Algeria’s Sonatrach chief receives expanded powers, weathers attacks from opponents

The oil chief's vision and connections with US firms made him unpopular with nationalists wary of US influence.
Sunday 22/07/2018
Sonatrach’s CEO Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour attends the strategic plan presentation of Sonatrach at the company’s headquarters, last April. (AFP)
A focus on the future. Sonatrach’s CEO Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour attends the strategic plan presentation of Sonatrach at the company’s headquarters, last April. (AFP)

TUNIS - Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika expanded the power of the country’s oil chief, who has been under fire for looking to partner with US businesses.

Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour, appointed CEO of state-owned energy monopoly Sonatrach in March 2017, has sought to overhaul the country’s oil and gas industry by expanding ties with foreign partners. However, his vision and connections with US firms made him unpopular with nationalists wary of US influence in the energy sector.

Ould Kaddour jokingly said: “I have been told that we have in Algeria 40 million experts in football but now I found out that we also have 40 million Algerians expert in oil and gas.”

He said his goal was to increase Sonatrach’s earnings from oil and gas exports by $30 billion, making it “one of the five biggest companies in the world by the end of 2030.”

Ould Kaddour received public backing from Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui, who recently accompanied him on a tour of oil facilities in the southern region of Alrar, near the Libyan border.

“Sonatrach is a red line,” Bedoui said during the tour. “Those who attempt to create division to use it as a political wedge must know that Sonatrach is the current and future beating heart of the national economy.

“All people must help this new strategy with foresight and responsibility to help the country face future challenges.”

Bedoui’s display of support for Ould Kaddour came a week after Bouteflika issued an executive order vesting more power in the oil chief, giving him the authority to select most members of the company’s executive committee.

“The members of the executive committee, (exempting) the deputy-presidents, are named by the CEO and chairman of Sonatrach,” Bouteflika’s executive order stated.

The decree increases the number of Sonatrach’s executive committee members from four to eight and gives them a greater role in decision-making processes.

Previous executive committee members were charged only with overseeing the company’s basic activities of drilling, production and transport of oil and gas. Now they are in charge of financing, business development and strategy, the president’s order stated.

Algerian energy experts said the move was an attempt to bolster Ould Kaddour’s power within the company as he weathers attacks from nationalists.

“His main challenge is how to energise the enthusiasm of Sonatrach’s workers to support his strategy,” said Algerian energy expert Reghis Rabah.

Ould Kaddour has promised to revamp the company’s culture and human resources’ management.

“Sonatrach will be among the five biggest companies by the end of 2030. For that aim we must learn how to be patient and excellent,” he said.

Red tape and a lack of transparency have led some of Sonatrach’s most skilled workers to join foreign oil firms, which Ould Kaddour said was a “huge loss.”

“Around 7,000 employees had left the company. Our success comes from our staff,” he said, adding that “mistreatment” of employees and a lack of transparency over how workers and managers advance in their careers are major problems.

“All this has to change. I count on you to turn Sonatrach into the biggest, smartest and nicest company in the world,” Ould Kaddour was quoted by local media as telling workers in a petrochemical complex in Skikda on June 30.

“I’m fed up reading more and more e-mails from workers complaining about being mistreated and deprived of their rights,” he said.

During a visit to Hassi Messaoud, site of the largest southern oil-field, he told employees: “I hope that you are feeling that there is a change, perhaps not a big change, but a new dynamic.”

Ould Kaddour’s vision is not universally welcome, with nationalists and other opponents pushing for him to be fired.

“Algeria had been the Mecca of the revolutionaries. Now it is the den and nook of the corrupt and traitors,” wrote Tayeb Belgiche in Algeria’s influential El Watan daily.

“Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour is part of this group of people. A man who should have spent a long time in prison for espionage for the United States, walked out of jail (after) passing 24 months,” he wrote. “To cap it all off, he was appointed as head of the most strategic company of the country.”

Hocine Nasser Bouabsa argued in a widely shared article that “Sonatrach is like a vessel that is about to capsize if the situation is not urgently addressed.”

“The first salutary measure is to sack the current Sonatrach CEO and replace him with a collegial crisis management team,” Bouabsa added, citing the oil chief’s “lack of competence” and “baggage.”

In 2007, Ould Kaddour was sentenced to two years in prison for betraying Algeria’s economic secrets to foreign powers while working at a joint US-Algerian engineering venture co-owned by oil services firm Halliburton.

Analysts said Bouteflika appointed Ould Kaddour Sonatrach CEO in the hope that he could leverage his ties with US companies to secure needed investment and technology to develop the country’s energy sector.