The dismissal of Nader Nabulsi as oil minister at the start of July marks the end of an era for the Syrian industry. He has been replaced by Mohamed Maher Jamal, a younger man who has risen quickly through the ranks of Al-Furat Petroleum Company, Syria’s largest oil producer, becoming chairman in January. Foreign oil companies say they look forward to doing business with Jamal, who has created a favourable impression at Al-Furat.

Nabulsi has been involved in the development of oil and gas in Syria from the beginning. He was personally in charge of bringing on stream the first major oil field to be discovered – Karatchuk, in the northeast, in 1968 – and oversaw the phenomenal increase in output following the mid-1980s discovery of a string of fields in the Deir al-Zor area by the Royal Dutch/Shell Group’s US affiliate, Pecten. Al-Furat is the production venture that arose from these discoveries.

But Nabulsi was under a cloud because of a costly gas blow-out in Al-Furat’s Al-Izba field in 1995 and a new scandal over public funds that allegedly went astray. More fundamentally, Nabulsi had presided over a mass exodus of international oil companies in the 1990s, with the result that exploration is now at a low ebb.

He leaves to his successor an oil industry producing just below 600,000 barrels a day (b/d) of oil, including some 380,000 b/d from Al-Furat’s fields. There has been increasing investment in gas development in the past few years, and output is now about 500 million cubic feet a day.

If no significant oil discoveries are made in the next few years, Syria could return to being a net oil importer by 2005, according to Shell’s estimates. Clearly if there is no exploration, there can be no discoveries and oil companies have been trying for some time to win better terms. They include Shell – which is actually planning to drill an exploration well this summer – and the only other two active foreign companies, France’s Elf Aquitaine and Ireland’s Tullow oil. Elf is producing about 60,000 b/d, and Tullow is planning to bring on stream its Kishma field at about 15,000 b/d towards the end of the year. Also in the hunt for new acreage is the small US firm Transglobal, which says it has teamed up with two larger European oil companies.

Now a new minister has been appointed, company executives say they hope progress can be made towards signing new exploration deals. The fact that the minister is Jamal, who has come from within the industry rather than from the political sphere, is a further encouraging sign.