Taylor, chief executive of the Vitol Group, the world’s largest independent oil trader, caught himself thinking he would like to see a full-fledged jet fighter in the place of the drone accompanying him. The head of Vitol, Ian Taylor It was early 2011. Rebels opposed to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship had just taken control of the city and appointed their own government. A meeting with this motley group of former military officials and local politicians was arranged surprisingly quickly, but Taylor realised that if anyone could make a deal with them, it would be Vitol.
A few weeks ago, one of its top managers in Dubai, Christopher Baik, received a call from Doha. The Qatari oil minister, who was acting as an intermediary, wanted to know whether Vitol was prepared to supply fuel to Libyan rebels. Vitol had only four hours to respond. Bake confirmed Vitol’s interest “in about four minutes”. He then engaged his colleagues, mostly from headquarters in London, to put together a decent commercial proposal. He soon announced to the intermediary that Vitol was ready to close the deal. The ability to conduct business in a bloody war-torn country says a lot about the company’s culture.
Anyone in the oil business can attest that Vitol management has always consisted of slick, money-hungry opportunists, always ready to leap. Frail Taylor and bulky Bake, who looked more like a bodyguard than a top executive, were on their way to Benghazi to close the deal. But there was one hitch in the deal: the rebels had no money. They were going to pay Vitol in crude oil.
Western governments tacitly endorsed the agreement, although they did not provide any official support, apart from a lone drone. If anything went wrong, Taylor and his company would have to deal with it themselves. The plane tilted, and both passengers squirmed in their seats. The risk of antiaircraft fire from Gaddafi’s forces prevented the pilot from landing the plane normally, so he had to descend through a series of sharp maneuvers. Once on the ground, Taylor and Bake immediately headed for the designated rendezvous point.
At the time, downtown Benghazi, a cluster of tired, dusty ’70s-era buildings lining a stinking lagoon, was a far more dangerous place than 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, the Hollywood film this year about the attack that assassinated US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens in September 2012. In the early days of the civil war, almost every man in Benghazi – sometimes even children – carried a Kalashnikov, and others lived in constant fear that Gaddafi’s troops would suddenly breach the city’s defenses.
After a short discussion, Vitol accepted the deal. Within a few days, things had already gone awry. Despite promises to keep everything secret, the rebels immediately announced that they had made a deal to sell the oil. In response, Gaddafi’s forces immediately blew up the main pipeline. Without oil, the rebels had nothing to pay Vitol. Still, the company decided to keep its end of the bargain. For another few months, tankers were discharging gasoline, diesel and fuel oil in eastern Libya without fail. As Abdeljalil Mayouf, a spokesman for the rebel-controlled Arabian Gulf Oil company in Benghazi, later said, “Fuel from Vitol was of great importance to the army.” Eventually the rebels overthrew Gaddafi, and when the fighting subsided, Vitol got its oil.
At one point, while everyone was waiting for production to resume, the rebel government’s debt swelled to more than $1 billion. Five years later, Taylor, now 60, recalls the events in Benghazi over breakfast at St Pancras station in London, from where the 9.18am express train is due to take him to Paris. He says: “Frankly, this deal has brought us a lot more than it should have. The risky Benghazi deal epitomises Vitol’s world – an explosive mix of business and geopolitics in the most remote and dangerous corners of the world. The privately-owned company, which made a net profit of $1.6bn last year, is the hidden giant of the global economy, churning through more than 6m barrels of oil a day – enough to cover the daily demand of Germany, France, Italy and Spain combined.