Many a true word…

“I want to be the second to answer that,” Total chief executive Patrick Pouyanne joked with a big smile.

The smile was in response to a question addressed to him and to state-owned Saudi Aramco chief executive Amin Nasser on whether Total would like to buy a stake in Aramco, and whether Aramco wants to see Total as a shareholder.

Saudi Arabia is preparing to list up to 5pc of Aramco next year, but the exact details of the initial public offering (IPO) remain unclear – at least to the public. Riyadh initially hinted it wanted Aramco to be valued at between $2 trillion and $3 trillion, but some analysts speculate that the valuation could end up much lower.

Pouyanne and Nasser shared the stage at the International Oil Summit in Paris yesterday. It is not uncommon for conference participants to hold bilateral meetings on the sidelines, and the two chief executives could well have had a chance to talk face-to-face. But publicly Nasser – who did allow Pouyanne to be the second to answer the IPO question – said “the IPO publicity guidelines” prohibit him from making any comments about it. But Nasser did say that preparations for the listing were “in order” and “on track”.

Pouyanne then made it clear he is closely watching Aramco’s listing preparations, even though the valuation could be very high — as he put it, “with $1bn I could acquire 0.1pc of Saudi Aramco, which is quite small”.

“We have had a long partnership with Aramco, we are listening to what Aramco wants to do. Amir Nasser said himself the way they want to do the IPO is not clear today,” Pouyanne said. “First, let’s listen to the way Saudi Arabia wants to organise the IPO, if there is a place for us. If it is meaningful in terms of the partnership, for Saudi Aramco and Total, we will maybe consider it. But in the end it is a matter of profitability and best allocation of my capital.”

Total has been present in Saudi Arabia for about four decades, but this presence is focused on the downstream business, such as Satorp’s 400,000 b/d Jubail refinery and petrochemical complex.

Pouyanne, who seemed to be in a good mood after his company reported a solid set of quarterly results the same morning, made another joke about Total’s interest in Saudi Arabia at the Paris conference, again hinting at the firm’s appetite for a slice of the kingdom’s oil interests.

Pouyanne was asked to describe the company’s experience in reducing oil output in the Opec countries where his firm operates and which have implemented agreed production cuts. After saying that Total always complies with the rules in those states where the company is present, he added:

“Unfortunately we do not produce in Saudi Arabia. And I would love to participate in the decrease, to cut in Saudi Arabia. I do not know why we are not allowed to produce there. If Amin wants to invite me, I will come and cut my production, no problem,” Pouyanne said with a smile, and to a laugh from the crowd and Nasser himself.

Nasser left this joke unanswered. But, at the end of the day, many a true word is spoken in jest.

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