The idea that the world's leading petroleum producer might cease to export oil at all within the foreseeable future is a striking paradox.
That is why a Citigroup report, claiming Saudi Arabia's domestic consumption might eat up all of its production by 2030, has captured widespread attention. But this report's prediction is clearly not going to materialise, and the interesting question is - why?
The Citigroup report highlights fast-rising domestic consumption driven by electricity demand growing by about 8 per cent per year. The Saudis now use about a quarter of their oil at home.
Awareness of this issue is not new. The Saudi investment bank Jadwa, the UK think tank Chatham House and I all drew attention to it last year. The Citigroup study has stirred up a new flurry of excitement and the idea of Saudi exports dropping to zero has been received with Schadenfreude by two groups. On the one hand, those who dislike the kingdom for its politics, on the other, the advocates of "peak oil", who receive bad news about global oil supplies with overt alarm and secret enjoyment.
So why are Saudi exports not going to dwindle to zero? There are two possibilities, a good and a bad one.
The good outcome is economic logic finally convinces Saudi Arabia to make necessary reforms to its energy system.
On the supply side, the Citi analysis seems to assume Saudi Arabia will not increase oil production. Yet by 2030, even with no new discoveries, it will still have a 50-year reserve life, giving ample room to expand output. Gas production can also grow significantly. If insufficient, it could be supplemented with imports from Qatar or - irony of ironies - even the newly self-sufficient United States.
The kingdom's ambitious nuclear power plans will take a long time to reach fruition but could make an impact before 2030. Solar power can be implemented more quickly. But more costly alternative energy makes little sense without eliminating extravagant subsidies.
Often analysts suggest Saudi Arabia cannot cut subsidies because that would trigger unhappiness. Yet an economic crisis would probably bring considerably greater discontent.
At some point, Riyadh will surely bite the bullet. Dubai, Iran, Egypt and Jordan have, in different ways, been grappling with energy subsidy reform recently and their successes and failures offer valuable lessons. Raising prices for oil, gas, electricity and water to market levels can be done gradually, with compensation for vulnerable groups.
Citigroup's extrapolation suggests by 2030, Saudi Arabia would be consuming some 11 million barrels per day. With a likely population by then of about 45 million, each Saudi would be consuming three times as much as UAE residents do today. At some point, energy demand has to reach a saturation point.
The bad outcome, if the Saudi government does not react to this peril, is that long before they actually reached zero, dwindling oil exports would bring economic collapse. For comparison, during the low oil-price 1990s, Saudi oil use grew less than 3 per cent annually.
Oil makes up 80 to 90 per cent of exports and at least two thirds of the remainder is petrochemicals and plastics made from oil and gas. As the government began to run swelling deficits, salaries and new industries would dry up, leaving no money for big cars and air-conditioned villas. A third of the Saudi population are expatriates who would presumably leave as the economy declined.
Shrinking exports are perilous for Saudi Arabia and demand action. But simplistic extrapolation of trends leads to alarmist headlines that do not reflect plausible futures.
Robin Mills is the head of consulting at Manaar Energy, and the author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis and Capturing Carbon