Republicans to Democrats, the two allies have inched apart to a certain extent.
Over the years, the United States has relented its dependence on imported oil by building its own strategic reserves. For example, the US imported an estimated 2 million barrels per day of Saudi Crude in the 1990s. That figure fell to mere 500,000 barrels per day in 2021 – a drop of 75% in a couple of decades. On the political front, the Saudi royalty has been particularly dissatisfied with Biden’s policy in the Middle East. Biden’s decision to unilaterally withdraw support for Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war distanced the kingdom from the US administration. A subsequent spree of Houthi attacks on Saudi oil facilities has further incensed the royalty. To add oil to the fire, Biden’s desperation to salvage the outdated Nuclear Deal with Iran has virtually alienated the kingdom to the point of indifference.
The implications are not complex to spot. Since Russia launched its onslaught against Ukraine in February, Saudi Arabia has actively refused to pay heed to Biden’s calls to expand Crude supply quotas and suppress Global oil prices. Instead, the OPEC+ alliance – OPEC members, Russia, and other allied producers – stuck to its original plan to modestly raise the June output target by 432,000 barrels per day. The brutal indifference to the Western calls has an underlying reason besides the concurrent row with the United States. The reason is the growing China-Saudi cooperation. Over the past few years, Saudi’s structure of the international oil trade has undergone a fundamental change. That is predominantly due to increasing cooperation of China which is not just limited to the energy sector. Under the hood of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has also objectively expanded its potential presence in the kingdom through bilateral cooperation in infrastructure, trade, and investment.
According to the American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker, cumulative Chinese investments in Saudi Arabia reached $43.47 billion in 2021. According to data released by the Chinese General Administration of Customs (GACC), China imported an estimated 542.39 million tons of Crude oil in 2020 – comprising more than 25% of the kingdom’s total Global oil exports. Sources from Saudi Arabia’s top securities regulator suggest that the kingdom’s Sovereign Wealth Fund may soon start investing in Chinese companies after years of limiting its overseas holdings in the US and Europe. Official sources suggest that Saudi oil giant Aramco is in talks to strike a partnership with the Chinese petrochemical consortium. Recently Aramco also finalized a $10 billion deal with Chinese petroleum companies. All the factors unambiguously point in a single direction – Saudi Arabia is leaning away from the US to China. Naturally, the de-dollarisation of trade and investments would facilitate bilateral relations with China.
There are, however, some drawbacks to the petroyuan when compared to its counterpart. While China’s financial markets have exponentially grown over the past few decades, they are still relatively illiquid compared to the US capital markets. Moreover, the massive $13.4 trillion eurodollar market extensively facilitates trade in European markets. Meanwhile, trades in yuan would be limited to China and subject to manipulation from the People’s Bank of China. Thus, trades settled in yuan would be an inconvenience to the smooth operation of trade and short-term deposits. However, these problems could be resolved if petroyuan is used as a barter for investments in China.
Like Saudi Arabia, economies like Russia and Iran have also inched closer to Asia. Russia, for instance, has consistently voiced its propensity to shift toward the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS) – a transaction system clearing international settlements and trade in the Renminbi – to trade its oil in Asia under western sanctions. India has openly defied the US pressure by purchasing roughly 15 million barrels of oil from Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. The Russian Crude now accounts for about 17% of Indian imports – up from less than 1% before invasion. The rudimentary reason is cheaper oil in Roubles, especially when Europe is still weighing an embargo on Russian oil. Even Iran has notoriously traded Crude with China under US sanctions by abandoning the US dollar for settlements.
Some economists may argue that even combined, the effect of de-dollarisation would be gradual and uneconomical. But we need to understand that the historical context is skewed, and ground realities today are comparatively different. Firstly, the economies in Asia are significantly less dollarised than the emerging economies of Latin America discussed in the existing literature. Secondly, the Asian economies – particularly China and India – are much more significant in terms of size and monetary policy. Even a shift towards semi-dollarisation could upend the clout of the United States and significantly reduce the power of US sanctions.
The US lawmakers are understandably irked by the defiance of the OPEC+ alliance. Recently, a US Senate Judiciary Committee passed the No Oil Producing or Exporting Cartels (NOPEC) bill to amend the US antitrust law. If passed by the full Senate and House, the US Attorney General would gain the authority to expose OPEC+ countries to lawsuits for possible collusion, bypassing the sovereign immunity guaranteed to OPEC+ nations. While similar motions have been filed and failed over the past two decades, the notable highlight is the US desperation in the face of helplessness. Saudi Arabia already warned the US lawmakers in 2019 that such a bill, if passed, would force its move to trade oil in different currencies. Today, with Europe’s belated timeline to phase away from Russian Crude to China’s expanding influence in Eurasia, it seems the inevitable transition from the petrodollar may strike sooner than initially expected – if expected at all!