“Out of the Desert: My Journey From Nomadic Bedouin to the Heart of Global Oil”
By: Ali Al-Naimi
320 pages, $27
Published by Penguin
Looking for Ali Al-Naimi’s book in New York and London bookshops you won’t find it in the section marked “Biography”. For some reason, the book is displayed in a section labeled “Smart Thinking”. Reading the book “Out of the Desert” you might conclude that this intriguing designation is not so outlandish.
Al-Naimi’s book is something more than an autobiography by a former senior official in a high profile position. It is also a fast-paced history of the Saudi oil industry from its early days in the 1930s to the present-day. The book also offers what may well be the first honest insight into decision-making processes in a kingdom with a reputation for opacity.
And that isn’t all. Al-Naimi’s book could also be read as a manual in management of large corporations with Saudi Aramco, the company that took him as a mere boy and saw him rise to its highest positions before being named the kingdom’s Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, a position he left in 2016 after almost 21 years.
Adding spice to the book, often laced with a bit of tongue-in-cheek mischief, are numerous pen-portraits of big shots in the global oil industry, CEOs and Oil Ministers from more than two dozen nations. The usual autobiography penned by high officials in out neck-of-the wood is formulaic. It starts by stating that when the writer arrived on the scene the whole thing was in a big mess and proceeds to tell how the author, after taking charge, created an ideal situation which was again turned into a big mess after his departure.
It comes as a pleasant surprise to see that Al-Naimi rejects that formula. Not only does he not try to cast his predecessors in a poor light, he goes out of his way to pay tribute to their service to the kingdom. This does not mean shielding them against all criticism. But Al-Naimi is scrupulously fair and graceful in his critical observations, as he has perhaps been in other fields all his life. In a chapter devoted to a major debate, albeit behind the scenes, within the highest echelons of the kingdom on whether or not to let the big American oil companies to regain control of part of the nation’s resources in a new format, Al-Naimi, who opposed the scheme, is honest enough to spell out the arguments of those who held the contrary position.
The episode is one of several that Al-Naimi narrates to show that the decision-making mechanisms in the kingdom are far more broadly based than commonly assumed and that it would be naïve to assume that at least two generations of highly-educated technocrats are nothing but rubber-stamps for powers-that-be.
A graduate of several American universities, Al-Naimi insists that “understanding America is a vital skill” for Saudi decision-makers. However, he also believed that it was unwise to put one’s eggs in a single basket. This is why he spearheaded a campaign to diversify the kingdom’s panoply of partners bringing in French, Dutch, Italian, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Korean and Japanese companies among others.
The debate over the return of American companies wasn’t the only episode that highlighted that reality. Another fight took place over attempts by Petromin, a state-owned conglomerate, to take over Saudi Aramco which had always operated as an independent player in accordance with private sector business rules rather than state-dictated regulations.
But, perhaps, the most dramatic episode concerned the development of the Shaybah oilfield in the Rub-al-Khali (Empty Quarter) which some in the government wanted to shelve because oil prices were too low at the time.
While Al-Naimi saw Shaybah as a talismanic source of inspiration and pride, government economists, not to say bean-counters, regarded the giant project, costing tens of billions of dollars, as nothing but an expensive chorus girl-mistress.
In every episode, however, Al-Naimi stuck to his course, going slowly but steadily, very much like the camels he had seen in his boyhood in the desert. Both King Fahd bin Abdulaziz and his successor King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz appreciated the honesty and determination of the boy from the desert.
“Ali! Fear no prince,” King Abdullah once told Al-Naimi. “Fear only God!”
“Out of the Desert” provides a fascinating insight into global oil, a world in which the only certainty is uncertainty. In that context, the leaders of oil-exporting nations often find themselves on a roller-coaster from rags to riches and back again. In 1983 Saudi Arabia pumped out just over two million barrels of oil a day. Two years earlier it had exported 10.5 million barrels a day. In 1981 the kingdom’s oil income topped $110 billion. Three years later, it had fallen to $26 billion. Over a 20 year period oil prices hovered between a very low $3.2 per barrel to almost $150, a yo yo game that would make the most level-headed economic planner dizzy.
Because of its almost endless reserves, the kingdom was always more concerned about maintaining, if not increasing its market share rather than panicking over price fluctuations.
During Yamani’s tenure as Minister of Petroleum the kingdom saw itself cast as the swing-producer for OPEC, meaning it had to increase or reduce production in response to price fluctuations. That enabled other OPEC members, not to mention non-OPEC exporters such as Russia and Mexico, to pursue an openly opportunistic production strategy.
It took the kingdom more than a decade to foster some measure of coordination among OPEC and non-OPEC producer, but even then without great success. The global oil business remains a dangerous world in which even your best friends could be holding a knife against you behind their backs.
The end of oil has often been predicted, including by one of Al-Naimi’s predecessors, the flamboyant Ahmad Zaki Yamani and the council of European “sages” in the Club of Rome in 1971. But oil is still there, and more of it at that, and, if we are to believe Al-Naimi, it is likely to claim the lion’s share in global energy markets for several more decades at least.
It is interesting that over the past half a century countries that imported oil became much richer than nations exporting it. In many cases, oil-exporting nations even faced bankruptcy or were shaken to their foundations by revolutions, civil discord and even wars. Among the larger members of the Organizations of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC), the Saudi kingdom is almost alone in having maintained its stability while modernizing aspects of its economy and society.
The fact that Al-Naimi has a deliberately understated sense of humor adds to the pleasure of reading his memoirs, even if only as an account of an exceptionally colorful life. We see him joining an expedition to kill a wolf that had been devouring the little lambs he was supposed to protect. The hunt-party end up eating morsels of the wolf’s flesh; we are not told whether cooked or not.
In one scene we see a Greek shipping magnate trying to bribe Al-Naimi by demanding to buy two million barrels of oil at a cut price, clearly thinking that he was operating in a One Thousand And One Night Oriental bazaar.
And what about when Al-Naimi is told that the kingdom has been importing sand, yes, sand, from Wyoming in the US, at a mouth-watering price. It was conceivable that the Peninsula may one day run out of oil but would never run out of sand.
Once I was having breakfast with Al-Naimi in Tokyo. They served us persimmons, a fruit that the Saudi minister had never seen before. As we had always had a persimmon tree in out house in Tehran, I offered to show him how to peel it. He said he would rather try himself first. In no time he had studied the fruit, peeled and sliced it in an expert way. Well, Abu Rami is a smart cookie.