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Energy giant’s long-term vision affects more than petroleum

Interview - June 9, 2015

President and General Manager of ExxonMobil Qatar Alistair Routledge joined the company in April 2012 as vice-president of production after spending two years in Italy as the managing director of the Adriatic Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Terminal, a joint venture between Qatar Petroleum and ExxonMobil. Mr. Routledge received his B.Eng degree in Mechanical Engineering from Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, in 1990, and received his MBA Degree from Strathclyde Graduate Business School, Glasgow, in 1995. In addition to his operational responsibilities, Mr. Routledge is a Member of the Board of Trustees at the American School of Doha. Here, he speaks with Upper Reach about ExxonMobil’s long-term engagement with the Gulf state’s petroleum sector and its social and education development.


Qatar is going through a big transformation. For example, last year the state achieved emerging market status and the World Cup is coming in 2022, which is a major event. In fact, by 2022 the GDP is forecasted to have doubled to $400 billion, which is an enormous number. How would you evaluate Qatar’s growth during this last decade and where do you see Qatar by 2030?

The oil and gas industry has driven the economy for the last 20 years, especially the development of the North Field – the largest non-associated gas field in the world. The amount of gas produced from the North Field today is close to triple the consumption of the U.K. market. It is a staggering field and there has been a massive, unparalleled industrial development at Ras Laffan Industrial City, with 14 LNG trains, two flowing gas trains and the largest LNG shipping fleet in the world. It is a truly an incredible energy development.

The ambitious $10 billion Barzan Gas Project will start up this year, and you are the only foreign company involved. I would like to talk about the partnership between ExxonMobil and Qatar. What are the key factors in the success of such a long-term relationship? What does your company bring to the table that makes you such a trusted partner?

It goes back to the origins of how ExxonMobil came to the country, and how we really embraced the opportunity. In the 90s, the gas in the North Field was a stranded resource, and you could not do much with it. But His Highness the Father Emir and the former energy minister had a vision; a vision which we shared and with which we became very much aligned. The vision was to turn the stranded resource into a wonderful project and make Qatar a global player.

As we shared that vision and helped bring it to fruition, ExxonMobil developed a tremendous long-term strategic interest. We were able to bring in new technology, making processes more efficient so that Qatar could compete in the global market. The rest came by following through. One of our hallmarks as a corporation is what we call project execution, in that when we set the startup date, we will achieve that date and we will meet the budget, without compromising safety. By doing so, we gain credibility and the government trusts us to be their strong partner, to bring the technology and expertise, and to make things happen.

Nowadays you tend to partner a lot with QP on international investments.

That is the next frontier for Qatar Petroleum, to go beyond the business that is being built in Qatar and its natural extensions like the LNG receiving terminals, to direct investment in upstream production. They are very keen to go into the upstream in markets like North America. We signed an MoU in 2013 with the State of Qatar to explore investment opportunities to extend our existing relationship and the business that we built here.

How can the shale gas boom in North America or Australia’s new infrastructure projects affect the Qatari gas industry?

These regions may eventually compete on scale, but in the sense of competitiveness or cost of production, the flexibility and the reliability we have here in Qatar is tremendous. The world-class North Field feeds an incredibly integrated, efficient infrastructure that is geographically located so you can reach the largest markets in the world. I think it’s very well positioned both from the economic efficiency with which it was built and the time in which it was built to be able to remain competitive when oil prices are low. All of this gives Qatar a tremendous position relative to new infrastructure projects elsewhere in the world.

How is your company addressing the issue of Qatarization, and what other measures is it taking to support the Human Development Pillar of the Qatar National Vision 2030?

Qatarization is something we spend a lot of time on. Wherever we are in the world, we believe we need to build a local workforce because, although ExxonMobil is a global company, we are also a local company in the sense that to be in a country for a long time, you need a local workforce in order to be efficient, to be effective, and to become part of that community. We look for the best people, we give them wonderful training opportunities, and we challenge them with real work from the day they come through the door. Sometimes we even send them abroad to get experience from our affiliates. In Qatar, we have reached 40% Qatarization by government measure, so we are very healthy, and we have an active female rate of employment just like in other parts of the world. The work environment is very important; our employees enjoy coming to work here.

Outside of the company, we also recognize the Human Development Pillar and how critical it is to building capacity. There are very few countries that have the right education and capability to compete and take on the positions that we offer. So we feel we have to start at the grassroots, even in primary education. We have to attract students, get them excited about science, technology, engineering and math, and then we have to make sure the education system is effective. We hold the Qatar University ExxonMobil Teachers Academy every year, where we teach primary school teachers how to make these subjects exciting and tactile.

We have also partnered with Teach for Qatar, which is based on the Teach for All global initiative. This is about taking ambassadors for education – graduates but not teachers. They may be engineers, scientists, accountants, etc. who have an interest in giving something back to the education system. After being trained, they take on a year or two of teaching, working side by side with professional educators. They bring a depth of knowledge to these subjects that a regular teacher may not have. And they bring enthusiasm – they do it because they really want to give something back.

Through our Tamayoz training program, we provide about 25 free courses a year for our partner Qatar Petroleum and our joint ventures. We have trained 1,600 individuals in the three years since we initiated the program.

You’ve been sponsoring several sporting events in Qatar. How do you think these events highlight long-term investment opportunities in the country and what impact do they have on the country in terms of the wellbeing of the society?

When the leadership of the country has a vision, like the Qatar National Vision 2030 of a sustainable future, they need to bring in people that will participate in the development of the economy. Sport makes very clear what the country stands for and creates the right image. It’s a tremendous tool to use because it gets global coverage, particularly if you can bring in some of the largest competitions. It is also a good way to make children understand the rules of engagement and thus the rules of business, because there is a set of rules and a referee. So, it’s kind of a parallel, you might say, to business. But ultimately, it’s a showcase: By running effective tournaments, bringing in the best athletes to compete, Qatar is showcasing its ability to run a business and bring new businesses into the country.

How is ExxonMobil helping Qatar to meet the needs of this generation without compromising the needs of future generations?

Energy is critical to human and social development. It helps people improve their quality of life and their opportunities to contribute to the economy. Qatar is able to export relatively clean, very efficient, very flexible fuel to help growing economies around the world that are in need of this kind of fuel. So it’s a balance of helping those in the world who don’t have the energy that others have enjoyed for decades, while at the same time being careful about the future.

Bringing cleaner burning natural gas as an alternative to other fuels is a key part of this. We, together with Qatar Petroleum, are actively investing to minimize the emissions impact. Our joint venture Qatargas just inaugurated the Jetty Boil-Off Gas Recovery Project, which was nearly a billion-dollar project to capture gas that is released in the loading operation of LNG carriers. That equates to almost 700,000 tons per annum of recaptured LNG. We’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars on machinery and technology to improve performance and make this a sustainable industry, not only to help the development in other parts of the world, but also to recognize that we need to make a contribution to the protection of the environment. On top of that, we have a research center, ExxonMobil Research Qatar, where we look at sustainability and safety. We are working on water reuse – how to process water using plants to avoid discharging industrial water. This is a long-term business, so everything we do has to be a balance.

As President of ExxonMobil Qatar, with 25 years of experience, what would be your message to the people that will be gathered in business community summits regarding the topics that will be discussed: energy, trade, investment, development and sustainability?

We need governments to set a framework that is clear and long term. There is a clear roadmap in the Qatar National Vision 2030, so we understand what we need to do to help the country achieve its goals. As companies, what we do best is understand the objectives, work on the technology, work on the delivery, and invest in projects. Together we can get there.