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Saturday, 19 November 2016

Lunch with the FT: Ali al-Naimi on two decades as Saudi’s oil king

Lunch with the FT: Ali al-Naimi on two decades as Saudi’s oil king:

"I am just a few minutes into my lunch with Ali al-Naimi and we are thousands of miles away in another era, racing across the sands of eastern Saudi Arabia on his mother’s white camel. It was her dowry in her second marriage and she took it on long trips in the 1950s — just as other Bedouin women now drive trucks and cars on desert tracks; the national ban on women driving, one of the more outrageous aspects of life in Saudi Arabia, is rarely enforced in remote parts of the kingdom. Naimi, Saudi Arabia’s legendary former oil minister, laughs. “In the past you used to see women riding camels, and now you see them driving Toyotas with the camels in the back of the car.”

We are at George, an elegant brasserie and private club in the heart of Mayfair, seated at a small round table beneath a David Hockney print. The diminutive Naimi, 81, is dressed in a three-piece suit, arguably a little too formal for the chic modern setting. For two decades, as the man responsible for the policy of the world’s largest oil exporter, Naimi bestrode the energy markets like a colossus. The “oil king” has never liked reporters. They have chased him relentlessly over the years. At summits of Opec, the cartel of oil exporters, the more determined took to accompanying him on his early-morning runs seeking to dissect his sometimes cryptic words, his mood and even his body language for clues about the direction of oil prices. He could be humorous with them at times and cantankerous at others. Now, six months after retiring, he is in a mellow mood, eager to tell stories.

Having just published a memoir, Out of the Desert, Naimi’s mind drifts back easily to tales of his childhood growing up in a nomad’s tent. I, of course, am keen to press him on the biggest bet of his long career. In November 2014, with the oil price in freefall, he convinced the ruling royal family to take an enormous gamble. For decades, the kingdom’s role had been as a swing producer, taking its output up or down to balance the oil price. On this occasion, Saudi Arabia abandoned that policy and stunned global markets by opting not to cut its production to bolster prices but instead keep pumping oil to protect its market share. The consequences still overshadow the global economy. After roughly four years at more than $100 a barrel, the price of oil tumbled, hitting a low below $30 earlier this year before staging a recovery to about $50.

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