Tuesday, May 4, 2010

[wvns] The Iraqi who saved Norway from oil

The Iraqi who saved Norway from oil
By Martin Sandbu

When he boarded his flight from London to Oslo, Farouk al-Kasim, a young Iraqi geologist, knew his life would never again be the same. Norway was a country about as different as it was possible to imagine from his home, the Iraqi port city of Basra. He had no job to go to, and no idea of how he would make a living in the far north. It was May 1968 and al-Kasim had just resigned from his post at the Iraq Petroleum Company. To do so, he had had to come to the UK, where the consortium of western companies that still controlled most of his country's oil production had its headquarters.

For all its uncertainties, al-Kasim's journey to Norway had a clear purpose: he and his Norwegian wife, Solfrid, had decided that their youngest son, born with cerebral palsy, could only receive the care he needed there. But it meant turning their backs on a world of comforts. Al-Kasim's successful career had afforded them the prosperous lifestyle of Basra's upper-middle class. Now they would live with Solfrid's family until he could find work, though he had little hope of finding a job as rewarding as the one he had left behind. He was not aware that oil exploration was under way on the Norwegian continental shelf, and even if he had known, it wouldn't have been much cause for hope: after five years of searching, still no oil had been found.

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But al-Kasim's most immediate problem on arriving in Oslo that morning was how to fill the day: his train to Solfrid's home town did not depart until 6.30pm. "I thought what I am going to do in these hours?" he says. "So I decided to go to the Ministry of Industry and ask them if they knew of any oil companies coming to Norway."He deposited his luggage and walked to the ministry, where he was received by a baffled official who told him to come back that afternoon. When he returned, expecting only an address list, several men were waiting for him.

"They were keen to know what had I been doing, what kind of education I had, whom I worked for. Did I work as a petroleum engineer? Did I work as a geologist? What did I do?"

His request for a list of possible employers had turned into an impromptu job interview. "They must have been absolutely desperate for expertise!" says al-Kasim. They were indeed. At the time of his surprise call, Norway's oil administration numbered just three officials, all in their thirties and all learning essential parts of the job as they went along.

Meanwhile, the North Sea exploration results were pouring in and required careful analysis. Al-Kasim must have looked like a godsend: a man rich in academic training and practical experience of the oil industry – and one in need of work. In 1952, the Iraq Petroleum Company had reluctantly agreed to train young Iraqis to work alongside its colonial-era masters. It would sponsor batches of Iraqi students to study abroad with the promise of a job afterwards. At only 16, the precocious al-Kasim was selected for the first intake and sent to study petroleum geology at Imperial College London. He returned to Iraq in 1957 – by then married to Solfrid, who had been working in London as an au pair.

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