As the Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources of Saudi Arabia, Ali al-Naimi pretty much controls the world's oil tap. It doesn't matter which nation's Oil Minister is the head of OPEC (currently it's Libya); Saudi Arabia has the biggest bat, and the Saudis have shown that they will use it to bring the others in line.
That's what makes al-Naimi, 73, the biggest hitter in oil, although at the moment he's not swinging hard. Why should he, with prices well north of $100 per bbl. and his own country benefiting? But Saudi Arabia is sitting on 1.5 million bbl. per day in spare capacityits historical normand getting a lot of heat from the West to pump more. At the same time, OPEC hawks such as Venezuela and Iran wouldn't mind if oil crested $150 and the pain level increased.
Al-Naimi's predicament is that if he adds more oil supply to the market, the bubble will burst, and prices could go into a free fall. He has expressed his concern that oil prices are being driven by financial factors like speculators and not by supply and demand. My company refines oil into gasoline, and trust me, there's plenty of crude.
Al-Naimi is well regarded in the oil industry, a very articulate and thoughtful minister who is as concerned about Saudi Arabia's energy future as he is about the current situation. But he is walking a tightrope of petropolitics that has never been more difficult to balance.
Westfall is chief economist at Tesoro Corp., a large independent U.S. oil refiner
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