15th GPCA forum: Bye to Dubai, hi to Riyadh, and too much thinking

15th GPCA forum: Bye to Dubai, hi to Riyadh, and too much thinking

15th GPCA forum: Bye to Dubai, hi to Riyadh, and too much thinking
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The last time I attended the annual gathering of the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association was a decade ago.

There was a lot of fanfare in those days about petrochemical projects. Aramco was working on its megaproject Sadara and SABIC was busy with many other ventures and looking for ways to get more feedstock to expand production.

For Saudi Arabia back then, building a petrochemical plant was a big way to diversify its income. The importance of this sector was evident in the long negotiations it had to access the World Trade Organization in 2005 as the Kingdom made sure that nothing would affect its export plans.

The sector was the center of action for some time. The story of how Sadara came to existence was thrilling; the many changes in strategies the sector underwent was puzzling; the changes to the configuration of many refineries and their locations and setup, and the huge deal that SABIC made to buy GE’s plastic business that was the central point of criticism for what many considered an overvalued deal. These are but a few major developments that our memories can’t escape.

Today, the world is changing very fast and global warming is topping the agenda of almost every global high-level function. The way companies are structured today around environmental, social, and governance shows this.

There is no longer an escape from being a friend to the planet. Companies like SABIC know this and its CEO called in his opening speech at the GPCA event held in Dubai, other fellow leaders in the organization to step up to this challenge and focus on innovation.

Innovation is something we all hear in almost every conference in this region, but it’s something that needs more than just lip service as the survival of the sector depends on it.

The world doesn’t need an increase in the supply of products but more solutions to keep those products circulating within the economy for a very long time and this requires innovation.

So for me to attend a GPCA event after all those years, I was expecting to see that old fanfare but I didn’t. The age of megadeals in petrochemicals and the building of megastructures is behind us. I’ve not seen any earth-shattering deals this year. No CEOs of international big players like we used to see in the old days as now many send a recording or join through zoom from the comfort of his/her couch.

I was glad, however, to see that the industry is now focused on carbon management and circular carbon economy. They are trying to speak green and they are learning how out of necessity. The survival of the industry depends on how to turn these products into friends of the environment.

That wasn’t bad for a sign of change. The other sign of change that was noticeable is the announcement of the GPCA forum leaving Dubai after all these years and being held on rotation among other GCC capitals. The next GPCA will be in Riyadh and to me, that shows that the latter is telling everyone that if you want to do business then you need to come to where the money is, to Riyadh.

Is Riyadh ready to be a global city to host regional and international events? Riyadh isn’t yet a global city in the traditional sense of the word but it’s certainly able to host any big event.

Innovation is something we all hear in almost every conference in this region, but it’s something that needs more than just lip service as the survival of the sector depends on it.

Wael Mahdi

 

Aside from the business side, what I loved about GPCA is the humanization of the event with all the awards to celebrate those who made a difference in the history of the industry or helped in making GPCA an important institution.

Seeing the GPCA Legacy Award going to UAE’s former Oil Minister Yousef bin Omair and Prince Faisal bin Turki, Saudi Arabia’s adviser to the royal court, was a nice gesture for men who made a huge impact at one point in the industry in their respective countries.

Prince Faisal was known to be very tough on companies and private investors, asking them to generate more jobs, and buy more material locally and benefit the economy in multiple ways. He was too patriotic to the extent that he earned a reputation for being very tough. Despite how he dealt with companies when he was an adviser at the ministry of petroleum, his achievements are still there from railroads to megaprojects in remote areas. Bin Omair also played a major role in the success of Borouge in the UAE.

So what did I learn after 15 years? People in this industry including its leaders are humble just like their companies’ beginnings and that’s the secret to their success.

For example, SABIC's might wasn’t built on the cheap feedstock it gets, but on the culture of “we aren’t the only ones who know.” That’s not the case with others who always believe that “we are the only ones who know” and that’s why they are always struggling when they compete with SABIC or try to enter this business. This culture of learning is now everywhere in the chemicals industry as it’s a science industry where learning never ends and this is the key for a green and sustainable future for it.    

• Wael Mahdi is a senior business editor at Arab News and co-author of “OPEC in a Shale Oil World: Where to Next?”

Twitter: @waelmahdi

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view