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At last, an OPEC Secretary General who hails from the GCC

Wael Mahdi

Published: Updated:

In the last 40 years, none of the Secretaries General of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) hailed from the GCC. That is, until a few days ago, when Haitham al-Ghais of Kuwait earned the confidence of OPEC ministers and was appointed to succeed the current Secretary General Mohammad Barkindo of Nigeria, whose tenure ends in July.

First and foremost, congratulations are in order for Kuwait and the entire GCC for this appointment.

Now, an important question inevitably comes to mind: isn’t it bizarre that there are four OPEC Members States from the GCC (now down to three after Qatar’s departure), yet none of them has had one of its nationals appointed to the post of secretary general?

In fact, Dr. Adnan Shihab-Eldin of Kuwait was appointed Acting Secretary General about 15 years ago, but he never officially assumed the post of Secretary General.

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But there is an explanation for everything at OPEC, even the things no one understands. First, Saudi Arabia did not want to have a candidate for Secretary General. In fact, the Kingdom conceded its turn every time it was up for presiding the OPEC Ministerial Meeting. In the words of one Saudi petroleum minister: “We are, effectively, the leader and biggest producer in OPEC, so why compete with everyone else on the position?”

A file photo shows then Kuwait’s governor to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Haitham al-Ghais. (Supplied)
A file photo shows then Kuwait’s governor to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Haitham al-Ghais. (Supplied)

It is, indeed, a plausible viewpoint, since Saudi Arabia is keen to keep the favors it gained with everyone. To have a Saudi citizen at the helm of OPEC may not help, as it may heighten sensitivities between OPEC Member States given the pioneering role that the Kingdom plays in the organization.

The appointment of the OPEC Secretary General takes the biggest weight from the Kingdom’s decision, since decisions are taken unanimously and any objection could stop the appointment, even if it comes from a minor producer like Gabon, for instance.

At the same time, the Kingdom does not hesitate to make a move when needed and nominate a candidate in the event of tight competition from other countries. We recall how nine years ago, when Iran and Iraq nominated candidates, the Kingdom also nominated Dr. Majid al-Munif, who was Governor for OPEC and Advisor for the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources at the time. Because the competitors were former ministers, al-Munif joined them later after rising to the post of Secretary General of the Supreme Economic Council with the rank of Minister. The conflict lasted four years, during which Libyan Secretary General Abdullah al-Badri had his tenure renewed for three more years, in a precedent at OPEC.

The other explanation for the lack of a Secretary General from the GCC is that everyone looks for candidates from politically neutral states. These were limited to Nigeria, Indonesia, and Venezuela, all of which gave many secretaries general in the past 40 years. In fact, many believe that Saudi Arabia rallied for Indonesia’s return to OPEC seven years ago only so Indonesia can nominate a candidate. However, that candidate turned out to be weak competition. And seeing as Venezuela’s oil sector is crumbling as are its relations with the West, only Nigeria was left and nominated Mohammad Barkindo.

Today, despite all this history of sensitivities, al-Ghais was appointed seamlessly and smoothly, which goes to show the level of maturity that OPEC has reached.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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