LONDON (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is considering candidates to succeed long-standing oil minister Ali al-Naimi in a ministerial reshuffle that could happen in late February or early March next year, two Saudi officials familiar with the situation said.
Oil minister for the world’s biggest crude exporter and de facto leader of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Naimi has been the most influential voice in global energy markets since his appointment in August 1995.
The 75-year-old has been asked by the Saudi Supreme Petroleum Council, chaired by King Abdullah, to nominate those he considers best-suited to replace him, the sources said.
One source said the nominations included Mohamed al-Saban and Abdullah al-Jumah.
Saban is long-time senior economic advisor to Naimi at the oil ministry and the Kingdom’s top negotiator at U.N. climate talks.
Jumah was Naimi’s successor as head of state oil company Saudi Aramco, a post he left in 2008. He joined the board of U.S. drilling services company Halliburton in July.
There may be separate nominations from other members of the Supreme Petroleum Council. The final decision will rest with King Abdullah.
“In the end the decision is with the King. He alone will decide to make the change, the timing, and who it is,” said a Saudi official.
While a Saudi cabinet reshuffle is thought possible in late February or early March, the timing and scope of any changes could be affected by King Abdullah’s health. The elderly monarch is recovering from spinal surgery in New York.
Naimi’s successor will be only the fifth oil minister in Saudi history following Abdullah al-Tariki (1960-1962), Ahmed Zaki Yamani (1962-1986) and Hisham Nazer (1986-1995).
While the Saudi oil minister does not set Saudi policy — that is the responsibility of the King and his Supreme Petroleum Council — he is largely left to implement it.
As the only oil producer with any significant volume of spare capacity, and by far the biggest reserves, Riyadh has the final word on OPEC policy decisions.
Finding a successor to Naimi who can quickly emulate his reputation with the trading community on volatile world oil markets will not be straightforward.
Naimi’s judgement was questioned in the early stages of his tenure for pushing through an increase in OPEC output in 1997 just as Asia was sliding into financial crisis.
But since then his reputation has grown as a minister who understands the multiple factors that drive oil prices and as skilful communicator.
He is credited with orchestrating a rescue from the subsequent price crash by bringing non-OPEC producers to the table and then for recruiting their support again in late 2001.
He then guided OPEC to its biggest ever supply cut in 2008 to lift prices from the recessionary slump that sent crude down from a record $147 to little more than $33 a barrel.
That oil prices are now back at $90 is in part testament to the discipline of Saudi and its Gulf allies in sticking to supply curbs, permitting smaller, less wealthy OPEC producers to pump more.
Naimi was promoted to Saudi’s top oil job after spending nearly half a century working his way up through the ranks.
He joined state oil company Saudi Aramco at the age of 12 as an office boy, was sponsored by the company to take a master’s degree at Stanford University in the United States and eventually became Aramco CEO.