* SOMO to start discussions with buyers
* Change in benchmark may take effect from Jan 2018 (Adds DME no comment)
By Florence Tan and Rania El Gamal
SINGAPORE/DUBAI, Aug 21 (Reuters) - Iraq has informed its customers that it plans to switch its price benchmark for Basra crude in Asia to DME Oman futures from January, dropping the average of Platts’ Oman-Dubai quotes, in a major shift in the way it prices its oil.
The proposal by state-oil marketer SOMO would mark a significant change by OPEC’s second-largest producer away from fellow members Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran, which have been using price assessments from global agency S&P Global Platts as their benchmark for decades.
It throws down the gauntlet on setting prices for more than 12 million barrels per day of Middle East crude in Asia, challenging the role of the world’s top exporter Saudi Arabia.
“In an effort to realize the intrinsic value of our crude exports to Asia as to be in alignment with the recent market perception, we are contemplating a change of the current pricing formula for the Asian market,” SOMO said in a letter dated Aug. 20 and sent to its customers, according to a copy seen by Reuters on Monday.
It asked customers for opinions on the plan by Aug. 31.
The Dubai Mercantile Exchange (DME) said it would not be making any statement at this time on the move. SOMO did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Iraq has been reforming its oil sector - including launching crude sales through auctions on DME to achieve higher prices and setting up trading and shipping joint ventures to understand market dynamics - in what is seen as a drive to gain influence and bring in more revenue as the country seeks to rebuild its economy.
“DME has shown good practice and better transparency than Platts, they also have an auction system,” one source familiar with the matter said.
The move also appears to reflect SOMO’s aim to lead a change in crude pricing rather than following Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s biggest producer whose crude official selling prices (OSPs) set the trend for other major Middle East producers.
Iraqi crude grades are not used in any of the Middle East price benchmarks. Platts assesses its Dubai price based on deliveries of Dubai, Oman, Abu Dhabi’s Upper Zakum and Qatari Al-Shaheen crude.
“The Iraqis probably want to get in on the game of being a benchmark grade,” a Singapore-based oil trader said.
SOMO has proposed pricing crude loading in the current month using DME Oman prices from two months previously, according to SOMO’s letter to its customers.
“Such a mechanism is intended to reflect the real value of Iraqi crude oil based on the trading month in the Asia market,” SOMO said in the letter.
The change in the benchmark will affect the pricing of about 2 million barrels per day of crude that are shipped to Asia, or close to two-thirds of Iraqi crude exports from the southern port of Basra, the outlet for most of the country’s crude.
“Lately they (the Iraqis) have managed to achieve good premiums via the DME action, so there is some added value,” said an industry source at a Middle East producer.
Since April, Iraq has sold 1-2 cargoes of Basra crude per month through an auction platform on the DME as a test for future Iraqi oil sales.
Oman crude futures, launched in 2007 by the DME, are the only liquid futures contracts for Middle East crude in Asia.
SOMO is not expected to change the way it prices its oil for Europe and the United States, said one of the sources. It prices its European exports against dated Brent, and uses the Argus Sour Crude Index (ASCI) as the benchmark for its U.S. oil sales. (Reporting by Florence Tan in Singapore and Rania El Gamal in Dubai; Editing by Susan Fenton and David Evans)