The Conservative party donor at the centre of a bribery scandal that drew in two former prime ministers is to leave the oil group he ran for 20 years.
Ayman Asfari, the Syrian-born executive who built London-listed Petrofac into a global oil engineering company, will leave the company next year.
It will mark an end to a colourful career at the firm, during which Asfari was arrested and interviewed in 2017 when the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) began its investigation. Petrofac agreed to pay £77m last October after failing to prevent former senior employees from offering or paying bribes to secure contracts in the Middle East between 2012 and 2015. The SFO last month formally confirmed Asfari was no longer a suspect.
Asfari spent more than three decades building his empire, amassing the trappings of a billionaire lifestyle with a private jet and a superyacht to cruise on the French riviera. The success of his early career, carved out in the 1980s oil boom, has been overshadowed by the long-running fraud office investigation.
He stepped down as chief executive of the oil services company in late 2020 but has remained on the board since. The company has now disclosed in its annual report that he will depart at next summer’s annual shareholder meeting.
Petrofac was founded in Texas in 1981, before expanding internationally, and Asfari led a management buyout and a float on the London stock market in 2005. The listing netted him £55m but he has lamented that selling his 10% stake was a mistake, as the value of the company subsequently ballooned.
Asfari, 63, was born in Syria but spent his childhood on the move. His father’s diplomatic postings took him to Turkey, the US and the former Czechoslovakia. He studied at Wharton business school, whose alumni include Donald Trump and Sundar Pinchai, chief executive of Google’s owner, Alphabet.
He began his career as a consulting engineer testing soil in Dubai. In the early 1980s, he moved to Muscat in Oman, starting a construction business building roads to drilling locations and camps amid the oil boom. His business entered into a joint-venture with America’s Petrofac and Asfari eventually rebooted the business, pursuing growth outside the US from a London office.
Asfari has said his upbringing gave him a western view of the world, but he can “understand the emotions and the romantic approach of the east”.
He went on to build a firm with 8,500 employees and more than 30 offices worldwide, designing and maintaining rigs and pipelines for the world’s biggest oil and gas companies.
Petrofac and its peers were briefly stock market darlings a decade ago before a declining oil price hit shares. The stock has fallen 80% since the SFO opened its investigation.
The affair threw a spotlight on two former prime ministers’ links to the company. In 2017, David Cameron promoted the company during a two-day stay in Bahrain, flying back from the country on a plane owned by Asfari.
Theresa May wrote to her Bahraini counterpart to support Petrofac’s bid for a contract in the country during her tenure in Downing Street. Petrofac did not ultimately land the contract.
Asfari has, with his wife, given about £800,000 to the Conservative party.
He remains a 17% shareholder and an influential figure at Petrofac. Last year, investors gave the company a bloody nose over his continued involvement – more than 30% of shareholders voted against his re-appointment. The company responded, saying he had provided “additional support and stability in a year of significant challenge”. Shareholder adviser Glass Lewis says, given his impending retirement, it is happy to recommend investors approve his re-election to the board this month.
Petrofac said in the annual report that the SFO investigation had “cast a shadow” and been a “painful learning experience”, and that former employees had left its teams feeling “let down”. Four former employees have had their outstanding share awards cancelled. The company’s chairman, René Médori, was due to step down this month but will now stay on for an extra year.
Under the new chief executive, Sami Iskander, it hopes to make a break from the past.
For Asfari, a new chapter beckons. Last year, he formed Venterra, a venture aimed at creating a services business for the offshore wind industry. He’s also switching sea lanes: Asfari has reportedly put his almost-new 61-metre (201-ft) superyacht up for sale. The Cloud 9, built as an opulent pleasure boat with its own swimming pool and private terrace, is up for sale for a rumoured €59m (£51m).