Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 9 July 2020

Hatem Nusseibeh: the Total executive who left a mark beyond his field

A scion of a Jerusalem family, he loved culture and life

The late Hatem Nusseibeh wearing a t-shirt with his favourite French saying 'la vie est belle', life is beautiful, in Arabic. Courtesy Lina Sinjab
The late Hatem Nusseibeh wearing a t-shirt with his favourite French saying 'la vie est belle', life is beautiful, in Arabic. Courtesy Lina Sinjab

History weighed on the Palestinian engineer who rose to the top levels of the French oil giant.

Whether discussing an energy deal or support for an art project, Hatem Nusseibeh came across as a humanist among the cutthroat world of oil exploration in which he made his name as an executive for the French oil giant, Total.

Mr Nusseibeh, the president of Total in the UAE, died on June 19 at his home in Paris. His career, which spanned four decades of exploration and the promotion of culture in the Middle East, started in grey overalls in the 1970s in Abu Dhabi before joining Total and rising through its ranks.

He was born in Jerusalem in 1955 to a respected Muslim family that has held the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre since the seventh century. The key to one of Christianity's holiest sites was given to the family to avoid clashes between rival Christian sects over control of the church.

Mr Nusseibeh was a descendant of scholars and politicians and along with his siblings continued along this path. He studied at the prestigious Eton College in Britain and earned a degree in chemical engineering from University of Salford in Manchester.

“Hatem was an extremely bright man who instead of flaunting his achievements preferred to let his natural, modest, positive side express his true nature – that of an authentic believer in life and positivism,” a close friend said.

“A strong man with a sensitive soul who had always been present when he was called upon. The countless cultural events Total sponsored were mainly related to the fact that he was personally interested in helping making change.”

When he headed Total’s operations in Syria before the 2011 revolt, he organised all-night gatherings that brought together movers and shakers as well independent artists and writers, whose work he also supported.

Although Mr Nusseibeh rubbed shoulders with the rich and powerful all his life “he treated everyone as if they were the most important,” recalls a diplomat who served in Damascus.

“He was driven by a sense of history to reach the top, but he did it with charm,” a senior French diplomat said.

His Palestinian heritage contributed to his involvement in the Total’s support for culture. In Damascus he was at the events not just for the photo opportunity, but because he was interested in promoting the Middle East’s cultural scene.

In 2007, Mr Nusseibeh invited all his friends to a concert by Enrique Iglesias in Damascus sponsored by Total. Attendance was obligatory he told them.

He treated life with love and a level of playfulness. “Be a bit playful,” he used to say.

Mr Nusseibeh pushed for financing by Total to restore the 1,000-year-old Damascus Citadel. It was thanks to him that French archaeologists found Mongol arrowheads in the walls of the citadel and the signature of a Frenchman on some of the stones.

The late Hatem Nusseibeh wearing a t-shirt with his favourite French saying 'la vie est belle', life is beautiful, in Arabic. Courtesy Lina Sinjab
The late Hatem Nusseibeh wearing a t-shirt with his favourite French saying 'la vie est belle', life is beautiful, in Arabic. Courtesy Lina Sinjab

Even the iron-fisted officials of Syria appeared less thuggish in his presence, an acknowledgement not only to his status as the representative of one of the most powerful conglomerates in the world, but also of the disarming way he had with people.

At a dinner in Paris a year ago, Mr Nusseibeh talked about his retirement plans.

“I want to write a book, make a film and travel the world,” he said. “The day when I leave Total, I will not hear from most of the people I know. But there will be enough friends interested in me as Hatem.”

When he received diagnosis of an illness a few months ago, Mr Nusseibeh kept repeating his favorite French phrase "la vie est belle", or life is beautiful. It had characterised his outlook on everything and in the most trying of times he did not let go.

He will be remembered with these mantras and his ever-smiling face.

Lina Sinjab is a BBC correspondent based in Beirut.

Updated: June 21, 2020 01:27 PM

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