x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Qatar's bundle of energy steps aside

The long-serving Qatari energy minister Abdullah bin Hamad al Attiyah has made way for his successor. But this is no demotion, it is a reward for his efforts

Abdullah bin Hamad al Attiyah, the former Qatari energy minister, will enjoy his new role advising the ruler of Qatar.
Abdullah bin Hamad al Attiyah, the former Qatari energy minister, will enjoy his new role advising the ruler of Qatar.

A Qatar has given its strongest signal yet that it is moving into a new phase of economic development.

The Gulf emirate, whose citizens enjoy the world's highest per capita income, this week replaced its veteran energy minister, who was widely recognised as the architect of the country's remarkable transformation into a modern industrial state.

That is no slap in the face for Abdullah bin Hamad al Attiyah, 59, the technocrat who started his career in 1972 as a functionary of Qatar's ministry of finance and petroleum. He is not only to retain his other government post of deputy premier, but has also been made chairman of the emiri diwan, or emir's court. In that position, he will closely advise Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the ruler of Qatar, on how to manage the emirate's vast wealth.

"It's a clear promotion," says Samuel Ciszuk, the senior Middle East energy analyst with IHS Global Insight. "He goes to become one of the trusted advisers. The head of the emiri diwan is a very important position in the [GCC] states."

Mr al Attiyah's boss, Sheikh Hamad, became Qatar's ruler in 1995. From the outset, the Emir was intent upon bringing Qatar into the modern world, and picked his deputies accordingly.

One of Sheikh Hamad's first acts as ruler was to announce that Qatar would move towards democracy and have a more open press, and municipal elections. Qataris approved a new constitution for their emirate in a 2003 referendum. Doha, the Qatari capital, quickly became famous as the headquarters of the Al Jazeera television network.

That says a lot about Mr al Attiyah's openness and patience with the international press, with whom he was a favourite at OPEC meetings. He was also recognised as a font of knowledge on the inner workings of the organisation. Until this week, he was OPEC's longest-standing minister, having served several terms as the president of the oil exporters' group that controls about 40 per cent of world crude supplies.

Mr al Attiyah, a diminutive figure with twinkling brown eyes and a ready smile, may have learnt his communication skills from 1973 to 1986, when he was the head of international and public relations at the ministry of finance and petroleum. He took the top job at the ministry in 1989, became minister of energy and industry in a 1992 government reorganisation, assumed the additional post of second deputy prime minister in 2003, and was promoted to deputy premier in 2007.

He loves to talk, in either Arabic or energetic English, to anyone who might listen. At one 2009 breakfast meeting at the InterContinental Hotel in Vienna, Mr al Attiyah, a Sunni Muslim, was overheard by Arabic-speaking reporters enthusiastically expounding on the history of Islam to Iraq's devoutly Shiite oil minister Dr Hussain al Shahristani. It is a testament to Mr al Attiyah's charm and Dr al Shahristani's patience that the two remained firm friends.

Mr al Attiyah has sought to make Qatar stand out among its giant oil-producer neighbours. As energy minister, he quickly lined up most of the biggest international oil companies to help the emirate develop its most outstanding natural resource - Qatar's share of the world's biggest gasfield, which straddles its maritime border with Iran.

Some years ago, Mr al Attiyah persuaded Sheikh Hamad to take a huge economic gamble by approving a scheme to plough tens of billions of dollars of revenues from what was then less than 500,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude exports into the development of the largest, most cost-efficient cluster of production facilities for liquefied natural gas (LNG) ever built. Now, Qatar stand as the world's leading exporter of the super-chilled fuel, which has helped Asian and European energy consumers lower their carbon emissions by becoming less dependent on coal for power generation.

Qatar put the final touches on its LNG expansion just as the US unexpectedly started producing large volumes of gas from shale beds, which had previously been uneconomic to tap. The resulting global gas glut depressed gas prices, but Qatar had already locked in lucrative long-term contracts with its chief Asian customers. In any case, its LNG operating costs were so low that, even when selling spot cargoes, it could undercut the competition.

While building up Qatar's LNG capacity, Mr al Attiyah presided over many celebratory plant inaugurations, held in a vast, purpose-built air-conditioned tent in the desert outside Ras Laffan Industrial City.

"For sure there will be more celebrations," he proclaimed with gusto after the latest Qatari LNG inauguration last month, held shortly after Qatar won the right to host the FIFA World Cup football tournament in 2022.

Mr al Attiyah was referring to the next planned phase of Qatar's industrial expansion - a push into gas-based chemicals development, designed to help the emirate extract more value from its resource base while developing its technical resources. But it is Mohammed Saleh al Sada, the new energy minister, who will preside over that.

Mr al Sada is a logical choice as energy minister and may even have been nominated by Mr al Attiyah to succeed him in the portfolio. He has served as the managing director of RasGas, one of Qatar's two state-owned LNG companies, as the vice chairman of the Qatar Chemical Company and as the technical director of Qatar Petroleum.

"The new minister will just be expected to run the daily activity of the ministry," said Kamel al Haremi, an independent oil analyst in Kuwait, adding that Mr al Attiyah would be missed.

"In a sense, [Mr al Attiyah] has completed a chapter, and maybe we shouldn't be too surprised [at his leaving]," said Mr Ciszuk.