You’ve probably never heard of the world’s most valuable company

Can’t we just sell more oil?
Can’t we just sell more oil?
Image: AP Photo/Hasan Jamali
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It’s Saudi Aramco—the world’s most important energy producer, controlling Saudi Arabia’s roughly 321 billion barrels of proven oil and gas reserves.

The company could open itself up to outside investors in a share sale, according to deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who mentioned the matter to reporters from The Economist today (Jan. 7).

“This is something that is being reviewed, and we believe a decision will be made over the next few months,” he said, according to a transcript of the interview.

The seemingly offhand comment isn’t an ironclad pronouncement, of course. But it can’t help but get attention if only for the sheer size of the firm. Saudi Aramco would almost certainly become the world’s most highly valued company with a market capitalization north of $1 trillion.

(Exxon Mobil has roughly 25 billion barrels of proven oil and gas reserves, and public markets have given it a value of about $320 billion. Aramco has more than 10 times as much oil.)

While it’s impossible to say whether any share sale will materialize, the idea is being floated at an interesting moment. Saudi Arabia has led a risky OPEC production push over the last year that has tanked global oil prices in an effort to squeeze higher cost suppliers—such as US based shale gas producers—out of the business.

The move has been costly for Saudi Arabia, however, pushing its own oil revenues down sharply, and forcing it to eat into its currency reserves to preserve the riyals peg to the US dollar.

The Saudis are also vying with Iran in an increasingly tense battle for dominance in the Middle East. Over the last week, the Saudis and Iranians have moved from a series of proxy fights in places like Syrian and Yemen to a more direct face-to-face confrontation after Saudi Arabia’s execution of a Shiite cleric prompted outrage in Tehran.

All that should give potential investors in Saudi Aramco pause, as should the history of the company itself. It was founded in 1933, when the Standard Oil Company of California was granted a sixty-year concession—or the right to explore for oil—by king Ibn Saud. It was controlled by American oil companies, who paid royalties to the Saudi kingdom, for decades, but the Saudis nationalized the company completely in 1980.