A partnership with rich benefits

Total, the French oil company, is showcasing its commitment to educating Emiratis as its stakes in Abu Dhabi oilfields come up for renewal

“Whatever company you are in Abu Dhabi, if they develop UAE nationals, it is like a plus for them,” says Arafat Al Yafei . Ravindranath K / The National
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Arafat Al Yafei speaks with a trace of a French accent, the evidence of his years studying in Paris and working at the oil giant Total.

Now he manages the emirate's toughest engineering projects for Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc). But he maintains close ties with his old employer.

"The most important thing is the relationship," Mr Al Yafei says. "You have to create the bridge. Your technology's there, and different companies have different technologies, but do you have the relationship?"

For decades, Total has cultivated its ties with Abu Dhabi by investing in many of the emirate's strategic projects, from building a natural gas pipeline to turning crude into fertiliser for farms.

Now it is showcasing another field of investment - people.

Total and its competitors are jockeying for position as Abu Dhabi prepares to redistribute the rights to its oilfields. In two years, Total's 9.5 per cent slice in Abu Dhabi's biggest onshore concession expires. Total shares that concession with ExxonMobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Portugal's Partex. Soon thereafter, stakes in the emirate's main offshore operator and four other Adnoc companies will expire.

Little wonder, then, that Total and the other majors are keen to prove that their partnerships - some of them nearly 75 years old - have been valuable for the emirate.

"Whatever company you are in Abu Dhabi, if they develop UAE nationals, it is like a plus for them," Mr Al Yafei says.

Total writes a US$5 million (Dh18.3m) cheque every year to the Petroleum Institute, Adnoc's engineering university, and sends high-achieving Emiratis to study in France as part of a scholarship programme for resource-rich nations.

Louai Machhour, the former business and capabilities development manager for Total ABK in Abu Dhabi [he left in August, and is now posted in Paris as regional geologist], describes the philanthropy as part of the company mission.

"For us this is an obligation, and we do it without any conditions," Mr Machhour says. "We do it because we think it's our responsibility to develop the people in the country where we work and where we take benefit also."

Implicit is that the trainees eventually join the state oil company, bringing private-sector knowledge to Abu Dhabi and providing the foreign companies with a valuable connection on the ground.