Article — From the March 2009 issue

Invisible Hands

The secret world of the oil fixer

On a cold, damp night last November, a Mercedes sedan looped through the semicircular drive of the St. James Paris, a century-old chateau-style hotel across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. As the car rolled to a halt at the hotel’s main entrance, a well- tailored trim man named Ely Calil walked unhurriedly out the lobby door and down wide stone steps, talking into an earpiece that was connected, through a thin black wire, to a tiny cell phone tucked in the closed palm of one hand. The driver stepped from the car and opened the door for Calil, who interrupted his conversation to give the driver instructions. He spoke in a voice a little above a whisper, perhaps just a touch softer than his normal cool, flat tone. The driver returned to his seat and steered the car out through the granite-pillared entryway and onto Avenue Bugeaud.

Calil had flown to Paris earlier that day from London, where he resides. Born in Nigeria in 1945 to a prominent family of Lebanese origin, Calil belongs to a small group of middlemen, a few dozen at most, who quietly grease the wheels of the global energy business, brokering transactions between oil companies and governments. The oil business operates on the basis of discreet payments, transfers, and backroom deals—not necessarily illegal— arranged by fixers like Calil. He has funneled money to African dictators to obtain concessions for oil companies, traded oil from Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and advised presidents and exiled political leaders. Along the way, he has not only amassed an immense personal fortune but has established a web of political ties stretching from Africa to the Middle East to the United States. “He’s built a very effective network of contacts and allegiances and loyalties through money and allowances,” a former senior CIA official who has worked with Calil told me, not without admiration. “It’s sort of like The Godfather. One day he’ll come to ask for a favor, and you’ll have to comply.”

That night in Paris, Calil’s destination was Spring, a popular restaurant in the ninth arrondissement that offers a set four-course menu to sixteen diners nightly. Awaiting us at a corner table was Friedhelm Eronat, a close friend and sometime business partner of Calil’s who is equally reclusive and press-averse. Like Calil, he is one of the world’s leading oil fixers, having grown rich brokering deals for Mobil (before it merged with Exxon) in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Nigeria; more recently he has done business in Argentina, Brazil, and China. Until last year, Eronat lived just down the road from Calil in a Victorian mansion in London’s Chelsea neighborhood. But after an acrimonious separation, and pending divorce, he now spends most of his time in Geneva and Paris, where he lives in an apartment near the St. James.

Eronat was waiting at Spring with two Russian models, one tall and blonde in a dark dress and knee-length black boots, and the other with dark hair and porcelain skin and wearing jeans. Eronat was born in Germany but moved with his mother to Louisiana when he was a young boy. Tall and hefty, he looks quite a bit younger than his fifty-five years, and was dressed casually in light-brown corduroys and a tan pullover. Eronat studied petroleum engineering at Louisiana State University in the 1970s and got a job as an engineer after graduating, then went to work for an oil-trading firm before branching out on his own.

Eronat met Calil in the early 1980s, in Nigeria. “Ely was the man to see,” Eronat recalled, after sampling a red wine and then ordering several bottles for the table. “Back then,” he added, “it was a very small club, and we all knew one another. You did business by gentleman’s agreement. When you called and said you had a cargo of crude, you confirmed the price and details over the phone. If your word wasn’t honored, you were finished.” For years, Calil and Eronat attended the twice-a-year meetings of OPEC oil ministers, and the two men have partnered together numerous times, though “we never had anything in writing, Friedhelm and I, not once,” Calil said of their dealings. One particularly profitable stretch involved exporting oil from Russia in the early post-Soviet days. Calil recounted that they had met many of the country’s future oligarchs “when they were wearing funny suits and selling shoes and cigarette lighters.”

With the global financial markets now in crisis, the two men spoke of some old comrades who had fallen on hard times. “They’re all selling their yachts,” Eronat said with a grim look. One friend, an Uzbek named Sascha, “had $44 billion, and now he’s down to a billion.”

“It happens,” Calil deadpanned. The waiter brought a bouillabaisse, small plates of scallops in a truffle sauce, and veal loin with poached pear. Everyone agreed the food was delicious, but there were complaints about the “presentation.” Calil and Eronat, serious gourmets, seemed particularly dismayed. The two men decided to head to the famous brasserie L’Ami Louis for a proper meal. (This would include more wine, a plate of potatoes baked with dollops of goose fat and topped with shaved garlic, foie gras and toast and cornichons, scallops, and snails in butter and garlic.) For years, L’Ami Louis was a sort of headquarters for their mutual operations, and they reminisced about a dinner there in the mid-1990s when they hosted fourteen well-connected Russians. “It was just them and the two of us,” Eronat recalled while we were still at Spring. “We ordered a bottle of wine and then another and another”—he mimed guzzling directly from the bottle—“until the waiter just brought a case of wine and put it on the ground next to our table.” It was an extraordinarily expensive meal, the two men recalled, but well worth it, in that it played an important role in advancing their Russia business.

Before dessert was served, Calil asked for the check and called L’Ami Louis from his cell phone. “You don’t ask for a table, you just say you’re coming,” he said as he hung up.

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Silverstein is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author of Turkmeniscam: How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship. His last article for the magazine, “Useful Amateurs,” appeared in the November 2008 issue.

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