Mahmoud Abdulbaqi: Michel T. Halbouty Outstanding Leadership Award

A Champion of Arabia’s Oil Promise

Published
American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

“I really do not know a lot about leadership models.”

That might seem a strange sentiment coming from a Michel T. Halbouty Outstanding Leadership Award winner, but Mahmoud Abdulbaqi, this year’s honored recipient – who has spent his career in leadership positions in the oil and gas industry, its corporations and associations – is not your typical Halbouty medalist. Through his career, he found opportunities to lead, as all good leaders do, but equally important, opportunities needing leadership found him.

He made good use of them. And the industry, generally, and certainly his companies, specifically, benefitted from them.

A Career of Exploration and Advocacy

Abdulbaqi started his industry career in 1971 after graduating from the University of Baghdad when he was hired by Arabian American Oil Company to work in its wellsite geology unit, monitoring the drilling of exploration and development wells. In the early ‘70s, Aramco had already discovered the world’s largest oil fields, but never stopped searching for new and lucrative discoveries.

It quickly became apparent to the company how good Abdulbaqi was at the interpretation of raw well logs – and this was before the computer era – as well as his abilities to spot pay zones. Such skills, along with his ability to lead people, have impressed future generations of computersavvy log analysts for decades. In 1987, after the incorporation of Saudi Aramco as the national oil company, Abdulbaqi’s organization was charged with exploring for hydrocarbons throughout the entire Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Between 1989 and 1997, a total of 18 new fields were discovered in central Saudi Arabia, along with four fields in a Miocene hydrocarbon system in the Red Sea basin, as well as additional gas discoveries in Paleozoic sandstones in northern and eastern Saudi Arabia. These sites are now being targeted as unconventional resource plays.

He was then, he is now, even after retirement, one of the country’s biggest proponents of the promise of oil and gas.

As an example of his full-throated advocacy, back in 2004, there were concerns by some in the industry that the Kingdom could no longer continue to produce abundant, cheap, easy-to-produce oil.

Abdulbaqi would hear none of such talk. As the vice president of exploration for Saudi Aramco at the time, the company sent him to Washington to set the record straight.

“We have plenty of oil,” he said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a prestigious Washington, D.C.- based think tank. “We have the potential to add more oil than anyone else. Our track record shows that we delivered for 70 years ... overcoming any operational, technological, organizational and financial concerns ... and we’re going to continue delivering for another 70 years, at least ... (and) we can do it at a very reasonable cost, which makes it extremely attractive.”

That was then and, frankly, that’s still his belief.

“I’m even more bullish,” he said more recently. “The history of the last 20 years, since I said it, proved me right. The combination of quantity and quality of Saudi reserves is still unparalleled. The ability to put these reserves online has been tested many times with sterling response.”

This is a leader with defiance and pride and facts.

Abdulbaqi was born in 1944 in Acre, Palestine. After his family was displaced by the 1948 war, they went to Lebanon and Syria before settling in Jordan. His interest in petroleum geology is moored in the region. He was a contributor to the Middle East Show, which began in 1979, sponsored by the Society of Petroleum Engineers. Back then, there was no venue for such an exchange of ideas among industry professionals in the region.

“Even with MEOS, there was no proper forum to address exploration topics in the Middle East. We started the Dhahran Geosciences Society in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

As he remembers, AAPG was interested but did not have the appropriate resources at the time.

“We decided to develop the idea ourselves,” said Abdulbaqi.

Through the years, with the help of Saudi Aramco and the country of Bahrain, he also played a significant role in launching the Middle East Geosciences Conference and Exhibition, first held in 1994.

“I was the chairman in 1994 and still heavily involved. I served on the executive committee of every GEO,” he said.

Years later AAPG became the conference organizer.

All of this is to say that, as far as leadership goes, Abdulbaqi understands, whether it is business or simple outreach, there is an intangible dynamic in motivating and directing subordinates and co-workers. He said it is not something one can find in a book.

“I learned more by doing it,” he said.

Leadership, he said, starts with integrity, professionalism and honesty, and manifests itself through work ethic.

“If you walk the talk and add to it open and direct communication – open-door practice, walk around the office and visit remote work sites – you are on the right track,” Abdulbaqi said.

Further, in order to successfully lead people, he said, “You need to know the people and what is on their mind and care for them. Get close to them. You have to put in the time and effort. There are no shortcuts, either in motivation or assessment.”

He differs with many of the standard practices used to monitor development and success in the workforce.

“Annual, quarterly performance reviews are practiced in all in big companies, they are beneficial but they are normally too late,” he said.

Such evaluations and immediate feedback, rather, should never stop, he added.

Life Beyond the Oil Field

As for his motivation, his drive, he said it is due to the balance in his own life.

“I learned with time that a leader can bring a lot from the family home experience to the office, and vice-versa,” he said.

Which brings him to his father, Mustafa Abdulbaqi.

“He was my role model for integrity, work ethics, perseverance and caring for people. He left a lasting impression on me as a family man and a leader,” he related.

The son knows that without his wife of 47 years, Abiyya Sharif, whom he said helped him navigate the “challenging passages” of life, and people like Jim Kline, his first supervisor in the oil industry, for instilling in him the importance of technical excellence and setting high standards, he wouldn’t be the man, or leader, he is today.

As for the industry itself, the fundamental changes facing the direction of energy these days, he said he wishes he was just starting out again. To the question of regrets, well, he has none.

“I am a happy camper. I love geosciences and our industry. If I had the choice, I would do it all over again. It was (and still is) good fun.”

Abdulbaqi advises people – not just industry people – to be optimistic, to get out of their own way, to work and play hard, avoid burning out, and mostly to take care of one’s health.

“If you are not healthy, you cannot work hard or play hard or help others,” he said.

If none of that works, if none of that leads you to your goals, Abdulbaqi’s advice is pretty straightforward: “Love it or leave it. If you like your work, you will do well and progress comes naturally. If you do not like what you do, make a change. Life is too short.”

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