Ibrahim AlMuhanna and the war in Ukraine

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 16 Aug 2022

Abdel-Moneim Said shares his thoughts on a new book of wide-ranging relevance


The title might sound unrelated, but patience please. It might present the key to one of the most crucial dimensions of the Ukrainian war: oil and energy, in general. Ibrahim AlMuhanna’s recently published Oil Leaders: An Insider’s Account of Four Decades of Saudi Arabia and OPEC’s Global Energy Policy (Columbia University Press, May 2022) may not cover developments related to that war, but it offers insights that make the scramble surrounding the current global energy crisis easier to grasp than was the case with such crises in the past. AlMuhanna observes that a global oil crisis erupts every decade because of either the soaring or plunging price of a commodity so critical that it preoccupies governments the world over.  For my generation at least, the most salient predecessor to today’s crisis over this commodity occurred when the Arabs wielded oil as a weapon in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. A subsequent crisis was precipitated by the Iranian Revolution and the Iraqi-Iranian War that followed.

AlMuhanna’s work falls into the category of eye-opening political science works that enable us to gain a clearer understanding of developments arising after their publication. For example, we now have a clearer view of Saudi Arabia’s and OPEC’s energy policies at work just last month when world attention was riveted on Jeddah and the meetings between US President Joe Biden with the Saudi monarch and crown prince and then with nine Arab heads of state. Foremost on everyone’s minds were questions about whether and how much Riyadh would increase oil production and whether the prices would stabilise or go down, thereby heralding the end of an alarming wave of inflation. The answers remain pending, but AlMuhanna’s book offers hope. It tells us that Saudi Arabia is both fully aware of its own interests and acute to the interests of oil producers and consumers alike. This assessment is important because it comes from a person who, in his capacity as adviser to the Saudi Ministry of Energy from 1989 to 2017, worked with ministers who tend to be better known than their counterparts in other countries. 

I met Ibrahim AlMuhanna in 1987 when I was a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington DC. At the time, he was finishing up his PhD thesis on transnational economic policies. Nothing could better fit the bill as a focus for such a study than oil. Since then, he became my source of wisdom in many matters related to oil and international relations, especially when we were brought together in the meetings in Saudi Arabia of institutions to which we were both affiliated or when he came to Cairo to attend Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) meetings here. Often the Arab oil expert Walid Khaddouri and the Egyptian thinker and writer Gamil Matar would join us. Our discussions were rich and vibrant in those heady days of the 1990s when the world order was shifting radically after the US took the helm and led the drive to globalisation.  

Against the backdrop of institutional and structural change, my friend’s new book stands out for its attention to individuals, to whom he gives more weight than one might normally expect analyses of the dynamics of change with its variables and constants. The market forces of supply and demand continued to prevail. But the policy of Saudi leadership was strongly inclined to the supply side while keeping a vigilant eye on demand. This policy was the product of astute and seasoned ministers, knowledgeable and skilled advisers, and a shared vision of the higher national interests and harmony with world at the same time. 

Each of the eleven chapters of Oil Leaders (304 pages) is dedicated to at least one major decision-maker. Together with the forward, preface and conclusion, they identify three important factors the reader must bear in mind when considering the current or any future global crisis in which oil is at the centre and used as a pressure tool. The first factor was mentioned by Robert McNally, who wrote the Foreword: “For most of the last five and a half millennia, the only way a man or woman could trace overland faster than running was to harness a horse. That changed in the late nineteenth century when two inventions - modern oil drilling and the internal combustion engine - revolutionised transportation.” Today, cars, trains and planes have supplanted horses and everything else and the world has changed in the process. 

The second factor we find in AlMuhanna’s preface. It speaks of his humble origins in his native village, Ad Dakhila, in central Saudi Arabia, where he was born in 1953. It simultaneously reflects the humble origins of most Saudis at the time. “We had no electricity. We did not have enough food on the table. Actually, we did not even have a table; we ate on the floor. Our meals consisted of dates, wheat, and very rarely meat. In the early years, we used wood and camel waste for cooking. Kerosene came long later, and it was a major revolution in the use of energy in our region.” The writer’s journey from the village to Riyadh, where he first saw electricity, through his primary education to his graduate studies in Washington was, in a sense, the journey of his country from the discovery of its oil reserves to the present. In this story, oil played a fundamental role in shaping the kingdom’s current realities and the wealthy political elites responsible for managing that resource. Today, this management is not just about politics abroad and the world of war in Ukraine. It is also about domestic transformation inclusive of a quantum shift towards diversification of sources of wealth, labour and production in the kingdom.

The third factor, to which we have alluded above, is the critical role of the individual decision-maker and, specifically, the ministers of petroleum who need to grasp and respond to an immense variety of details at many levels. Whether based on information from advisers or communications with the Saudi leadership or leaders of other countries, the decision-making is an extremely complex process, but ultimately much is contingent on the character, acuity and foresight of the individual decision-maker.   

Ibrahim AlMuhanna has had a front-row seat in the march of history. This gave him a unique vantage point from which to write a seminal work on Arab decision making and policy design processes. The Financial Times lauds the book’s revelations on the monarchy’s management, diplomacy and governance related to oil and its volatile market as “gold dust.” The changes that unfolded by dint of such leaders as Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin, the effects of the major steps taken to organise the oil market through OPEC, and the role of other oil producing countries such as Russia are also closely observed in this valuable study. From the Arab perspective, AlMuhanna set a historiographical tradition for this subject through his profiles of the decision-makers and his attention to the impact of such character traits as integrity, discernment and judgement on the decision-making processes. It is an approach that makes the work more profound and more humanitarian in spirit. For this reason and others, he has made a valuable contribution to the Arab library, especially for those interested in the role of the technocrat in Arab decision-making. When it is translated into Arabic, the benefit will be greater and more widespread.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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