Much has been written about the race to $2 trillion market cap, one that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is clearly winning. As of the market close on Thursday, the stock is within less than 2% of hitting this rather arbitrary goal. For context, Amazon and Microsoft are each about 26% off the mark.

You might be surprised to learn, however, that even if it achieves this dubious distinction -- pushing its market cap above $2 trillion -- Apple won't be the first company to achieve this lofty benchmark. Even more surprising is that the company that beat Apple to the punch may be one many investors may not even be familiar with -- the Saudi Arabian Oil Company -- or simply Saudi Aramco for short.

Numerous people in silhouette having a discussion with stock market tickers in the background.

Image source: Getty Images.

Saudi who?

The mostly state-owned company is the world's largest oil producer. Saudi Aramco debuted on the Tadawul stock exchange in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Dec. 11, 2019, marking the largest initial public offering (IPO) in history. It raised $25.6 billion for just a 1.5% stake in the company. 

On the first day of trading, the stock climbed 10% higher, valuing the company at roughly $1.9 trillion, but missing out on the $2 trillion valuation anticipated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It wasn't until the next day that Saudi Aramco achieved the high watermark, trading up nearly 10% for the day. At the time, it dwarfed Apple, which was valued at about $1.2 trillion.  

The good times didn't last, and Saudi Aramco found its valuation hard to hold. A number of macroeconomic factors turned 2020 into the company's most difficult year in decades, as Saudi Aramco reported a 73% year-over-year slump in its quarterly profits. 

A double whammy

There's little question the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has had a negative and lasting effect on economies around the world. However, Saudi Aramco was hit twice as hard due to the dramatic collapse in demand for oil. Leisure travel has all but dried up as consumers hunkered down at home, while remote work has dramatically decreased commuting, also weighing on the need for oil.

The result has been a much greater hit to the economy of Saudi Arabia, which garners an estimated 64% of the Kingdom's revenue from oil sales. 

Saudi Aramco is struggling to make ends meet, making deep cuts to capital spending, in a range of $20 billion to $25 billion this year, down from earlier plans to spend between $40 billion and $45 billion. The company is also working to preserve the $75 billion in dividends due in the upcoming quarter and plans to take on debt or issue bonds in order to assure the payouts. 

Apple AirPods Pro in a case.

Image source: Apple.

An Apple's to oranges comparison

It's important to note that Apple's path to a $2 trillion market cap has been far different than that of Saudi Aramco, and while the pandemic has certainly resulted in challenges, the tech giant is currently in a far stronger financial position.

Late last month, Apple reported its fiscal third-quarter earnings (for the period ended June 27), and the record results surprised many on Wall Street. Revenue grew to $59.7 billion, up 11% year over year, while earnings per share of $2.58 climbed 18%. iPhone sales edged higher, up 1%, while services and wearables climbed 15% and 17%, respectively.

It's also worth noting that as of Thursday, Saudi Aramco's market cap has shrunk to about $1.79 trillion, according to Capital IQ. At the same time, Apple's has climbed to $1.97 trillion and is less than 2% for surpassing the $2 trillion valuation milestone, which will likely occur in the days and weeks to come.

The difference between these two trillionaires couldn't be starker, and when it comes right down to it, Apple investors were the ultimate winners in the race to $2 trillion.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.