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Saudi summit

Former shepherd boy with power to pour oil on the world’s troubles

Solving the incendiary problem of rising fuel costs rests on a humble minister

There will be speeches tomorrow from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Gordon Brown at the energy summit in Jeddah that could decide the future of our petrol prices and heating bills. But the few words that matter will come from a former shepherd boy, Ali Al-Naimi.

Now 73, he is the minister of petroleum and mineral resources in the world’s largest crude exporting country, and if anyone can influence global energy costs it is this quietly spoken man from humble background who rose to become pre-eminent in the oil sector.

The world’s biggest consumers and producers of oil are beating a path to his door to hear what can be done to cut the value of crude which has hit record levels of near $140 a barrel over the past week driving up consumer bills, boosting inflation and creating what Brown described as “the most worrying situation in the world”.

King Abdullah will be there to meet and greet foreign ministers but Al-Naimi will be presiding over the closed sessions where real horse-trading will be conducted.

Described by those who deal with him as a “very smart, very professional operator”, the Sunni Muslim is aware that the continued escalation will ultimately push western countries into other fuel sources at a time when global warming is signalling the potential end of carbon fuels.

He is also anxious that the Saudi regime, which needs its friends in the west for military and political protection, is not held entirely responsible for global energy woes which risk driving up inflation and stalling economic growth.

His letter to world political and business leaders expressed “deep concern at recent developments in world petroleum markets” and said the “unprecedented” meeting was aimed at bringing stability.

The cost for failing to bring that stability could be high and the world will now be watching how al-Naimi handles this unprecedented gathering of 35 countries, 25 oil companies and seven other organisations.

The minister of petroleum is the most influential man in oil policy but is totally loyal to the ruling elite who he believes has helped carry him from poverty to power. Al-Naimi, who will almost always choose traditional Arab dress, is proud of these roots and the Bedouin tradition of humility and hospitality that underpin them.

He is not someone likely to be seen in the casinos of London with a young woman on his arm. Building a reputation as a committed family man Al-Naimi is known to have turned up at meetings with a grandchild holding his hand.

Al-Naimi first got a taste of the energy sector at the age of 12 when he was taken on as an errand boy at Aramco, the world’s largest state oil group. It was the company’s education programme that allowed him to study geology at Lehigh University in the US followed by a masters degree from Stanford.

He then made his way up the corporate career ladder at Aramco eventually becoming president and chief executive before moving in 1995 to be minister of petroleum where his low-key style was seen as an asset after the flamboyance of predecessors such as Sheikh Yamani.

Al-Naimi’s excesses go no racier than being a fitness fanatic who would once jog at 7am with his bodyguards but now often walks from his hotel to conference sessions rather than take his bullet-proof car. This modest man also keeps his comments in front of the media short, earning himself the sobriquet – The Silent Saudi – and aware than any slip of the tongue could add or subtract billions of dollars in investments on the oil markets.

But behind the scenes the Saudi technocrat is expansive, keen to use his enormous knowledge and expertise to guide members of Opec or other groups to sensible and relatively conservative solutions. Saudis might have the strength of being the biggest oil producer but it takes skills to negotiate a position that will help the west when dealing with Opec members that include Bush-bashing Venezuela and Iran.

Al-Naimi will be using all his shepherding skills to bring an even wider array of ministers and delegates round to seeing a successful conclusion from the Jeddah summit but whether he can make Saudi Arabia appear a friend of the British motorists rather than their enemy remains unclear.

As the Guardian reported yesterday, oil experts fear that failure to reach agreement at the meeting could reinforce the sense that there is nothing that can be done about oil prices, sending the cost of a barrel ever higher.

Julian Jessop, chief international economist at Capital Economics, said yesterday: “I fail to see what a talking shop with politicians is going to achieve. Part of the difficulty here is that no one can agree why oil prices are so high and therefore they can’t agree on a solution.

“It’s difficult to see what they can do in the short term. It’s difficult to see any major development because the obvious things have been announced. The Saudi Arabians said they would increase output and Asian countries said they would reduce fuel subsidies and raise retail prices.”

Société Générale analyst Mike Wittner said: “The more information that comes out, it seems that there is possibly less to this meeting than meets the eye.” and its also non-profit sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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