• Speculation intense over jockeying to follow ailing president
  • Algeria facing instability as oil plunge, jihadism test region

With a white shawl draped across his shoulders, former oil minister Chakib Khelil wandered through one of Algeria’s Sufi monasteries smiling and quietly chatting with clerics. Yet when photos of last month’s low-key visit emerged, they created a stir.

The shrines are a favorite stop for Algerian politicians preparing for high office, and the images from Djelfa province fueled already fevered speculation that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s friend since childhood had ended a three-year exile in the U.S. to eventually succeed him as leader.

Chakib Khelil
Chakib Khelil
Photographer: Adam Berry/Bloomberg

The intense focus reflects more the regular health scares surrounding 79-year-old Bouteflika -- who suffered a stroke in 2013 and campaigned for a fourth term from a wheelchair -- than the merits of the ex-president of OPEC. Talk of a succession battle has swirled through Algiers in recent months, a distraction as the oil producer grapples with the slump in crude prices and is surrounded by Islamist unrest in neighbors Libya, Mali and Tunisia.

“The fuss is in itself very telling,” said Riccardo Fabiani, senior North Africa analyst at Eurasia Group. “It shows how various regime factions are increasingly nervous about the succession.”

Abdelaziz Bouteflika
Abdelaziz Bouteflika
Photographer: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

Rumor Mill

Given a past tainted by allegations of corruption and the institutionalized power of rivals jockeying to take over, Khelil is unlikely to become president but could be set for a top job in government, he said.

Bouteflika has run Algeria since 1999 in collaboration with the security services, dragging the country out of a civil war with Islamist rebels and deploying hydrocarbon wealth to defuse opposition to stunted democracy. But since his illness he’s rarely been seen in public, feeding a rumor mill on who’s really running the country.

In an interview at his home in Algiers, Khelil was vague about the future but didn’t hide his ambitions.

“Since I have the supreme interests of our country at heart, I came back,” he said, referring to his decision to leave the U.S. after Algerian authorities withdrew an arrest warrant for his alleged role in a bribery scandal involving national oil company Sonatrach, charges he always denied.

“I’m available and ready to help our country in any way, drawing on 45 years of experience,” he said. “Nobody has solicited me.”

Graft ‘Smear’

Pro-government media have followed every move of Khelil’s re-entry into political life, while Amar Saidani, general secretary of Bouteflika’s ruling National Liberation Front, has portrayed the graft claims as a smear.

His return is being seen as the Bouteflika clan “trying to assert themselves” and couldn’t have happened without their support, said Jon Marks, chairman of U.K.-based business intelligence consultancy Cross-border Information. “Some people say he has his eye on the premiership.”

Born in Oujda, northeastern Morocco, where he went to school with Bouteflika, Khelil is 79. He moved to the U.S. in 1960 and received a Ph.D. in Petroleum Engineering from Texas A&M University eight years later. His career includes two years as OPEC president -- 2001 and 2008 -- and positions at Royal Dutch Shell Plc and the World Bank.

During a near-decade-long stint as oil minister, Khelil expanded gas shipments to Europe and attempted to lure foreign investment by limiting Sonatrach’s share in upstream ventures. That law was overturned in 2005 as resources were nationalized.

Sufism Role

On his visits to the monasteries or zaouias -- which gained in political and religious significance as war-scarred authorities sought to promote Sufism as an alternative to hardline Salafi doctrine -- Khelil has appeared a lot like a politician on the stump, while declaring he’s just revisiting his “culture and history.”

Local papers say he plans to talk about economic challenges during a tour of universities. In the interview with Bloomberg, Khelil described Algeria’s over-reliance on oil as “a sword of Damocles over the head of our country.”

The International Monetary Fund this month called on Algeria to cut spending to ease the “shock” of an oil slump that helped slash reserves by $35 billion -- about a fifth of the total -- last year. The government has passed legislation to boost the private sector while maintaining expensive subsidies that help keep the peace.

There’s “an attempt to get him back in the saddle, that’s for sure,” Rachid Grim, an independent political analyst in Algiers, said of Khelil’s return. “He was brought back with a mission and an objective, but we just aren’t sure what it is yet.”

The most likely presidential candidates, Grim said, are former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah.

“But nobody really stands out,” he said. “Bouteflika did everything he could to stay alone on the throne. He didn’t prepare for a changing of the guards. We are at a real impasse.”

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