When Iran started up the latest phase of its huge South Pars Gas development this year, it picked a symbolic date. The 19 March marked the 66th anniversary of the first efforts at nationalising the energy industry in 1951, when the assets of the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) were claimed for the state by the populist prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh.

The nationalisation was not an unalloyed success. In response, the UK organised an international boycott of Iranian oil and Mossadegh was himself ousted from power in a 1953 coup orchestrated by the US and Britain.

Profound influence

The history of Middle East oil and gas has often been characterised by such battles for control, as well as by huge price swings. One of the few constants has been the dominance the industry has exerted on the region, for good and ill.

The energy sector has had a profound influence, physically in terms of wells, refineries and new cities built, but also in the structure of the economic, political and social environment. It has set the framework for the Gulf’s rentier economies and fuelled wars, corruption, political repression and social largesse.

In the early years, Western oil companies dominated, particularly the so-called seven sisters: AIOC (now part of BP); Gulf Oil; Standard Oil of California and Texaco (all now Chevron); Standard Oil of New Jersey and Standard Oil Company of New York (both now ExxonMobil); and Royal Dutch Shell.

The situation began to change in September 1960, when the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) was set up by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran and Venezuela. Its establishment fitted in with a wider contemporary narrative of decolonisation and countries claiming control over their resources.

The 1960s also saw the creation of many modern national oil companies, which have gone on to take a leading role in the industry.

As a result of its huge oil reserves, Saudi Arabia’s oil ministers have often been the dominant personalities in the industry. Since 1960, there have been just five of them. For similar reasons, Saudi Aramco is also the dominant corporate entity, accounting for more output and revenues than any rival. It is also perhaps the most valuable firm in the world, at least according to the Saudi government, which is thought to be seeking a valuation of some $2 trillion when it lists a small portion of Aramco’s shares on the stock market in 2018.

Key oil and gas figures

Ahmed Zaki Yamani

Shaikh Yamani became a household figure across the Western world in the 1970s, as the very public face of the newly empowered Gulf Opec states.

A long-serving Saudi oil minister – in power from 1962 to 1986 – he played the pivotal role in the 1973 oil embargo that swung market power away from the largest Western oil companies to the Opec states – it was he who devised the scheme to quadruple oil prices.

A commoner among princes, this smooth-talking technocrat was at ease dealing with oil company CEOs and foreign heads of state. He, more than anyone else, smoothed the kingdom’s path to becoming the world’s central bank of oil.

Ali al-Naimi

Former Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi (pictured above) joined Aramco as an office boy in 1947, replacing an older brother who died of pneumonia. He was 12 and had previously herded sheep.

For two decades, Al-Naimi’s briefest utterances moved world markets

After Aramco sent him to Lebanon and the US to be educated, he rose through the ranks to become the first Saudi president of the firm in 1984 and its first Saudi CEO in 1988. Al-Naimi replaced Hisham Nazer as minister of petroleum and mineral resources in 1995 and imposed his authority on Opec. For two decades, his briefest utterances moved world markets.

Despite plummeting oil prices from mid-2014, Al-Naimi presided over a controversial strategy of keeping production levels high. He was ousted from his ministerial position as part of a larger government shake-up in May 2016, and was succeeded by Khalid al-Falih, the former health minister and Aramco CEO.

Khalid al-Falih

A three-decade veteran of Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Energy, Industry & Mineral Resources can lay claim to be the most powerful and influential man in the global hydrocarbons sector today.

A former CEO of Aramco – of which he is still the chairman – Al-Falih oversees Saudi oil and gas policy, with inevitable significance for the rest of the world. He has overseen a major organisation transformation of the kingdom’s oil and gas sector, and is a trusted confidante of the powerful Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud.

Al-Falih has more responsibilities than any previous oil minister, which is a token of the esteem in which he is held by the Saudi leadership.

Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah

Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah

Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah

Qatar oil minister Al-Attiyah (left) with the former emir of Qatar

This veteran of Qatar’s oil and gas sector was minister of energy and industry between 1993 and 2011, the key years that saw the Gulf state transform itself into the world’s leading exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Al-Attiyah was the main architect of that transformation, overseeing the colossal investment drive that made Qatar one of the world’s richest per capita states. He achieved this by convincing the government to borrow heavily to tap the rich seams of natural gas in its offshore North Field. By 2010, Qatar was producing 77 million tonnes a year of gas, setting the foundation for the country’s emergence onto the global stage.

Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber

The CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) is also the chairman of Masdar and a minister of state in the UAE government.

Al-Jaber has steered an ambitious reorganisation of Adnoc

Al-Jaber has emerged as a key mover and shaker, steering an ambitious reorganisation of Adnoc. He wants Adnoc to become a leaner outfit, introducing significant changes to senior management levels, and ordering a re-evaluation of its relationship with international oil companies (as well as pushing a major outreach to Asian producers).

Ashti Hawrami

Hawrami does not control a major oil industry like his counterparts in the Gulf states, but this energetic Iraqi Kurd has been one of the most dynamic personalities in Middle Eastern oil and gas for the past 10 years.

Appointed as the Kurdistan Regional Government’s minister for natural resources in May 2006, he proceeded to create an independent hydrocarbons economy in Iraq’s north, upsetting the authorities in Baghdad and building relationships with foreign oil firms by offering them much-prized production-sharing contracts. The difficult political situation in Iraq has hindered success, but Hawrami can still claim to have single-handedly built up one of the world’s fastest-growing oil producers.


Historical milestones

? 1956: Cairo establishes the General Petroleum Authority (renamed Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation in 1962)

? 14 December 1963: First tanker of Abu Dhabi crude departs Jebel Dhanna port

? 1964: The first Saudi Aramco-built government schools for Saudi girls open in Al-Khobar and Rahimah

? 1971: Abu Dhabi National Oil Company started by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan

? 1975: Kuwaiti government takes 100 per cent control of Kuwait Oil Company

? 1980: Kuwait Petroleum Company set up by an Emiri decree

? 30 June 1996: Kuwait Oil Company celebrates 50th anniversary of first oil export

? 1999: Current Bahrain Petroleum Company (Bapco) formed following the merger of Bapco and Bahrain National Oil Company

? 2002: Petroleum Development Oman embarks on a strategy to grow production through enhanced oil recovery projects

? December 2009: Tatweer Petroleum Company assumes responsibility for the redevelopment of the Bahrain Field

? August 2015: Italy’s Eni discovers Zohr gas field in Egypt