Barkindo — the last of the OPEC giants
With the departure of Nigeria’s Mohammed Barkindo, the age of the giants heading the secretariat of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries will come to an end.
In six months, Kuwaiti Faisal Al-Ghais will replace Barkindo and manage OPEC’s affairs for another six years till the middle of 2028. By that time, all those giants who were involved with the Vienna-based organization in the 1980s will no longer be in a condition to lead it.
Therefore, the arrival of Al-Ghais will signal a generational change — the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.
The old generation that saw how OPEC built its might in the 1970s and then lost it all in the 1980s is the last generation of giants as they were the last to work with ministers like Saudi Ahmed Zaki Yamani and Kuwait’s Sheikh Ali Al-Khalifa.
That generation began their careers when OPEC was shaking the world’s politics — when meetings dragged on for days and sometimes weeks.
It was when Iran and Iraq entered a war for eight years during which an Iranian oil minister, Mohammed Javad Tondguyan, was captured by Iraqi forces near Abdan. The Iranian delegation that attended OPEC meetings kept his seat empty, but left Tondguyan’s portrait in his place and refused to take decisions until he returned.
Those were the golden, but abnormal days of OPEC, when it controlled more than half of the world’s production and its member countries’ fields were young enough to push oil with natural lift while US wells were running on submersible pumps. Those were the days when OPEC controlled the world’s spare capacity and there was no alternative energy. It was also the period of mismanagement of oil resources and petrodollars, when countries thought about spending as if there was no tomorrow.
Qatar’s former energy minister Abdullah Al-Attiyah, Abu Hamad, used to describe his involvement in that era by saying: “I used to sit not in the front line or the second line behind the ministers, but in the third line. When Yamani and the other ministers entered the meeting room, I used to see them walking in front of me like giants.”
To that era Barkindo, Abu Sadique, belonged. He was a young Nigerian assisting the late minister Rilwanu Lukman, who became secretary general between 1995 and 2000. Oil veteran Mike Rothman recalled the age when Lukman, along with Indonesia’s Subroto, who also headed OPEC from 1988 to 1994, and Algeria’s Sadek Boussena, were called “the three wise men of OPEC.”
Top but tough job
The secretary general’s job was not easy back then. Many countries were either at war or their representatives avoided speaking to one another. Wise countries or OPEC oil price doves like Saudi Arabia were pushing for reasonable oil prices, while price hawks such as Venezuela and Iran called for higher prices. And when the gap widened, it was the job of the OPEC chief to bring everyone together. Sometimes the secretary general would need to circle the globe just to discuss price matters and get consent on many issues — often trivial — such as the host country for a summit or meeting.
Barkindo saw all this at an early point in his career. He learned everything from his mentor Lukman, including diplomatic skills, when to speak and how to spot friend from foe. Sometimes it could get really tough. An OPEC head should be neutral, but it is very easy for any secretary general to be accused of conflict of interest if he walks the lines of his country. At the same time, he can be blamed by his country for not defending its interests.
Times have changed now. There are no longer those long meetings and political battles. The big change came when Ali Al-Naimi, who headed the Saudi Ministry of Petroleum, brought to OPEC the discipline he had learned at Aramco.
It was Al-Naimi who started the de-politicization of OPEC that was accelerated later by his successor, Khalid Al-Falih. This process is now advanced with current Minister of Energy Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, another OPEC giant who began his career with the organization around 1987.
But these changes do not mean that OPEC’s top job has lost its glamour. The circumstances have changed and it has become much easier now that OPEC and its allies in OPEC+ run the show. Yet politics will always remain, and representatives of OPEC countries at the secretariat must be managed well as they represent different backgrounds, cultures and interests.
The research role of OPEC now is eclipsing other traditional positions and this market orientation and understanding of the oil trading world is what makes the presence of Al-Ghais essential for the transformation of the secretariat into a real rival of the IEA.
A devoted Muslim from Yola, the capital and largest city of Adamawa State in eastern Nigeria, Barkindo is greatly influenced by the traditions and core values of Islam.
For a man with great accomplishments in his career and a high level of education, his humble character is unmatched by any other OPEC official I have seen. Abu Sadique was very down to earth and that is, again, a reflection of his beliefs that God created us all equal and no human should disdain another.
Maybe that is why he surrounds himself with the poor when he visits his home in Yola or the cities of Islam’s birth. In fact, he always kept reminding himself that it is a religious obligation for the wealthy to take care of the needy.
His appearance and dress is also shaped by his Islamic roots, which also helped to formed his view of the world. He sees divine intervention in everything that happens around him, including the fate and affairs of OPEC — and whenever OPEC strikes a good deal, he attributes the success to divine intervention.
Truly, it seems that God chose Barkindo to lead OPEC during the historical turning point it went through during his tenure. For the first time in its history, OPEC has been working side by side with non-OPEC members to restore balance in the oil markets. His calm nature and aptitude for listening carefully to, and learning from, others was necessary. He respected all member nations and strongly believed that the success of OPEC depends on its charter, which gives each country equal voting rights.
OPEC is set to change after Barkindo’s departure and I assume his Kuwaiti successor will try to leave his stamp upon it. The organization is likely to be influenced by the latter’s background in research and marketing. He is well aware of the dangers of speculation and the damage this can do to states’ finances.
Saudi officials hold similar concerns when it comes to speculation, and I cannot think of anyone who is more against speculation than Prince Abdulaziz.
Regardless to how OPEC will evolve, I will miss the days of Barkindo and the era that he represented — the era of the giants.
• Wael Mahdi is a senior business editor at Arab News and co-author of “OPEC in a Shale Oil World: Where to Next?”