For over a decade, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue lived like a prince. He paid $30 million in cash for a lavish estate in Malibu, complete with a 15,000-square-foot mansion, a swimming pool, a tennis court, and grounds overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He bought his clothes from Gucci, Versace, and Dolce & Gabbana, and owned at least three dozen luxury cars, including seven Ferraris and four Rolls-Royces. But Teodoro Obiang—“Teodorin” to his friends—is not a prince. He is the son of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, and they made their vast fortune through the corruption that surrounds the country’s greatest export: oil.
Mention of that corruption, or the oil industry’s seamy underbelly, conjures images of enormous, multinational corporations making shady deals with greedy dictators like Obiang’s father. Contracts are signed and fuel extracted with barely a thought for the environment, while the indigenous population suffers the consequences. Ken Silverstein knows this, which is why The Secret World of Oil (Verso, May 13), his fascinating, dismaying look behind the scenes of the global oil industry, devotes a hefty chapter to the Obiangs and the misery they have wrought in Equatorial Guinea.
But Silverstein is interested, too, in a much wider story, one that encompasses lobbyists and traders, academics and flacks, politicians and hustlers. An investigative journalist and one-time Washington editor of Harper’s, Silverstein travels across three continents and fills his book with facts, analysis, and eloquent indignation about a world most consumers don’t realize exists. He presents a series of profiles, with each chapter revolving around a prominent figure or group and their sometimes-discomfiting role in keeping America’s gas pumps full. Together, they show that the oil industry operates in moral shades of gray.
One chapter centers on Ely Calil, an oil industry fixer. Born in Nigeria to Lebanese parents and now based in the United Kingdom, Calil is one of the wealthiest men in Britain. He is also one of a few dozen middlemen who quietly broker the deals and financial transactions the industry depends on to function. Calil traded oil from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, channelled money to African dictators to win concessions for oil companies, and advised politicians and political exiles. Over the decades, he has assembled a formidable network of contacts and allegiances that stretches across three continents. “It’s sort of like The Godfather,” a former senior CIA official tells Silverstein. “One day he’ll come to ask for a favor, and you’ll have to comply.”
Calil prefers to keep out of the spotlight and little was known about him until 2004, when a group of about sixty European and South African mercenaries were arrested buying weapons in Zimbabwe. The men were reportedly en route to Equatorial Guinea under orders from Calil; the Obiang regime alleged that Calil had backed a plot to install Obiang’s exiled rival, Severo Moto. The charges weren’t proven, and Calil still denies them. But the ensuing scandal brought him a wealth of unwanted media attention, which makes it all the more impressive that Silverstein persuaded him to submit to a profile.
The picture that emerges … is one of astonishing profligacy and callous exploitation on the part of the Obiangs, facilitated by oil companies and tacitly ignored by the US government.
It helps that the two men are friends. Silverstein doesn’t hide his relationship with Calil, explaining that he has visited the fixer’s home in London several times and appreciates his sincerity. Calil doesn’t hide behind false altruism, Silverstein writes; he is clear that he’s in the oil business because oil made him rich. Their friendship breeds great access, which is a boon for Silverstein’s readers, even if the ethics of his reporting might make journalists wince. Calil ushers Silverstein into a power dinner with another longtime fixer, letting the journalist be a fly on the wall as he deals with a pushy hedge funder anxious to unload two oil refineries. Calil suggested placing one of the refineries in Lebanon. The fund would need political clout, but fortunately Calil knows the Lebanese energy minister, as well as officials in Syria and Iraq. Connections and deals like these have made his fortune.
From the consummate fixer, Silverstein takes us to the archetypical dictator. President Obiang has ruled Equatorial Guinea since 1979. The tiny West African country, with a population of just 650,000, is sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil producer, after Nigeria and Angola. It pumps out more than 300,000 barrels a day and exports a larger proportion of its crude oil to the United States than any other country. Oil has made Obiang and his family rich—the president’s personal fortune was estimated in 2006 to be $600 million—but his citizens remain in abject poverty. As Silverstein explains, it isn’t Obiang’s corruption that is unique so much as the sheer scale of his looting. Under his rule, Equatorial Guinea has become a “mafia state” run by “a brutal gang family and a small number of cronies and enforcers,” Silverstein writes.
The Obiangs have been written about before. Journalist Peter Maass, now a senior writer at First Look Media’s The Intercept, traveled to Equatorial Guinea to research part of his excellent 2009 book, Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil. His chapter on the Obiangs is aptly titled “Plunder.” Silverstein and Maass refer to one another’s work, and their books complement each other. Maass writes that the US Senate began probing the Obiang regime’s excesses in the early 2000s, in response to stories Silverstein wrote in the Los Angeles Times about its dealings with Riggs Bank in Washington, DC—a fact Silverstein is too modest to mention himself. Silverstein returns the compliment by describing Maass’ visit to the headquarters of Abayak, a vast, nebulous holding company owned by President Obiang that partners with various oil companies. Although housed in a seven-story building, Abayak took up only two of the six offices on the top floor—the rest were unfurnished and unoccupied. A source told Maass that Abayak’s main purpose was to funnel bribes paid to Obiang.
The picture that emerges from both books is one of astonishing profligacy and callous exploitation on the part of the Obiangs, facilitated by oil companies and ignored by the US government. In 2009, Silverstein notes, President Obama posed with Obiang during a reception at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, two months after the latter had been re-elected via a sham vote. Though the Justice Department is suing son Teodorin for $70 million, US oil companies are integral to Equatorial Guinea’s economy, and President Obiang “shows no lessening of affection for them,” writes Silverstein. Indeed, companies like ExxonMobil have and will likely continue to spend millions of dollars lobbying for Obiang’s regime.
Although Silverstein is a deft portraitist, one figure in his book remains frustratingly elusive: former British prime minister Tony Blair, who has made a post-Downing Street career in promoting Big Oil’s interests and, accordingly, is featured in the chapter on industry flacks. Since lobbying is subject to disclosure laws, corrupt regimes instead donate to universities and think tanks and offer large consulting contracts and speaking fees to eminent Westerners.
“Few have donned the pom-poms with as much vigor, or made as much money” in this business than Tony Blair, Silverstein writes. “Blair’s transformation into a human cash register has outraged many in Britain,” but no one is quite sure how much money he has made. He is available to speak about any of sixteen topics, ranging from the global economy to human rights, and charges a minimum of $200,000. The Financial Times estimated that he earned $30 million in speaking and consulting fees in 2011 alone.
Yet Silverstein seems stuck on the surface, his reporting stymied by the ex-prime minister’s astonishing lack of transparency about his business dealings. Blair established Tony Blair Associates in December 2008 to “provide door opening services to clients,” but “[it’s] not entirely clear what he does in exchange for the stiff fees he receives,” Silverstein writes. Unlike Calil, Blair didn’t agree to be interviewed, and he reveals little in public about his clients or income. TBA doesn’t have a website, nor does it appear on Blair’s official one. This reticence means Silverstein can tell readers about the former prime minister’s lukewarm speeches, and bits and pieces about TBA’s contracts with Kuwait and Kazakhstan, but little else. He has less to offer on Blair than he does on his other linchpin figures, and the flacks chapter suffers as a result.
The Secret World of Oil is hardly the first book to be written about the oil industry, but it is certainly one of the most vivid. Silverstein’s reporting shines a light on the darker recesses of the business and drags uncomfortable truths about politics, power, and the environment into view. After spending time in this world, readers will find it impossible not to think long and hard about a resource many of us take for granted.Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu