Oligarchs are the wealthy few who benefit from the government and for all intents and purposes call the shots behind the scenes. Oilprice.com considers five key oligarchs and oligarch families who will shape the future.
They may not be the most powerful, or even the richest, but their influence is undeniable. Oh, and they are not all Russians. Turkey’s oligarchs deserve a place on the list because of the geopolitics of energy and conflict, and you’ve probably never heard of them. America has its own oligarchs, too; they are just less romanticized and devoid of the newsworthy “bling”, but their political power is no less formidable and the November presidential vote is arguably their playground.
The Koc Family, Courtesy Turkey
Let’s start with the most benign, the one you might not have heard of, but which is nonetheless extremely powerful by way of being the owners of the largest conglomerate in a country that holds many keys to near-future geopolitical energy dynamics. Koc Holdings has its hand in everything from oil refining and banking to car manufacturing and electronics, among other things. This is Turkey’s wealthiest family, which has always enjoyed government benefits, not the least from the ruling AKP party elite. Three generations of Koc’s have continued to amass wealth in Turkey, beginning with the family’s founder, Verbi Koc, in the 1920s.
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Most notably, the Koc family own the Tupras refinery, which holds a dominant position in Europe’s fuel market, has managed amazing performance even in the midst of a global economic crisis. Tupras is also Turkey’s only refinery and it also controls most of the logistics, including major ports and storage facilities. Tupras also owns 40% of the country’s second-largest fuel retail chain. It also sets prices, where its European-Middle East-Africa colleagues do not enjoy this advantage. Middle Eastern and Russian suppliers favor Tupras for these reasons, though Iran has in recent years out-maneuvered Russian to this end. That said, sanctions against Iran have forced Tupras to diversify somewhat into Saudi, Libyan and Iraqi supplies.
Are they oligarchs or just billionaires? They are oligarchs who refrain from directly interfering in the work of the government, while the government agrees to ensure a certain amount of regulatory liberality that will not interfere with the Koc’s continued accumulation of wealth. To be more specific, Tupras gets to set fuel prices, with the acquiescence of the government, but at the same time, the government makes sure that Tupras supplies the domestic economy first.
If you are a foreign investor, you enter Turkey only through one its oligarch families. Still, these are not your typical Russian oligarchs; they are more concerned about their reputation and cannot afford to be blatant. They take care of their minority shareholders, and make plenty of investments in the country’s social welfare—from hospitals to nursing homes.
Roman Abramovich, Courtesy Russia
Russian oligarchs are of course the most colorful. They have rarely been able to resist the lure of over-the-top luxury as they fleeced the country of uncounted trillions, fleeing to resort islands here and there to run their fiefdoms from beach palaces or yachts. Or, alternatively, ending up behind bars for misunderstanding the consequences of biting the official hand that fed them.
While there are plenty of colorful Russian oligarchs to choose from, we’ll settle for now on Abramovich, largely because he just won a major legal battle with our favorite fleecer of post-Soviet Russia, Boris Berezovsky, his one-time mentor.
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Abramovich is the owner of the Chelsea Football Club (Chelsea FC) and the Millhouse LLC private investment company, and is much the darling of oligarchs, especially when compared to Berezovsky, whose external appearance is just too sinisterly “mafia”. Last week, Abramovich won a $1.3 billion legal battle with Berezovsky, who had accused him of “intimidating” him into selling his shares of Sibneft oil—a company the two started together, now Gazprom Neft—at an undervalued price. This is what happens when you fall out of favor with on-again-off-again Russian President Vladimir Putin. Berezovsky fell out with Putin, and Abramovich took advantage of this. Berezovsky said it was extortion. A London court disagreed, of course.
According to Forbes’ 2012 hot list of the wealthy, Abramovich—a former Russian governor and Duma member, is currently the 9th richest person in Russia and the 68th richest person in the world. His fortune is estimated at around $12.1 billion.
The Koch Brothers, Courtesy USA
Yes, there is such a thing as an American oligarch; in fact, to a very great extent, presidential elections are oligarch elections. And the 6 November election is nothing without the Koch Brothers (no relation, apparently, to the Koc family of Turkey, though we appreciate the similarity).
The Koch Brothers, led by David Koch and Charles Koch, have built their fortune on oil derivatives speculation. The family’s wealth was launched by Fred C. Koch, who founded Koch Industries, the second-largest private company in the United States. The family has long contributed massive amounts of money to the Republicans and Libertarians, and also wields its influence through millions in donations to free-market and other advocacy groups through the Koch Family Foundations.
While the Koch brothers have tended to shift their funds to Republican presidential efforts through their foundations, so that they are not directly traced to them, in July they sort of stepped out of the funding shadows by hosting a $50,000-plate dinner for Romney in the Hamptons.
David Koch’s net worth? About $25 billion--and counting.
The Salverria Family, Courtesy El Salvador
We cannot ignore the Salverria family of El Salvador, due to their connection to Romney, who called on their assistance to raise funds for Bain Capital, the currently controversial private equity firm. This story begins in 1983, when Romney headed to Miami where he would win $9 million in pledges that would amount to 40% of Bain’s start-up capital. It was here that Romney, to borrow a dramatic page from the liberals, sold his sole to the devil; or more precisely, to the managers of Latin American death squads, the Salaverria family key among them.
The Salaverria family (and other oligarch families in El Salvador) has been accused of directly funding Salvadorian right-wing paramilitaries who were responsible for a majority of the some 70,000 executions that took place in El Salvador in the 1980s.
The Salverria family has made its fortune in cotton and coffee production, helped along by the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which is a political party founded in 1981 by death squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson. The reason for the death squads—in 1980, the government of El Salvador moved to implement some sweeping land reforms that called for the nationalization of the coffee trade. Essentially, this would have removed the coffee oligarchs from political power.
Harold Hamm, Courtesy of USA
We will avoid treading on the overwhelming territory of Big Oil and the power of Chevron, Exxon, the American Petroleum Institute and all their combined oil moguls who make the Koch Brothers look like car salesmen. Instead we will focus on one particular oil baron who stands out for his Bakken ambitions.
Hamm is the mastermind of Continental Resources, which is leading a massive campaign for drilling North Dakota’s Bakken formation. During the first quarter of 2012, Continental Resources “completed the equivalent of 43 wholly owned wells into the Bakken,” according to Forbes, and “unlocking those reserves helped Continental boost its proved reserves nearly 50% in the past year to 610 million barrels”.
Hamm is the 76th richest person in the world, with his 68% stake in Continental worth $7.7 billion. He plays a sizeable role in what we will call the “Romney Energy Team”, and has donated (on the record, at least), almost $1 million to the Restore Our Future Foundation, which is directly supporting Romney’s presidential bid.
For Hamm, it’s all about the Bakken oil boom, and of course, the Keystone XL pipeline, which will ensure a transit route for Hamm’s oil.