Abdullah Tariki was the first Saudi oil minister. He was the son of a
jammaal, a camelman who organized camel caravans that plodded the desert
causeways transporting goods from Kuwait to ibn Saud in Riyadh, a journey
that lasted half a month. Since there were no schools then in his hometown
in Najd, the son at a very early age had to mount one of his father’s camels
to go to school in Kuwait and India. The boy represented the first
generation of Saudi technocrats who were to give up camels for cadillacs.
His father’s caravan had to negotiate its way through the territories of
hostile warring tribes, a skill the boy acquired to use later in his
negotiations with super powers over the pricing of oil. He turned out to be
the scourge of Aramco and he collaborated with Perez Alfonso of Venezuela to
create OPEC in 1960.
and well-written biography of Tariki has recently been released in the
Arabic language in 597 pages ((Riad El-Rayyes Books, Beirut, 2007). The
author of the biography, Muhammad as-Seif, comes from the same hometown as
Tariki, a small hamlet in the midst of Najd called Zilfi. This enabled as-Seif
to rely, in addition to written documents, on oral sources through
interviewing coworkers as well as contemporary friends, relatives and family
members some of whom knew Tariki personally since childhood. The author also
scanned all the local papers in that period, which were following very
closely the news of Tariki who became the superstar of oil politics and
economics throughout the 1960s. Furthermore, as-Seif gave a succinct
summation of Tariki’s opinions on various issues related to oil and Arab
politics which he expressed in the articles he wrote regularly in his oil
journal which he published from 1965 till 1979.
was born in 1918. He earned his bachelor degree from Cairo University in
1944 and master from the university of Texas in 1947 majoring in petroleum
engineering. Abdullah as-Suleiman, the Saudi finance minister, was overtaken
by the intelligence and eloquence of Tariki and, after getting his Master
degree, he charged him with the responsibility of monitoring Aramco’s
pumping, sales and royalty accounts. As-Suleiman resigned his post in 1954.
When late king Faisal took over the ministry of finance in 1958, he
established a new Department in the ministry for Saudi Petroleum and Mineral
Resources and appointed Tariki as its Director General.
not take Tariki a long time to discover that, aside from its apartheid
policies in its living arrangement for and treatment of Saudi workers,
Aramco was short-changing and exploiting the Saudi government, instead of
honoring the mutual agreement of splitting the profit 50:50. The company
sold Saudi oil to its parent companies (Texaco, Exxon, Socal and Mobil) at
considerable discounted prices, enabling them to make huge profits for their
downstream divisions of refining, transport and marketing. Through a complex
maze of faulty accounting procedures, Aramco was able to hide the real
profits, which were supposed to be shared with the Saudis. These
malpractices actually reduced the Saudi share of the profit from 50% to a
mere 32%, not to mention the fact that the company never bothered to utilize
the natural gas accompanying oil which was burned as waste product.
fought very hard to set the financial records straight and insisted on
sharing profit on the realized rather than posted price, regardless of
discounts, and to secure Saudi participation in every step of oil
production, refinery, transportation and marketing. He invented the motto
“from well to car”. The radical ideas of Tariki were further inflamed after
his meeting with President Nasser whom he met at the first Arab Petroleum
Congress convened in Cairo in 1959. One of Tariki’s mottos came after that
Congress “the Arab petroleum is for the Arabs”. Since then he started
talking about nationalizing oil. After Britain, France and Israel attacked
Egypt in 1956 over the nationalization of the Sues Canal, he started to push
for the use of oil as a political weapon in the Arabs struggle against
imperialism and Zionism.
Alfonso of Venezuela was a comrade in arms with Tariki in pushing for the
establishment of OPEC to combat the monopolies of oil companies, a dream
which was realized in 1960.
Through the 1960s the price for a barrel for Saudi oil was less than $2.00,
or 4 cents per gallon. It was king Faisal who, after the 1967 Arab Israeli
war, initiated the oil embargo that eventually lead to the energy price
allied himself with a group of radical Saudi princes headed by prince Talal
and known as the free princes. They demanded government reforms. Hoping that
Faisal would help bring about their dreams of political reforms, the free
princes sided with him in his disputes with his brother king Saud in 1958
and pressured the latter to hand over the running of the day to day
government affairs to Faisal and transfer to him executive powers while
remaining as king.
had to take frugal and tough measures to save the prestige of the government
and the national budget in which he found no more than $375. These austerity
measures did not go well with tribal chiefs who were used to Saud’s bounty
and merchants who lost big contracts. The free princes were also
disillusioned by Faisal, who did not implement the constitutional reforms
that he had promised them. In 1960 they allied themselves with Saud after
extracting from him promises of reform in exchange for helping him to
retrieve executive powers and the presidency of the Council of Ministers,
which he had relinquished to the crown prince. While the constitutionalists
were drawing up a constitution for a constitutional monarchy and a chart for
a provisional national assembly half elected and half nominated by a joint
committee of princes and ministers, Saud formed his own cabinet, which, for
the first time, included six non-royal ministers, most of whom were pushing
for reforms. The group was lead by the influential Tariki whose Department
of Saudi Petroleum and Mineral Resources was upgraded by king Saud to a
ministry headed by him as Minister of Oil and Petroleum Resources. Those
were the heydays of Tariki.
did not appear to be serious about promised reforms. Prince Talal, who was
appointed as finance minister in the new cabinet, quarreled with him over
his extravagant spending. Some believe that the free princes and the king
were using each other for their own ends. The real aim of the
constitutionalists was to advance themselves more rapidly in the royal
ranks. They saw reform as a means of leap frogging up the ranks where
respect for seniority by age was paramount. They thought the ousting of a
strong president of the Council of Ministers and the restoration of a weak
king might be a short cut to achieving their aim. The king on his part was
using them to gain lost prerogatives. Alliance built on such weak bases
cannot last long and soon Saud government was tottering and it almost
crashed down under the pressure of regional events, mainly the fallouts of
the breakup of union between Syria and Egypt. Once more, Saud had to
surrender executive powers to Faisal. Faisal was back in the driver’s seat
and he took over the presidency of the Council of Ministers in 1961.
Although Faisal promoted Tariki at first, gradually he found him not to his
taste with his tirades at oil conferences and inflammatory high profile
interviews in newspapers. He was infatuated by Nasser and too radical for
Faisal who sacked this tactless Najdi in 1962 and replaced him with the
moderate and suave Hejazi Ahmad Zaki Yamani.
those who knew Tariki, friends and foes alike, agreed that he had an
exceptional and engaging personality with courage and honesty. Intelligent,
lucid and articulate, he was popular wherever he went. But his militancy,
outspokenness and fiery character won him the wrath of Faisal. His
association with the free princes and his appointment by Saud to the council
of ministers in 1960 as the country’s first oil minister of Petroleum and
Mineral resources sealed his fate with Faisal.
chose self exile but he did not seek refuge with Nasser whom he greatly
admired for fear that he would be used by that leader’s propaganda machine,
which was the case with the free princes who headed for Cairo. Tariki had no
ax to grind with the Royal family and did not want to burn his bridges with
them, so he went to Beirut where he opened an office for oil consultancy and
started publishing a journal devoted to oil economics and politics. But
later he was forced to exit Beirut to Cairo because Faisal pressured Chamoun,
the Lebanese president, to force him out. He stayed few months in Cairo
before moving to settle in Kuwait.
18 years of self-imposed exile Tariki returned to Riyadh in 1980. The Saudi
government granted him a big house and a big stipend. He died in 1997.
Despite his radical rhetoric and his Nasserite leanings, there was no doubt
about the sincerity of Tariki. His integrity was beyond question. For many
years he held a position through which he could have made big money, one way
or the other. He lived a life of almost hand to mouth. Even in his exile he
did not bear any grudge against his country. He remained always loyal and
discrete when talking about the Saudi government or the Saudi Royal family.
He wanted to reform the government, not revolt against it. He could have
been much more effective and he could have done a much better job, but he
was the victim of national rhetoric and political currents of the time. His
dreams were to be realized by his successor, the more astute and calculating
Yamani, the man of strategy and realism.