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.