Ali Al Naimi's engaging memoir, Out of the Desert: My Journey from Nomadic Bedouin to the Heart of Global Oil, provides more than a review of a most remarkable career in both business and government. It offers valuable insight into the multifaceted transformations of Saudi Arabia's petroleum industry from the viewpoint of one who was central to its direction and overall success. The author sets forth a persuasive case: Mr. Al Naimi played an essential role in ensuring that national purpose in the oil sector was and remained effectively wedded to technocratic expertise. For the author, nationalization of the Saudi oil industry always involved more than the issue of ownership; it was about the mastery of the business by Saudi Arabs that made true national control possible.
Central to the narrative is Mr. Al Naimi's deep relationship with and abiding affinity for Aramco, the American oil-production and refining company that for some five decades oversaw the development of Saudi Arabia's hydrocarbon resources. Aramco clearly fascinated Mr. Al Naimi from the very first encounter in the late 1940s, when, as a young Bedouin lad he persisted in obtaining employment though underage — an early marker not only of a quick and inquisitive intellect but of his determination, resourcefulness and openness to the new and different. Those traits combined to make Mr. Al Naimi's four-decade career a strikingly successful and enviable catalogue of firsts, culminating in his being appointed Aramco's first Saudi president in 1983 and five years later the company's first Saudi CEO. His professional outlook was unquestionably "shaped" by Aramco, in the rigorous training and education provided by the company and in the capacities gained through wide-ranging experience. He leaves no doubt that he greatly respects the benefits of that corporate process; and he relishes the fact that he was able to rise to and surmount the challenges. He praises Aramco's expertise and results-oriented outlook, just as he admires the meritocratic ethos practiced by the Americans that determined advancement. At the same time, he levels criticisms, not to disparage or question Aramco's operational capabilities, but to expose the reality that the meritocracy was not effectively and as expeditiously extended to Saudi nationals as he believes it should have been.
The shift in Aramco's position from one marked by reticence about Saudi advancement to proactive support of talented Saudis is a complex tale, and one in which the author played a notable role. Promoting the "Saudization" of the company workforce was a key objective for Mr. Al Naimi, actively pursued as he rose through the company. What also bears highlighting is the early example set by Mr. Al Naimi himself. His mastery of an ever-more-expansive domain of knowledge, skills and jobs was an achievement that underpinned and accelerated the corporate investment in training. Equally of note was a willingness to be patient, a state of mind, as he reveals, not always easy to maintain. One senses that this quality reflected, in part, a dedication to the principle that he would prove his worth and justify his burgeoning authority. Such patience seems to have been inflected by an intent to protect overall the efficacy of Aramco. This merging of achievement and attitude will have proved a vital combination in persuading Aramco's American management to trust the process.
That Mr. Al Naimi would not willingly permit prowess to be compromised by politics is sharply delineated in one of the most arresting anecdotes in the book. In 1986, while the Saudi government was debating how best to incorporate Aramco into the apparatus of state, Mr. Al Naimi advised the then minister of petroleum and mineral resources, Ahmed Zaki Yamani, that he and his senior management team would resign if the company were to be enveloped by the state petroleum organization, PETROMIN. From Mr. Al Naimi's experience and observation, Aramco was the only agency that rendered possible the successful pursuit of a Saudi oil industry; for him, the company had to remain intact and in control. This intervention played a decisive role in determining the nature of the new national oil company created by royal decree two years later. The new company took over not only all the petroleum infrastructure previously owned by Aramco, and all of Aramco's rights and obligations to the kingdom, but preserved the administrative structure to run it. Despite the official name — the Saudi Arab Oil Company — the firm is universally known as Saudi Aramco, succinctly expressing an ambition that lay at the heart of Mr. Al Naimi's career.
While the establishment of Saudi Aramco marked the culmination of a long-desired objective, it did not seal the transformation of the kingdom's oil sector. Complete national sovereignty over it untethered Saudi Aramco from the downstream refining and marketing systems of the U.S. oil corporations that had once owned Aramco. The company perforce had to reinvent itself as an international, fully integrated hydrocarbon corporation able to compete globally. Under Mr. Al Naimi's guidance, Saudi Aramco has been substantially reconfigured to achieve this end, earning a reputation as the very best of The Nationaloil companies.
One might have expected that would be the end of this Arabian tale, but after seven years at the helm of Saudi Aramco, Mr. Al Naimi was appointed Saudi Arabia's minister of petroleum and mineral resources. The appointment both validated the direction Mr. Al Naimi had brought to the sector and marked the beginning of a new set of challenges as he now confronted an endlessly tricky puzzle akin to "squaring the circle": defending market share against global competitors both within and outside OPEC while striving to maintain a desirable crude-oil price. It is a frustrating puzzle, one that can neither be conclusively solved nor avoided, and Mr. Al Naimi did it for 21 years. His account of those years is a useful primer on the complexities, risks and volatility of the international trade in hydrocarbons. For an individual who prizes rationality and is imbued with a technocratic sensibility, working with his OPEC counterparts (whom he notes did not often share his rigorous adherence to high standards of professionalism) on matters infused with political concerns must have seemed at times a Sisyphean ordeal.
Mr. Al Naimi's ministerial tenure ended with the ascension to the throne of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz. The author uses this juncture to neatly, albeit somewhat abruptly, bring his narrative to a conclusion. Mr. Al Naimi limits his discussion of this event, merely describing it as part of the inevitable administration changes that follow in the wake of a new king. One suspects that Mr. Al Naimi relished the opportunity to retire. This is not to suggest that he lacks the stamina, energy or acumen to continue in office, but being able to step away from the burdens of the ministerial post for someone in his eighties must have been appealing. As the memoir notes, he attempted to retire in his sixties, but the government declined his request. Such reticence, while tactful, obscures additional context that, arguably, informed the changes.
Of particular note is the policy, articulated and being overseen by one of current king's sons, HRH Prince Muhammad bin Salman, to substantially redefine the role of Saudi Aramco with the intent to offer for sale a small percentage of the company (apparently 5 percent) to international investors. There are hints in the book, relating to both principle and particulars, that suggest Mr. Al Naimi may well have questioned this course of action. On principle, selling off even a very limited stake in Saudi Aramco turns back the clock on The Nationalization project to which Mr. Al Naimi was dedicated; on particulars, any IPO requires a great deal of proprietary information to be released that could well jeopardize the company's competitive position in the global marketplace. We know from this memoir that Mr. Al Naimi is both forceful and courageous in laying out his objections to state policy. Overall, one cannot easily avoid the conjecture that divisions over the current plans for Saudi Aramco contributed to the timing of his departure. One indisputable fact is that any successful IPO invariably rests on the stellar reputation of Saudi Aramco, a matter that returns to Mr. Al Naimi's leadership of the company. It is also worth noting that the new minister holding the energy portfolio is Khalid Al Falih, who, like his predecessor, assumes the post after running Saudi Aramco. This is a demonstration of the depth of Saudi talent within the company and its broad value to national objectives — a testament, again, to Mr. Al Naimi's career.
Given Mr. Al Naimi's intimate knowledge of the role of oil in the kingdom, it would have been of great interest to know his thoughts on one of the most pressing issues to confront the kingdom: how to liberate that society from its profound dependence on oil revenues. He is silent here, but to criticize him for that would be unfair. This is a memoir and properly focuses on his extraordinary career while underscoring his accomplishment in protecting and amplifying the expertise and effectiveness of the kingdom's energy sector.
This memoir may also prompt one to contemplate the role of Aramco in the kingdom and the factors that contributed to that American company's long and successful tenure. The highly regarded and influential petroleum journalist Wanda Jablonski once remarked, when considering how it was that Saudi and American employees of Aramco got along so well, that the two peoples shared a sense of humor. That comment was made in the late 1970s, not long before Ali Al Naimi was appointed the first Saudi president of the company (quoted in Irvine H. Anderson's Aramco, the United States and Saudi Arabia: A Study in the Dynamics of Foreign Oil Policy 1933-1950, p. 199). There is a telling instance of shared laughter midway through Mr. Al Naimi's book where he relates that shortly after being named president, he called into his office a long-serving American employee, Hal Streaker, who had been his manager in the '60s. At that time, the American had been pleased to advise the young Saudi that he could look forward to being appointed a manager in 15 years. As Mr. Al Naimi tells it:
It had been fifteen years, I told him, and now I was his boss. How did he think I had done in my career? We had a good laugh. Then we both went back to work.
We hear the laughter, but do we truly get the joke? One could, if one wished to force an unflattering image on the author, conclude that Mr. Al Naimi was having the last laugh at the expense not only of Mr. Streaker, but of all the Americans who had once controlled the company. But anyone who reads this work will quickly appreciate that it is an interpretation without foundation. What is critical to appreciating the moment is the final sentence. I would aver that is the real punch line. In Aramco, both Saudi and American employees found common purpose in pursuit of the enterprise's success, and it was a dedication to that purpose that came to shape everything.