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OPEC insiders reel as Algerian minister Boutarfa is fired during their meeting

LiveMint logoLiveMint 28-05-2017 Angelina Rascouet

Vienna/London: As OPEC ministers gathered in Vienna Thursday to agree a nine-month extension of their oil-supply pact, the man credited with bringing about the landmark deal learned from a news broadcast that he had been fired.

The story broke as Algerian energy minister Noureddine Boutarfa attended a closed session with counterparts early Thursday afternoon. First came an unconfirmed report from an Algerian TV station, according to delegates who were present. More than an hour later, the nation’s official APS news agency confirmed it.

It should have been a day of triumph for the man whose dogged diplomacy helped seal the historic alliance between producers of more than half the world’s oil, but the decision appears to have been far removed from events unfolding in Vienna. A day earlier, Algeria’s prime minister had been ousted, prompting a cabinet reshuffle that included the appointment of Sonelgaz chief executive officer Mustapha Guitouni as energy minister.

In the job less than a year, Boutarfa was widely expected to keep his post following parliamentary elections earlier this month.

“For Boutarfa, I can’t see any viable explanation,” said Nacer Djabi, a political analyst and sociology professor at the University of Algiers. “All the indications were that he hasn’t failed in his mission.” The abrupt dismissal showed “flagrant disregard” for his accomplishments, he said.

The decision came amid growing concern about political stability in Algeria, where the collapse of oil prices has put a strain on the economy. The country’s 80-year-old president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is suffering ill health and has no clear successor.

Boutarfa was caught unawares. As the news swirled around OPEC’s Vienna headquarters, where representatives of allies including Russia were arriving to finalize a broader deal, the minister and his delegation kept mum. Once the official confirmation came, Boutarfa is said to have taken some of his peers aside and spoken to them personally. They in turn congratulated him for his achievement, officials said.

Boutarfa declined to comment for this article.

Representing one of OPEC’s smallest producers and coming from a country with little international clout, Boutarfa played a key role in a deal many had thought was impossible.

He rose to prominence in September when he hosted an extraordinary meeting in Algiers where OPEC reached a preliminary accord to curb production. Later, Russia and 10 other non-OPEC members joined the six-month pact that ultimately would take as much as 1.8 million barrels a day off the market.

Boutarfa enlisted support by shuttling between capitals, from Paris to Moscow to Baghdad, trips recorded on his ministry’s Facebook page. Finally he corralled the ministers in a luxurious but isolated hotel on the outskirts of Algiers over several days until they hammered out an agreement.

Boutarfa “had a big role in getting all the countries together and making the collaboration a success,” Issam Almarzooq, Kuwait’s oil minister, told Bloomberg News on Thursday.

The deal marked an abrupt u-turn from a Saudi-led policy to pump at full throttle. It meant clearing what at first seemed almost insurmountable hurdles—the bitter rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the unwillingness of Iraq, Libya, and Nigeria, three producers champing at the bit to restore production they’d lost through internal conflict.

It was the first time OPEC agreed to curtail production in eight years, and would be their first collaboration with Russia—the world’s biggest energy producer—in 15 years.

“We appreciate all the efforts he put in while he was a minister with us at OPEC and we wish him good luck,” Suhail Mohammed Al Mazrouei, the energy minister for the United Arab Emirates, told Bloomberg after the meeting. Bloomberg

—With assistance from Grant Smith and Salah Slimani

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