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Abdulaziz bin Salman, the prince in charge of Saudi oil


Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman From Saudi Arabia he spent most of his adult life as Minister of Energy waiting. But just six days after becoming the first member of the royal family to hold the position, the kingdom’s oil production has been halved by a series of drone and missile attacks that set fire to the world’s largest crude oil processing facility.

attack on Abqaiq in September 2019That Riyadh and Washington blamed on Iran, was an early test for Prince Abdulaziz, son of King Salman and half-brother of the kingdom’s notorious crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

With oil prices soaring 20 percent, the prince was flown on a private jet from London to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, after which he quickly announced that the kingdom would be able to maintain oil supplies while repairing the damage.

Oil traders watched the price reversal. But while Prince Abdulaziz may have been lucky in this case, the tests have barely stopped since then.

In less than two years, he had to navigate the controversial public listing of Saudi Aramco in late 2019; the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic; a subsequent short-term price war with Russia; Then calls from President Donald Trump for the kingdom to reverse course and lead a record cut in global oil production.

His supporters say the 61-year-old prince, who has been married for 34 years and has three children in their 20s, has proven himself equal to the task. “Had it not been for his experience, none of these events would have overshadowed the energy minister,” says Bassam Fattouh of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, where Prince Abdulaziz sits on the board.

But to his critics, Prince Abdulaziz has his flaws, including downplaying two of the biggest tests lurking in the background.

Oil prices rise – Brent crude jumped above it $70 a barrel This week – it was not universally welcomed when inflation fears re-emerged on the horizon. and his exclusion this week from the International Energy Agency’s “roadmap” for a net-zero future as one no no land It made him at odds with shifting sentiment in an industry that is finally taking climate change seriously.

His diplomatic and pleasant appearance often slips at such moments to reveal an arrogant and sharp-tongued response to criticism or doubt more in keeping with his royal status. “You never know what kind of Abdul Aziz you’re going to get,” says one veteran OPEC delegate.

Thin and bespectacled, Prince Abdulaziz presents himself as a humble but skilled negotiator who wants to build consensus. Those close to him say his years of working for technocrats such as former ministers Ali al-Nuaimi and Khaled al-Falih are a sign of his temper, despite being a prince of great privilege.

Nevertheless, he enjoys the limelight at press conferences and exercises his position as de facto head of OPEC and a direct line in the House of Saud to get his way.

Last year he warned traders who dared bet against Saudi oil policy they would be “in hell”. He said this week that he wanted the “speculators” in the oil market to be “on their knees”.

He urged other OPEC members to increase compliance with supply deals. But he also praises those who do, as he led the OPEC meeting to a round of applause for Iraq, which has repeatedly failed to come close to achieving its goals.

“It likes to be unexpected — somewhat calculating unpredictability,” says Christian Malik, head of oil research at JPMorgan.

Things get even more complicated when he is asked to respond to the kingdom’s political actions, often by Prince Mohammed, who is its effective boss.

At the Davos summit last year, a British television crew sought a reaction to allegations that Prince Mohammed was involved in hacking the phone of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Being chased down a corridor, Prince Abdulaziz described the interrogation line as “mockery” and the reporter as “stupid” before briefly raising his microphone.

He did not comment much on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the US concluded was approved by Prince Mohammed, although their relationship is not believed to be close according to people who know Prince Abdulaziz.

His allies prefer to focus on his role in reforming the domestic electricity sector and professionalizing the relationship between Saudi Aramco and the Ministry of Energy.

But as Western oil companies shy away from investing in fossil fuels under pressure from climate change, the kingdom is hardly hedging its bets.

Prince Mohammed wants to wean the Saudi economy off its dependence on oil, but Prince Abdulaziz sees an opportunity to increase production capacity, believing the world will always need a cheap source of abundant fuel.

Amrita Sen, an analyst at Energy Aspects, says Prince Abdulaziz is “thinking deeply” about the challenges facing the world. “He cares a lot about the energy sector. He thinks about a lot of these issues.”

But there is unlikely to be any incentive to rein in new oil projects, as suggested in the IEA’s net-zero roadmap.

Whoever put this scenario up [together]”He is out of touch with reality,” Prince Abdulaziz said this week.

anjli.raval@ft.com; david.sheppard@ft.com



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