Simon Murray was trekking in the Aurès, a rugged mountain range in north-eastern Algeria, a few years ago with friends, a local guide and a cook, when they were stopped by the military police.
“They were holding pistols to our backs and demanded to know why we were there as it’s a place that neither Algerians nor tourists ever visit; they insisted we were looking for military installations,” says Mr Murray.
“When you are in a tight spot like that, what you need is a good joke to tell – a conjuring trick works too. To break the ice, I told the gendarme in charge he looked like Daniel Day-Lewis – which he did.
“He asked who he was – we were speaking in French. I told him he is a famous, handsome English film star. That did the trick, and gave me time to explain that I had come back to visit the mountains as I had been there 53 years before as a young legionnaire with the French Foreign Legion. But I knew this was a gamble: the legion was fighting against the Algerians in the bloody war for independence.”
In a second, the Day-Lewis lookalike had saluted Mr Murray and warned them that the mountains were treacherous. He gave the party an escort for the next 50 kilometres. “And when they left us, he turned to me and said to me: ‘I love you.’ I guess it’s all he knew in English.”
There are always stories like this when you talk to Mr Murray. The last time we met, he was preparing for an unsupported 58-day trek across Antarctica to the South Pole (at 63, at the time, he is the oldest man to do so) with the explorer Pen Hadow, and he had tales to tell of dragging tyres around and sleeping out on Dartmoor in a bin bag to prepare for the continent’s deadly cold.
So how bad was the trip? “The worst thing was the wind – 100mph winds that took your face off. But it was amazing.”
If Mr Murray is a modern-day Beau Geste, then his wife, Jennifer, is today’s Amelia Earhart; and I guess impressing her was one of the reasons he joined the legion.
“She was the one who set me up to walk to the South Pole by inviting Pen to stay. She had already flown around the world solo in a helicopter – the first woman to do so – and wanted to fly from the South to North Pole as well. Her idea was to fly to meet us for Christmas.
“But Jennifer and the co-pilot crashed – the weather was so bad they couldn’t see, and they misjudged the height of the ice-shelf. They were lucky to be alive but both were badly injured and flown to hospital in Chile where they stayed for several weeks.”
Didn’t he leave the pole to go and visit her in hospital? (He had a plane on standby in case of emergencies.) “Don’t be absurd,” he says, eyebrows shooting skywards. Of course he didn’t – no wonder the gendarmes backed off.
Mr Murray may need more than tricks in his latest hotspot: he is chairman of Gulf Keystone Petroleum, the oil producer that operates not far from Erbil in war-torn Kurdistan in northern Iraq.
The 74-year-old was parachuted into Gulf Keystone Petroleum just over a year ago after big investors like M&G and an army of small investors revolted over the gigantic pay package and other corporate excesses of its colourful and now-departed chief executive, Todd Kozel.
Why did he take on such a risky role? He can’t need the extra adrenalin, or the money for that matter, if the grand SW7 home where we have tea is a guide.
He laughs: “Good question. Lord Guthrie called me and asked me to help them out. After stepping down from Glencore [the commodities giant he had chaired], I had the time. How could I say no?”
Charles Guthrie is not someone to turn down: a field marshal and former colonel commandant of the SAS, he was Gulf Keystone Petroleum’s deputy chairman and a persuasive one.
So Mr Murray said yes. Since then he has brought in fresh blood with two new non-executive directors and promoted John Gerstenlauer to run Gulf Keystone Petroleum. Another non-executive – most probably female – will be appointed soon.
Ah, women. Another Murray moment – his famous gaffe about why women did not make suitable executives; “I didn’t say what I was reported as saying – that women are a risk to hire because they run off and get pregnant. What I said is that it’s difficult for small companies to hire women because of maternity leave costs. I got 3,000 emails supporting me.”
Right now, he has three priorities for Gulf Keystone Petroleum: “We are focusing on producing oil, sorting out payments and maintaining production in what is a war-zone. With 350 expats working in the fields, security is essential.”
Not surprisingly, the share price – which peaked at £4 on takeover rumours under Kozel – is stuck below 50p, depressed by the region’s risks and oil- price fears. “If we can get cash- flow going, I think the share price will look after itself.”
Under his watch, Gulf Keystone Petroleum has gone from explorer to one of Kurdistan’s biggest oil producers, selling 5.5 million barrels from Shaikan, one of the world’s most significant discoveries with 12.5 billion barrels of oil.
Gulf Keystone Petroleum is now producing about 23,000 barrels per day with a target of 100,000. In the first half of the year, 2.2 million barrels were sold for export that went via truck into Turkey.
But the big problem is getting paid. Iraq and Kurdistan’s regional leaders share the oil revenues – 83 per cent and 17 per cent respectively – but Baghdad owes the Kurds billions of dollars while Gulf Keystone Petroleum is owed $35m (£22m) for crude oil sales.
Mr Murray says: “It may not have dawned on investors but we sell a third of our production in the domestic market, and get paid for it on a daily basis. Since the net price to us for domestic sales is about double what we get for exports – when we get paid – that is more or less equivalent to exporting 60 per cent of current production.”
He is more confident that payments will start flowing after a recent meeting with Kurdistan’s oil minister, Dr Ashti Hawrami. “Baghdad and Erbil have a sensitive relationship. The only boots on the ground between Isis and Baghdad are those of the Kurdistan forces – the Peshmerga – and yet Baghdad continues to treat Kurdistan with contempt, refusing them the right to export their own oil.
“But the situation is improving with Baghdad now sending $800m or so per month to the Kurds.”
American interventions to help Kurdish Peshmerga so far are met with despair. “They appear to be dispatching arms to Kurdistan via southern Iraq and they are always leaning towards the boys in Baghdad in the disputes between the two sides. That is like sending arms to support the Ukraine via Moscow.”
Mr Murray adds: “They should be moving all their military equipment from Baghdad to Kurdistan. Fortress Kurdistan would give the Americans their best base in the Middle East for years to come.”
He is also caustic about the UK’s decision to join the US-led “coalition” airstrikes on Isis, fearing that the West is heading for another “cock-up”. “Doesn’t the Government understand that your enemy’s enemy is not necessarily your friend?
“Haven’t we learnt from Afghanistan and Iraq? This is a regional conflict between warring religions that goes back 900 years or so. We should either stay out altogether, or put boots on the ground. Haven’t we got the balls to do that?”
CV: Simon Murray
Born 25 March 1940
Family Married to Jennifer with three children
Education Bedford School
Career After five years in the French Foreign Legion, joined Jardine Matheson in Hong Kong before going solo. Went on to run Hutchison Whampoa, helping to create Orange, and bought one of Canada’s largest integrated energy companies, Husky. Was vice-chairman of Essar Energy, chairman of Glencore, advisory board member of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, non-executive director of Vodafone and a chairman of Deutsche Bank for the Asia Pacific. Now a non-executive director of Cheung Kong Holdings and chairman of GEMS.
Awards Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.
Favourite movies ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’.
Favourite book ‘The Alexandria Quartet’ by Laurence Durrell.
My typical day Days are long but there’s a song by a tired old man playing a guitar called Josh White. It goes like this:
“Life get’s tedious don’t it;
“The sun comes and the sun goes down;
“The hands on the clock keep goin’ aroun’.”
And the song goes on and on. That’s my day. But they are full of surprises and I think that’s good for my adrenalin.
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