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Saudi Aramco survivor navigates choppy IPO waters

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Via Financial Times

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister Khalid al-Falih tried to remove Amin Nasser from his post at the head of the state oil company, according to four people familiar with the matter.

Since he was appointed chief executive of Saudi Aramco in 2015, Mr Nasser had played second fiddle to Mr Falih, a high-profile technocrat and the seemingly untouchable chief of Saudi energy policy at home and abroad.

Yet Mr Nasser had started to prove an obstacle to Mr Falih’s attempts to make use of Saudi Aramco’s funds and staff, prompting the attempt to oust him.

Unexpectedly, though, it was Mr Falih who was fired as minister and chairman of the company, and the 60-year-old Mr Nasser who survived.

Those survival skills are important. Mr Nasser now has the nerve-racking task of achieving the long-awaited stock market flotation of Saudi Aramco, sought by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Prince Mohammed wants a $2tn valuation, which would make it the world’s biggest public company.

After months of delays, the IPO was due to be formally announced this weekend — only to be postponed once more.

Even without the pressure of launching the IPO, Mr Nasser is leading the kingdom’s largest revenue generator at a time of unprecedented change. It is expanding abroad, investing heavily in refining and chemicals and, after decades of secrecy, this year it revealed its earnings, disclosed the state of the kingdom’s oil reserves and raised $12bn in its first international bond issue.

Even though Mr Nasser has seen off Mr Falih, putting his own stamp on Saudi Aramco will remain a struggle.

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“Is Amin Nasser the intellectual architect of everything they are doing at Saudi Aramco or is he just a steward, a safe pair of hands, being asked to execute these things by someone else?” said Jim Krane, at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

At a time of greater public scrutiny, Mr Nasser is caught between running the world’s most profitable company so it can rival international energy majors, while shielding it from the intrusions of the government, including the whims of an unpredictable young prince.

Mr Nasser, who joined Saudi Aramco 38 years ago, rose to the helm of the company after heading the exploration and production business and following a series of operational roles. He is a petroleum engineer by training and from Khobar, in the oil rich eastern province where Saudi Aramco is headquartered.

The bespectacled and genial chief executive is well-liked within the company and respected by his peers abroad. “He doesn’t project on a wide stage. But when it comes to the running of the company, he is a very good manager,” said one person close to Saudi Aramco.

Mr Nasser has championed the company’s push beyond oil exploration and production, sought to create a performance-based culture at Saudi Aramco and developed a narrative about how the company can thrive under pressure to act on climate change.

When Prince Mohammed’s flotation ambitions were first disclosed in 2016, company executives including Mr Nasser were caught by surprise. For a long time, they opposed the exposure any listing might bring. Ultimately, they followed orders and used the listing as a means to clean up the company. They overhauled company accounts, streamlined operations and tried to separate Saudi Aramco from the state as much as possible, contributing to soured relations with Mr Falih.

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Saudi Aramco declined to comment on the relationship between Mr Falih and Mr Nasser. Mr Nasser declined to comment. Mr Falih could not be reached for comment.

Mr Nasser’s allies say the aftermath of last month’s attacks on oil infrastructure that halved the country’s production showcased his talents. He quickly redirected resources and instructed teams to tackle all repair work at the same time, rather than in sequence.

Others believe he is still in the passenger seat, with Yasir al-Rumayyan, Saudi Aramco’s new chairman and head of the Public Investment Fund, now taking charge. The appointment of Mr Rumayyan, a close ally of Prince Mohammed, underlined the PIF’s growing muscle over the company.

There are concerns that Saudi Aramco will become a cash cow for the sovereign wealth fund that is charged with developing a string of megaprojects, establishing new industries and investing in international companies such as Uber, the car-hailing app.

In his April pitch to investors ahead of the bond issue, which was one of the most oversubscribed offerings ever, Mr Nasser said Saudi Aramco always aspired to be “predictable, reliable and consistent”.

That might not always be in his control.

“He is a technocrat and the ultimate professional,” said a second person close to the company. “But will he be able to survive in a highly politicised Aramco?”

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