PORTRAIT: Norway might have been left looking on at oil prosperity had an Iraqi-born geologist not exited his home country. In an interview with The Foreigner Farouk Al-Kasim, whom King Harald V has knighted Officer of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav, looks back at his some 44 years here after boring through the official matter-of-factness.
“They were in complete disbelief it was possible to find oil and gas,” Mr Al-Kasim remarks about Ministry of Industry officials when asked about Norway’s oil development.
According to him, the Geological Survey of Norway (TGU) in Trondheim had already declared it to be unlikely. But what began as his visit to get a list of oil companies, ended up differently.
“They asked me to come back at two o’clock after lunch,” he says, recounting that bureaucrats actually seemed more
Drill floor - unknown platform
With kind permission of the Norwegian Petroleum Museuminterested in him than what he was looking for. The “after lunch” was just an excuse because they wanted to confer about offering him some employment form.
“They couldn’t offer me a job per se, just a temporary assignment. They were rather keen but in agony.” He was hired three months later following what he terms the Norwegian summer shutdown.
“The gap was also because officials had to ask the then Prime Minister (the Centre Party’s (Sp) Per Borten) if he thought them offering me a few thousand NOKs above his pay would be a political problem,” remarks Mr Al-Kasim.
“Ministry of Industry officials proposed a third of the salary I had earned in my home country, where I was financially very well-off. It was ridiculously low. I had a good career at the Iraqi Petroleum Company as the government was determined to put money into backing the industry.”
Mr Al-Kasim says he had first gone to London to look for a job but chose Norway instead for the sake of his son’s health, arriving on 28 March 1968 with his Norwegian wife.
“We had to sneak out of Iraq. My wife could have tried to take him out on her passport, but it requires the permission of the father. She never would have been allowed to leave if border officials discovered he was an Iraqi citizen and I couldn’t bear to leave him behind. I had no choice,” he explains.
His visit to the Ministry of Industry was after the 1962 King’s Bay gas explosion on the island of Svalbard. 21 people were killed in the worst mining accident in Norwegian history. It led to the resignation of Labour (Ap) Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen and his entire Cabinet.
Diving at a Condeep platform
With kind permission of the Norwegian Petroleum Museum“The government didn’t want to be seen to be interested in anything industrial because it could have been another political disaster. Nobody thought an oil discovery would happen anyway,” says Mr Al-Kasim.
Officials were wrong, fortunately for Norway.
“What happened was a complete miracle. Philips Petroleum was drilling wells in the deepest part of the North Sea as the ministry was processing my candidacy. But surprise, surprise, they hit condensate, which turns into oil when as it comes to the surface. Things then became acute, they couldn’t just ignore it.”
Mr Al-Kasim also recalls he was summoned, asked to tell them what it meant. “These guys hadn’t even looked at the file with the results of the well drillings and were at the dawn of a fantastic future.”
His task, as he saw it, was to try to convince them to act quickly.
“Nevertheless, I was met with what in Norwegian is termed as ‘farmers’ wisdom’. It was a reluctance to be enthusiastic about anything. This has formed Norwegian oil policy. It is about not getting excited, but making sure nothing one already has is spoilt if you do go into business,” he explains.
Norway’s smallness and modesty as a nation in terms of importance in the world also meant authorities felt a need to ensure they had enough control.
A driller in the drilling section of Ocean Traveler
With kind permission of the Norwegian Petroleum Museum“They imagined oil involved cowboy-like figures who were chewing gum, just interested in satisfying their needs when they arrived in town. Officials were very protective about it arriving.”
“In 1971, parliament was solidly behind an oil policy fully controlled by politicians,” adds Mr Al-Kasim. “They thought ‘take it easy, don’t issue any more licenses. A state company (Statoil) was established to gain control so it isn’t lost.”
What would you say are the most memorable parts of or factors on the journey to oil wealth?
“The most important achievement Norway has made, with or without my help, is getting industry to cooperate on equitable terms with the government so the oil industry was not against them.”
“I looked at the wells drilled and the agreements – which were not very good for Norway at that time – and tried to devise a system that showed one can and must work together for a common good, which at the same time guaranteed oil companies equitable returns.”
Mr Al-Kasim explains his role was to be a guarantor that the government would not abuse access to data, as in some other countries, but act as partners.
“Norway also managed to avoid the so-called ‘Oil Curse’, not putting the huge revenues directly into the economy. The decision was taken to invest these abroad, rather, and use just what could be absorbed. This resulted in the four percent fiscal rule.”
Lifeboat on Ocean Viking changing colour, Egil Lima and Roald Kyllingstad
With kind permission of the Norwegian Petroleum Museum“In 1974, the philosophy was ‘don’t accelerate development so fast that we lose control’. This also helped give the chance of having a high percentage of delivery of goods and services. Moreover by avoiding the curse, Norway helped itself, becoming a major exporter of Norwegian technology,” he says.
What do you feel about being knighted?
“I’m very humbled and very grateful,” exclaims Mr Al-Kasim. “It confirms what I have always thought: that you will be rewarded if your work hard and serve the nation’s interests.”
“The knighthood is not really just for me, either. I look upon it as an acknowledgement of the success of the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, which I contributed quite a lot to establishing. I feel that I have tried to do a good job, and consider the knighthood as recognition of a task well done.”
In closing, Mr Al-Kasim sums up what he believes was the process that led officials to engage him at the beginning.
“I think Norway must have been very desperate for three reasons: using a geologist, an Iraqi geologist, and not least an Iraqi geologist aged 32.”