(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Saudi Arabian monarchy made a major change this week in the leadership of its national oil company, Saudi Aramco. Khalid Al-Falih, the former CEO and current oil minister, was removed as chairman and replaced by Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the head of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. With the kingdom readying plans for an Aramco IPO, what should we make of this shift, and is Al-Rumayyan – a confidante of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with no experience in oil or energy – the best choice to fill the position?On the one hand, removing Al-Falih from the board of Saudi Arabian Oil Co. will help the company establish itself as distinct from the Saudi government team that creates oil policy at OPEC. This should insulate Aramco from some antitrust allegations. If or when Aramco does go public, the move could help protect the company from investigations by other governments concerning its connections to the international oil cartel. As Al-Falih himself wrote in a tweet in Arabic, the new leadership of the board is a step toward an IPO:
But Al-Rumayyan isn’t a choice that should promote confidence in the direction of the company. For one, his background is in finance: After various jobs in Saudi banking, he was appointed to run the Public Investment Fund, or PIF, in 2015, and is said to consult very closely with Prince Mohammed. He has used a large portion of the PIF as a venture-capital fund – so much so that through the PIF, Saudi Arabia has become one of the single biggest investors in U.S. startups. Al-Rumayyan has also overseen the PIF’s position as a power broker in the kingdom, with the fund backing new ideas and even social causes such as a major investment that brought AMC Theaters to Saudi Arabia when cinemas were legalized. None of this points to any expertise in oil.
Al-Falih was an oil company veteran with a successful track record in the business, so it made sense for him to lead the board. In fact, it’s typical for major international oil companies to be led by energy professionals. At Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp., for example, the chairmen are also the CEOs. Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s chairman is Charles Holliday, who once ran the chemicals firm DuPont. BP PLC’s chairman is the former CEO of BG Group and Statoil, both energy companies.
The monarchy could have replaced Al-Falih with the current CEO, Amin Nasser; one of several retired top Aramco executives still active in the company community; an outside industry veteran; or even Prince Mohammed's own half-brother, Abdul Aziz, who was a university professor and formerly a top bureaucrat in the oil ministry. Instead, it chose Al-Rumayyan, a yes-man for the monarchy.
More importantly, the shake-up points to the impending transfer of Aramco to the PIF portfolio, as Prince Mohammed has wanted to do for years. Before he even ascended to his current role, Prince Mohammed argued that Aramco should be just another portfolio company. In 2016, he said Aramco “is a company that has a value – an investment. You must own it as an investment. It should not be owned as a primary commodity or a major source of income.” That’s not inspiring for Saudi Arabia, which still relies on Aramco for most of its revenue. Nor is it inspiring for potential investors who are looking for the supremely profitable company to continue on its prior positive trajectory.
To be clear, the board of directors of a national company has limited authority in an absolute monarchy. There is actually a committee that sits above the board called the Supreme Aramco Council, which is chaired by the crown prince, who also lacks any experience in energy. Still, the board technically maintains oversight over the upper management of Aramco, as well as the massive dividend given to the treasury each quarter and the company’s IPO plans.
If nothing else, this move is a sign to the company executives in Dhahran that they are no longer completely in charge of the business they and their predecessors turned into a success. But it is important to understand that this is also a sign to potential investors that this energy company – the richest and most powerful business in the world – is now being overseen by amateurs.
(This article was corrected to remove a reference to Hess Corp. in the fourth paragraph. )
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Ellen R. Wald is president of Transversal Consulting and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global Energy Center.
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