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Middle East crude futures steady ahead of January trading kickoff

Singapore — Spreads for benchmark Dubai crude futures traded in a steady range Friday morning in Asia, with spot market activity expected to pick up pace from Monday for January loadings, crude traders in the region said.

"Market [is] quiet, trading not expected to kick off before Monday," a crude trader said.

The December/January intermonth spread for Dubai futures ticked up to $1.26/b as of 11 am in Singapore (0300 GMT) Friday after being assessed at $1.24/b at Thursday's 4:30 pm in Singapore (0830 GMT) close.

Traders told S&P Global Platts this week they expect spot price differentials for Middle East sour crude grades to trade at premiums for the January loading cycle.

The January/February Dubai futures intermonth spread also held steady, being notionally assessed at 83 cents/b Friday morning, unchanged from Thursday's assessment.

January Dubai futures' discount to ICE Brent moved within a narrow range after contracting to $3.74/b at Thursday's Asian close. The Brent/Dubai EFS was notionally pegged at $3.72/b at 11 am in Singapore Friday.

Traders said they were also watching out for updates on term contract negotiations that are expected to conclude over the next few weeks. The annual negotiations between Middle East producers and refiners in Asia are for pre-determined volumes of crude supplied on a monthly basis.

Saudi Aramco on Thursday said it had signed crude oil sales agreements for 2020 with five Chinese customers, boosting the volume it sends to China by 151,000 b/d above this year's contracts.

"These new sales agreements further solidify the company's position as China's top crude supplier," Saudi Aramco said in a statement, which did not identify the buyers.

China imported 1.6 million b/d of crude oil from Saudi Arabia over January-September, a surge of 55.4% year on year, latest data from China's General Administration of Customs showed. Saudi Arabia accounts for 16.2% of China's total crude oil imports.

Saudi Aramco, which is in the process of listing shares on the Saudi stock exchange, has seven term contract buyers in China -- state-owned Unipec, Chinaoil, CNOOC, Sinochem, Zhenhua Oil and the independent Hengli Petrochemical (Dalian) and Zhejiang Petrochemical Co.

Unipec and Chinaoil are the trading arms with the country's refining giants Sinopec and PetroChina, respectively.

-- Eesha Muneeb, eesha.muneeb@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Wendy Wells, wendy.wells@spglobal.com