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The who’s who of energy

The economic transition in the Gulf countries is mostly being led by young ministers, cosmopolitan and sensitive to the new dynamics.

by Brahim Maarad
03 April 2019
11 min read
by Brahim Maarad
03 April 2019
11 min read

The new generation of energy ministers around the Gulf, now called upon to lead a crucial sector of their economies at a pivotal moment in the region’s history are an impressive group. Highly educated, with most having studied at western universities, they have both a deep awareness of culture and history and an openness to the world.

Al-Falih, innovation built on the tradition of oil

A pioneer of the renewal process since 2016, Khalid Al-Falih, now occupies the most sensitive post in Saudi Arabia, hitherto jealously held by Ali Al-Naimi, 81, who led the world's oil markets for 30 years. With the encouragement of the new heir to the throne, Mohamed bin Salman (MbS), even the name of the ministry he runs has been changed from the Ministry of Petroleum to the Ministry of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources. Al-Falih’s task is not only to shore up Riyadh’s increasingly shaky economy but also to achieve the “ambitious goals” set by MbS in the Vision 2030 plan.

Upon his appointment, Al-Falih set a path of innovation but without altering oil policy. The 59-year-old mechanical engineering graduate from Texas A&M University, with a Master’s Degree from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, aims to produce 70 percent of Saudi energy from gas and to list shares of the oil giant Saudi Aramco, where he himself grew to become CEO in 2009. He headed the national company until 2015, when King Salman entrusted him with the first task of his political career: to lead the Ministry of Health. In 2017, as Minister of Electricity, he presented his investment plan for renewables: thirty projects to implement in order to achieve the objective of producing 60GW—10 percent of the country's consumption—from renewable resources by 2030. Specifically, 40GW from solar power and another 20GW from wind and other sources. The long list of positions held in the past include that of Chairman of South Rub’ al-Khali (SRAK), a joint-venture between Shell, Total and Saudi Aramco.

Al-Fadhel, an engineer focusing on renewables

Riyadh is not the only one looking forward to a green future in the Gulf. On December 24, Kuwait entrusted the Ministry of Petroleum, which includes responsibility for Water and Electricity, to a completely new political figure: Khaled Al-Fadhel, a 46-year-old academic, who taught engineering at the University of Kuwait before joining the government. He has a doctorate in chemical engineering from Lehigh University in the U.S. In 2018, he was appointed undersecretary to the Ministry of Trade, his first encounter with the political world. While he will not be playing a transformative role in the management of Kuwait's oil and gas industry, which is entrusted to the Supreme Oil Council, he does have an ambitious plan for renewables: to produce 15 percent of it from clean sources by 2030. Hitting this percentage would allow the country to save 2.46 billion dollars a year and above all cut emissions.

Al-Mazrouei’s focus on sustainability

Another 46-year-old, an oil industry engineer, Suhail Al-Mazrouei currently heads the UAE’s Ministry of Energy and Industry. He is an engineering graduate of the University of Tulsa in the U.S. Before joining the ministry in Abu Dhabi in 2013, he held numerous positions on the boards of major oil and investment companies. In particular, he chaired the board of directors of Spanish company Cepsa, as well as Borealis and the Nova Chemical Company. He was also a member of the Supreme Oil Council. Before that, he worked at the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) for ten years, where he was CEO until 2007. In 2018, he became chairman of OPEC. As head of the Federal Electricity and Water Authority, Al Mazroui, when attending the 2018 Bloomberg Middle East Global Leaders Forum, stated that what “keeps him up at night is water” and that sustainability is a key component of his mission”. In 2017, the government launched the “Energy Strategy 2050,” which aims to reduce energy production from fossil fuels and increase energy efficiency by more than 40 percent. Al-Mazrouei’s objective is to reach 44 GW of solar energy by 2050 and increase renewable sources to 50 percent of the total.

Saleh Al-Sada, 34 years of experience in oil and gas

At a time of serious crisis with Saudi Arabia, Qatar continues to rely on the expert hands of Mohammed Saleh Al-Sada, who has headed the ministry in Doha since 2011. In 2014, he was entrusted with the whole energy and industry sector and the management of the national oil company, Qatar Petroleum. A 34-year veteran of the oil and gas sector, he is also chairman of the Qatar Gas Transport Company (Nakilat), Qatar Electricity & Water Company and Qatar Solar Company. He has a doctorate from the University of Manchester, U.K., and a degree in Marine Sciences and Geology from the University of Qatar. Before becoming a minister, was undersecretary for Energy and Industry from 2007 to 2011. His Vision 2030 plans to invest 200 billion dollars to increase the use of renewable energy in the country. The aim is to achieve between 700 and 750 MW of solar energy an hour, to cut back the ever-increasing demand for crude oil, especially from the east.  The Qatar government has also announced an important nationalization plan to achieve self-sufficiency in the industrial sector linked to oil and gas. In particular, Doha would like to be able to do without imports that cost 2.47 billion dollars a year; they project that cutting imports could produce an increase in GDP of 1.6 percent. The decision is also dictated by the embargo imposed by neighboring—in terms of borders, not relationships—Saudi Arabia. The smallest emirate—inhabited by around 2 million people, 1.5 million of them in Doha—is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of per capita GDP. In addition to its bounty of oil, it has the world’s biggest natural gas reserves.

Bin Ahmed, modernization involves digital development

Mohammed bin Khalifa bin Ahmed is also part of the generation of 46-year-olds leading the energy sector. A Cambridge graduate with a Master’s Degree from Imperial College, London, he is currently Bahrain’s Minister of Oil and Gas. He is aiming to modernize the country, investing in new technologies in particular. “We need to keep up with digital changes and be prepared for all that is new on the world stage,” he explained a few days ago. “For this reason we need to invest in many projects for the economy of Bahrain, starting from the oil sector,” he added. Bin Ahmed is therefore focusing on innovation, both to increase crude production and to diversify the economy. Bahrain, which is aiming to become the first country to have total 5G network coverage, is preparing to activate its 100 MW plant, one of the country's biggest renewable energy projects. Once completed, the plant will supply 2.5 percent of the total energy produced. The aim is to increase this to 5 percent by 2025. 

Mohamed Arramhi, renewables

The Sultanate of Oman also has its Vision, but this one looks ahead to 2040. The strategic plan, which is still very abstract, aims to continue the policy of building a “diversified, dynamic and globally interactive economy.” Oil Minister Mohamed Arramhi, born in 1960, is chairman of the board of the Oman Oil Company. He is a staunch supporter of the idea that “all Arab countries are required to have projects to develop renewable energy.” The Sultanate is aiming to produce 15 to 20 percent of its energy from green sources by 2030.  Miraah, the gigantic thermodynamic solar power plan inaugurated last year in the Dhofar governorate, in the south of the country, is moving the country in this direction. Costing 600 million dollars, the project will use solar power to recover oil and gas. For the Oil & Gas Minister, this is an important turning point for the Sultanate as it will strengthen its leadership in the regional energy convergence sector. The use of solar power in Oman’s oil fields will reduce the industry’s use of natural gas.

Thamir Abbas Ghadhban, choosing continuity

Less visionary is the government of Iraq, now enjoying a period of precarious stability that leaves little room for government vision. On October 24, 2018, new president Barham Salih decided to place the ministry of oil in the knowledgeable hands of Thamir Abbas Ghadhban, a 74-year-old who has been dealing with oil at the ministry in Baghdad since 1973. Originally from Kerbala, he is a geology graduate of University College, London, with a Master’s Degree in Oil Engineering from Imperial College, London. In his long political career, he was a member of the Iraqi constituent commission and, under the government of Saddam Hussein, presided over the Oil Marketing Foundation. He first served as Oil Minister during the provisional government of 2004-2005.

The current government’s first objective is to increase daily production of crude oil to 6.5 million barrels a day by 2022. However, there are two main challenges: local reconstruction and repair of the plants destroyed by the passage of the so-called Islamic State and production in the territories situated in Iraqi Kurdistan. Ghadhban has given an assurance that over 40 billion dollars will be invested in the first, which will be spent not only on oil but also on a new national structure for the production of liquefied natural gas. Meanwhile, negotiations will start with the Kurdish areas to start selling the over 250,000 barrels extracted every day by the administration in Erbil.

Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, the doyen of ministers

If being an oil minister in Iraq today is not exactly easy, it is even less so in neighboring Iran. Unsurprisingly, Bijan Namdar Zanganeh—defined as the doyen of ministers—has held posts in as many as twelve governments in the Islamic Republic. Born in 1951, the only Kurd in Hassan Rohani’s government, he has an international reputation. He gained a Master’s Degree in Reconstruction Engineering at the University of Tehran in 1975. Regarded as a reformist, he was never appointed to a ministerial post during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s terms of office. In 2013, the newly elected Rohani entrusted him with the Oil Ministry, convinced of the need for an expert who could revive the country’s stagnant economy. Zanganeh held onto his post in the government reshuffle, although, according to reports in Tehran, Zanganeh would have gladly done without the assignment and apparently suggested some younger figures. “I want someone in the Oil Ministry who can achieve 100 billion dollars of revenue a year. Can the person you are suggesting do that?” Rohani is reported to have said. “We want someone for the ministry who is credible abroad, someone who is recognized by foreigners. Bijan Namdar Zanganeh fulfills this requirement and he’s a trademark,” he apparently added.