Last Sunday, AbdulKarim Al Mazmi, BP’s general manager and chief representative for the UAE, watched the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix alongside BP’s group chief executive, Bob Dudley.
There in the Formula One event’s plush Paddock Club, where tickets retail for US$5,000 apiece, it was hard to believe that just a generation ago Mr Al Mazmi’s father was an airplane fueler for the British.
The irony is not lost on Mr Al Mazmi, the only Emirati representing a foreign oil company in Abu Dhabi. While his local peers have become the gatekeepers of the country’s hydrocarbons industry as the chief executives of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) subsidiaries, Mr Al Mazmi instead advocates for the British company in its effort to retain its stake in the emirate’s prime onshore concession.
Other Emiratis recruited by the foreign partners have been promoted, but not to the top position in Abu Dhabi. That is because they are often recruited back to Adnoc once they gain international experience. That makes Mr Al Mazmi unique as an insider and an outsider in the contest for what is set to be Abu Dhabi’s largest hydrocarbons contract in history.
The cluster of oil and gasfields, which has been in the hands of the western majors since the start of the Second World War, are among the only places in the Arabian Gulf where foreign partners can book reserves as equity partners. And unlike other oilfield assets in the wider Middle East, those in the UAE hold little security risk or a delay in payment.
That is why Rosneft, China National Petroleum Corporation and other foreign firms have joined in the competition for the oilfields where BP and the other current partners – Shell, Total, ExxonMobil, and Portugal’s Partex – are due to lose their rights in January.
Mr Dudley’s reappearance in Abu Dhabi today at Adipec, the oil and gas conference backed by Adnoc, is part of the jockeying.
The oil majors tend to quote from the same script when discussing the auction, and BP is no exception. (Although BP was temporarily shut out last year from the auction until it was invited to bid half a year after more than 10 other companies.)
“We’ve [BP] been here for many years, we’d like to be here for the future, and the business in the UAE, in particular Abu Dhabi, is important for BP. It represents quite a big chunk of BP’s portfolio,” says Mr Al Mazmi. “One thing is for sure, I think the current terms are probably not encouraging in today’s world. It was probably acceptable in the old days, but it’s probably not with the current oil price environment … the country and the Adnoc group, they realise the $1 is a stretch.”
For Mr Al Mazmi, however, the tender has a special significance beyond BP’s bottom line.
“I would like to be here for the next 70 years,” he says. “I want my grandson to be here also and probably working in this industry.”
If his grandson did follow his path, he would perpetuate a family legacy that began at the Sharjah airstrip’s pump station, where Mr Al Mazmi’s father provided fuel to the British army.
Like people of that generation, Mr Al Mazmi’s father lacked an education and was illiterate; he learnt the Quran solely by memory.
But Mr Al Mazmi’s parents pushed their eight children to study so that they “did not have to suffer the way he suffered”, says Mr Al Mazmi. That paid off: all five brothers and three sisters went on to university, and most of them later took jobs with the police and the army, which were among the most prestigious jobs for UAE nationals in the early 1980s.
The exception was Mr Al Mazmi. Graduating from Al Ain University at the top of his class, he had a job offer from the army – an obvious choice because of the status it afforded and because his cousins and brothers were there.
But Abu Dhabi Gas Industries (Gasco), the Adnoc subsidiary that processes the gas from the emirate’s main onshore oil concession, called Mr Al Mazmi and persuaded him over his protests to meet. On the second day of interviews, they handed him an employment contract.
Mr Al Mazmi subsequently became one of Gasco’s first three Emiratis to work in the field; he started work at Gasco’s plants in coastal Ruwais and the Bu Hasa field. At the time, getting transport to the site was more complex than driving on the E11 highway; driving was not permitted at night, and commutes often required a Skyvan, an 18-seater turboprop aircraft.
The induction into petroleum, which Mr Al Mazmi had not studied, was equally rudimentary; until then,Abu Dhabi had filled its oil companies with westerners or non-Emirati Arabs with relevant experience.
“When we started there was nothing, no training manual, nothing,” he says. “In our time we had to work out our own way,” he says.
The French, British and Indian employees at the plant in Ruwais had trouble understanding why an Emirati had joined them on site.
“They thought, ‘What are they doing here? Locals coming for what?’,” he says. “It was a surprise to see UAE nationals coming in to work in the field.”
But he proved himself over the next 17 years as he rose steadily up Gasco’s ranks in the field, from engineer trainee to plant manager.
While managing a US$300 million natural gas liquids plant at the Asab field, he won a reputation for being a supportive leader with an emphasis on health and safety, says Abdul Aziz Abdulla Al Hajri, the chief executive of the production company of Borouge, the joint venture between Adnoc and the Austrian petrochemicals maker Borealis. “AbdulKarim is humble, kind and social, but a somewhat shy person,” Mr Al Hajri says.
With Mr Al Mazmi’s wife and children in Sharjah, the work schedule – five weeks on site, followed by four weeks at home – was taking a toll on Mr Al Mazmi’s personal life.
“I reached a stage where I had to choose between family and career,” he says. “I wanted a proper family life.”
He resigned and moved to Sharjah. After a few months, “with no aspiration of a career”, he joined Amoco, then a United States oil company with a gas plant in that emirate. Amoco was then in the process of being acquired by BP.
The British oil firm soon began pushing him to move beyond his role in health, safety and environment, a division in oil companies that has been less favoured for promotion than exploration and production, the heart of the money-making enterprise. They could send him to Oman or Iraq, where his talents would shine.
Mr Al Mazmi, however, was focused on his family’s priorities.
“I said, ‘No, I don’t want a career’, so we had a debate,” he says. “BP opens the door to development if you prove yourself and deliver. The next step is always there. You own your own career.”
He did go so far as to accept a position in Dubai as the regional vice president for the Middle East, becoming the first Emirati in that role. In 2011, Mr Al Mazmi was appointed to his current job in Abu Dhabi.
Outside of work, he sleeps in a bachelor pad three or four nights a week. He then joins his family in Sharjah, where two of his five children, who are teenagers, attend school.
While the job is not as lucrative as others available in the UAE’s public sector, it offers other perks, says Mr Al Mazmi.
“I think for me it’s transparency. You have the authority, you have the accountability, clearance, which makes you free to deliver,” he says. “It’s the space and the teamwork and the spirit and working environment. You work as one team.”
But at times it can be confusing which team Mr Al Mazmi is on.
His role in Abu Dhabi involves representing BP in board meetings at several Adnoc subsidiaries, including Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations, the joint venture between Adnoc and the foreign oil majors. At his first meeting, Mr Al Mazmi’s seat was marked.
But as he sat down, a meeting organiser told Mr Al Mazmi to move to the other side of the table where the Abu Dhabi stakeholders sit.
“They thought a local guy should be in Adnoc,” he recalls. “I said, ‘No I am here. This is my name. This is the logo – the BP logo.’”