The Saudis Are Keeping the Oil Flowing, but It’s Not Easy

On Tuesday evening, the top officials of the Saudi oil industry held a news conference and delivered a very upbeat message. Saudi Arabia’s production capacity, which had been crippled by last weekend’s aerial attack, would be “fully restored” by the end of September, according to Saudi Aramco, the national oil company.

If that pace of recovery seems almost miraculous, it is.

Saturday’s attacks cut Saudi output by more than half. Analysts say that while the kingdom has been able to restore some of that output, the effects of the onslaught on two key facilities are likely to linger for weeks or even months.

“We are certainly expecting some disruption and restriction to continue at least into November,” said Richard Mallinson, an analyst at Energy Aspects, a London-based market research firm.

Mr. Mallinson and other analysts say that while Aramco struggles to repair its damaged facilities, it is striving to calm the markets and create a sense of normality.

By one measure, the company is succeeding. In the short time since the attacks, Aramco has kept its exports at around 6.5 million barrels a day, close to normal levels, according to Kpler, a firm that tracks oil tanker traffic.

But oil prices, which fell sharply after Tuesday’s update from Saudi officials, have been creeping higher and rose by about 1.5 percent on Thursday to about $65 a barrel for Brent crude, amid growing skepticism about Saudi Arabia’s ability to quickly return output to normal.

Aramco is a very large, sophisticated company with a robust capacity to buy and sell petroleum products, and it has many ways of shifting oil around to conserve oil for exports and ensure that customers have supplies.

Analysts say, for instance, that the company is most likely taking oil out of storage and selling it in the export market, and diverting supplies that might have otherwise gone to domestic refineries to international customers. And it seems to be purchasing oil products that it usually exports in substantial quantities, like diesel fuel, not necessarily to supply the Saudi market but to send to international customers that it may not be otherwise able to supply.

Mr. Mallinson said Aramco appeared to be focusing on keeping customers in Europe happy while giving less priority to those in East Africa. Kpler said in a note to clients that several vessels scheduled to load at Saudi oil terminals had either taken on a different and probably less desirable grade of crude or been diverted away without loading. These changes may indicate a shortfall in the Arab light grade of crude usually processed in the Abqaiq facility that was attacked on Saturday.

Analysts say Aramco is probably motivated by two main considerations. The Saudis take enormous pride in being a reliable supplier of oil around the world and are trying to preserve that reputation at a very difficult time. This reliability, analysts say, affords something of a premium to Saudi oil, with Aramco less likely to bargain on price than competitors.

In addition, the Saudis appear to be scrambling to keep Aramco’s much-delayed but recently revived initial public offering alive and want to convince skeptical investors that the attacks have not damaged the company’s value. At Tuesday’s news conference, Aramco’s recently appointed chairman, Yasir al-Rumayyan, said that the I.P.O. was on track and expected in the next 12 months.

Whether Aramco will be able to maintain its near-normal output levels all depends on how quickly Saudi output can be restored.

“Existing production would not support on its own that level of exports,” said David Fyfe, chief economist of Argus Media, a firm that specializes in commodity pricing.

What seems clear is that the oil market, which many analysts thought was oversupplied before the attacks, is expected to become tighter. Inventories are being drawn down, and so-called spare capacity, the amount of oil that can be quickly added to the markets, has been slashed to low levels because most of this buffer was in Saudi Arabia.

If another shock comes — and it certainly could in the volatile Persian Gulf region — there will be less oil available to provide a cushion.