Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman of Saudi Arabia spent most of his adult life as energy-minister-in-waiting. But just six days after becoming the first royal to take on the role, the kingdom’s oil production was cut in half by a series of drone and missile attacks that set the world’s largest crude processing facility ablaze.
The attack on Abqaiq in September 2019, which Riyadh and Washington blame on Iran, was an early test of Prince Abdulaziz, the son of King Salman and half brother of the kingdom’s notorious crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
As oil prices surged 20 per cent the prince was whisked by private jet from London to Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, after which he soon announced the kingdom would be able to maintain oil supplies while it repaired the damage.
Oil traders watched prices reverse. But while Prince Abdulaziz might have been lucky in this instance, the tests have barely stopped since.
In less than two years he has had to navigate the controversial public listing of Saudi Aramco in late 2019; the start of the Covid-19 pandemic; a subsequent shortlived price war with Russia; and 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 twenties, has proved equal to the task. “If it wasn’t for his experience any one of these events would have overwhelmed an energy minister,” says Bassam Fattouh at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, where Prince Abdulaziz sits on the board.
But to his critics, Prince Abdulaziz has his flaws, including playing down two of the biggest tests lurking in the background.
Rising oil prices — Brent crude climbed above $70 a barrel this week — are not universally welcomed when inflation fears have resurfaced on the horizon. And his dismissal this week of the International Energy Agency’s “road map” for a net zero future as being from La La Land has put him at odds with shifting sentiment in an industry finally taking climate change seriously.
His softly spoken diplomatic veneer often slips in such moments to reveal an altogether haughtier, sharp-tongued response to criticism or doubt more in line with his royal status. “You never know which kind of Abdulaziz you’re going to get,” says one veteran Opec delegate. “There are some meetings where he is on a big high and congenial and others where he just loses the plot against certain countries.”
Slim and bespectacled with an academic air, Prince Abdulaziz presents himself as a low-key but shrewd negotiator who wants to build consensus. Years working for technocrats such as former ministers Ali Al Naimi and Khalid Al Falih, people close to him say, is a sign of his temperament despite being a prince bestowed with immense privilege.
Yet he relishes the limelight at press conferences and wields his status as the de facto head of Opec and a direct line into the House of Saud to get his way.
Last year he warned traders daring to bet against Saudi oil policy that they would be “ouching like hell”. This week he said he wanted to bring “speculators” in the oil market “to their knees”.
He has pushed other Opec members to increase compliance with supply deals. But he also lavishes praise on those who do, leading one Opec meeting in a round of applause for Iraq, a frequent laggard, after it came close to hitting its targets.
“He likes to be unpredictable — to some extent it’s calculated unpredictability,” says Christyan Malek, head of oil research at JPMorgan.
Things become trickier when he is asked to respond to political actions taken by the kingdom, often by Prince Mohammed, who is his effective boss.
At the Davos summit last year, a UK television crew sought reaction to claims that Prince Mohammed had been involved in the hacking of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ phone. As he was pursued down a corridor, Prince Abdulaziz called the line of questioning “a mockery” and the reporter “stupid” before briefly yanking away his microphone.
He has made little comment on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the US concluded was approved by Prince Mohammed, though their relationship is not thought to be close according to people who know Prince Abdulaziz.
His allies would rather focus on his role in overhauling the domestic electricity sector and professionalising the relationship between Saudi Aramco and the energy ministry.
But while western oil companies pull back on fossil fuel investment under climate change pressure, the kingdom is barely hedging its bets.
Prince Mohammed wants to wean the Saudi Arabian economy off its oil dependence, but Prince Abdulaziz sees an opportunity to increase production capacity, believing the world will always need a cheap source of plentiful fuel.
Amrita Sen, analyst at Energy Aspects, says that Prince Abdulaziz “thinks deeply” about the challenges facing the world. “He does care a lot about the energy sector. He reflects on a lot of these issues.”
But any push to curb new oil projects, as proposed in the IEA net zero road map, is unlikely.
“Whoever put that scenario [together],” Prince Abdulaziz said this week, “is not in touch with reality.”