Middle East oil industry pays tribute to Total chief Christophe de Margerie

Mr de Margerie’s corporate jet ran into an out-of-control snowplough and burst into flames in Moscow.

The chief executive of French oil group Total, Christophe de Margerie. He was killed in a plane crash at a Moscow airport. Eric Piermont / AFP
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Christophe de Margerie, 63, the chief executive of France’s Total who died yesterday in a plane crash in Moscow, made his career in the Middle East, where the flamboyant, blue-blooded Frenchman was a widely admired and liked figure.

After the bizarre accident on takeoff, where Mr de Margerie’s corporate jet ran into an out-of-control snowplough and burst into flames, the condolences came flooding in, including from top oil and government officials in the UAE.

The death of the oil veteran, who had been chief executive of France’s flagship oil company since 2007, left many Total employees in shock.

“We’re in a state of disequilibrium,” said Brian O’Neill, the head of communications for Total Middle East and North Africa. He said all of Total’s regional communications executives had gathered in Dubai for a meeting the day before the tragedy, which added to the sense of disorientation.

Meanwhile, top Total executives, including Hatem Nuseibeh, the president of Total UAE, and Arnaud Breuillac, the head of worldwide exploration and production and a former head of Total Middle East, were all gathering in Paris to take stock of Mr de Margerie’s death and its aftermath.

Mr de Margerie was also a former head of Total Middle East, his first top appointment at Total’s legacy company back in 1995. He rose through the ranks, heading worldwide exploration and production in 1999 before succeeding Thierry Desmarest to head the company in 2007.

“They loved him in the Middle East. He had a very good rapport with everyone, they liked him and respected him,” said Kate Dorian, an oil analyst at Middle East Economic Survey, who knew Mr de Margerie well. “Many of the top people who knew him wondered why someone who came from such wealth worked for a living.”

Mr de Margerie’s mother was Colette Taittinger of the famous champagne-making family. Although he was a senior business figure and a member of one of France’s most well-known landed families, he was linked more with the left of his home country’s politics than the right and was a close personal friend of the current French president François Hollande, a socialist.

“Christophe is a liberal from the Jean-Baptiste Say and Maurice Allais school,” his friend Jean-Marc Forneri, the president of Bucéphale Finance, told the French business magazine Challenges last year. “He wants to serve his country and thinks it is possible to find a way between a pompidolien state [as in Georges Pompidou], which builds bullet trains … and an invasive state which intrudes on all subjects.”

The Middle East has been a large part of Total’s business since its inception and remains so, not least the UAE, where it is a legacy holder of one of the original onshore concessions, which expired this year and is up for renewal.

“He knew the Middle East extremely well,” Ms Dourian said.

“He is irreplaceable, of course, but whoever comes after him will have had to come through the Middle East.”


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