By Matthew Robinson and Jonathan Saul
NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is preparing to extend this year's unexpected surge in oil sales to the United States, according to tanker industry sources and government data, adding to speculation about the response of the world's top oil exporter to sanctions against Iran and a rally in prices.
Contrary to expectations that the modest recent rise in the kingdom's output was bound for fast-growing Asian markets, preliminary data shows that shipments to the United States have quietly risen 25 percent to the highest level since mid-2008, when the OPEC kingpin was driving up production to knock oil prices off record highs near $150 a barrel.
The surge appears set to continue. Vela, Saudi Arabia's state oil tanker company, has booked at least 9 very large crude carriers (VLCCs) capable of carrying 2 million barrels of crude each from the Middle East Gulf to the U.S. Gulf since the start of March, the biggest such wave of fixtures in years, analysts say.
Evidence of the abrupt boost in sales, which has gone largely unnoticed in the market, will likely provoke speculation about whether it is more political or commercial in nature.
The White House has been scrambling for options to bring down gasoline prices -- at a seasonal record high -- during an election year, after concerns over an Iranian supply disruption launched benchmark Brent crude to lofty peaks over $120 a barrel not seen since the record price run of 2008.
Washington has urged ally Saudi Arabia to cover potential shortages when new U.S. and European Union sanctions are expected to reduce Iranian oil exports from July. The Obama administration has considered releasing strategic oil inventories, potentially as part of a bilateral deal with Britain.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Leff in New York; Editing by Dale Hudson)