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.