Kuwait Energy chief Sara Akbar recalls baptism of fire

Profile: Sara Akbar was the sole woman among the firefighters helping to douse the oil wells during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Today she is the chief executive of Kuwait Energy.

Chris Burke for The National
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Sara Akbar was born in an oilfield, and might have died in one.

In 1991, as the smoke billowing from 700 burning Kuwaiti oil wells obliterated the midday sun, she was the sole woman among hundreds of firefighters dispatched to douse the flames.

Biobox: Sara Hussain Akbar chief executive and director of Kuwait Energy

Last Updated: June 3, 2011

Education: Kuwait University BSc in chemical engineering

Family: Married with three children, two boys and a girl, aged 14, 13 and 7. Husband is retired.

Lives in Kuwait City in an extended family that also includes three brothers and their families.

Personal mantra: "No matter what you do as an individual, nothing beats teamwork."

Personal challenge: Balancing professional and family life.

"The more you went into the fields the darker it became. The darkness was unbelievable and the oil wells looked like flickering candles on the horizon," says Mrs Akbar, recalling those dramatic days long before she reached her current position as the only female chief executive of a Middle East oil and gas company.

During Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Mrs Akbar, who then worked for the state-owned Kuwait Oil, had volunteered to join a skeleton crew of 50 from a total workforce of 5,000 who would stay at their posts to take care of the emirate's oilfields. Her special duties included preparing daily reports on oilfield activity that were smuggled to the exiled Kuwaiti government and helping stranded expatriate oil workers to leave the country by bundling them up in abayas.

Mrs Akbar and her Kuwait Oil colleagues were not trained to fight fires. They believed it was nevertheless worth risking life and limb to save the source of their country's prosperity as Saddam Hussain's Iraqi troops fled.

Initially the makeshift team of petroleum engineers was denied permission to join the international firefighting squads on grounds of their inexperience. But as patriotic Kuwaitis, they refused to a man - and woman - to take no for an answer.

Afraid of being ridiculed if they failed, the team sneaked out at night to douse their first well. By morning, the flames were out. The team went on to put out many more well fires. The petroleum engineers succeeded in controlling the blazing wells because of their familiarity with Kuwait's oilfields and because they were tightly focused on a common goal.

At the time, Mrs Akbar, the daughter of an Iraqi oil driller, was already a field engineer with 10 years' experience.

"I worked on the oilfields, offshore and onshore, day and night, and the result of this work was that I knew the oilfields very well," she says. "There were 800 wells and I knew every single one like the back of my hand."

But it was the firefighting episode that taught her the importance of teamwork, a lesson that today guides her management of the privately owned Kuwait Energy.

It also taught the future chief executive her own strengths. "I found I was a strong person, tough; I was not afraid," she says.

At Kuwait Energy's headquarters in a suburb of Kuwait City, the staff have gathered for their regular shared Thursday lunch - a corporate tradition instigated by Mrs Akbar and her close colleague Mansour Aboukhamseen, the chairman and managing director. On the menu is traditional Gulf biryani with all the trimmings, brought in from a local restaurant.

This is a popular team-building event, promoting a casual, friendly atmosphere in which the lowliest filing clerk feels at ease chatting with the company's top brass.

One after another, Kuwaiti and expatriate staff, male and female, spontaneously approach the stranger in their midst to say how much the company's family atmosphere makes them look forward to coming to work each morning.

This must be gratifying to Mrs Akbar, who admits she has struggled to balance her career with the demands of raising three children, aged 14, 13 and 7, whose pictures dominate her office decor.

But she is living proof that a profoundly male-dominated industry can sometimes benefit from a quintessentially female touch. By the end of last year, the six-year-old Kuwait Energy was producing 13,400 barrels of oil equivalent (boe) per day from more than 51 million boe of proved and probable reserves, mostly established through the drill bit. Its revenue for the year was US$120 million (Dh440m).

From an initial staff of three - Mrs Akbar, Mr Aboukhamseen and the chief operating officer Mohammed al Howqal - the company's workforce has expanded to more than 400. The founders, all former Kuwait Oil engineers, decided to launch Kuwait Energy following the appointment of a new chairman of the state oil company, with whom they did not feel in tune.

That meant the company's solid start was in no way due to the past associations of its founders with Kuwait Oil. In fact, says Mrs Akbar, people joke that Kuwait Energy operates everywhere except in Kuwait. The company pumps oil and gas from Egypt, Oman, Ukraine, Yemen and Russia.

Kuwait Energy also leads the international consortium that won the rights last year to develop Iraq's Siba gasfield and is a member of the group that submitted the winning bid for the larger Mansuriya in north-east Iraq.

For many Kuwaitis with memories of the scorched earth devastation wrought in their country, venturing into Iraq might have proved too emotionally daunting. But Mrs Akbar is determined to help to repair the relationship between the two oil-producing neighbours.

"We've been paying regular business visits. We understand them, and they understand us," she says. "We need to focus on the future not the past; to focus on building an economic relationship, which we haven't done in the past. People in decision making believe, and I believe, there is a great future for Iraq. In five years' time, Iraq will be a different country completely."

Mrs Akbar is also optimistic about the future of Egypt, which she predicts will be a better location for oil and gas development than in the past. She is encouraged that the interim government has retained many able technocrats, which she believes will enable Egyptians to form "the best government they have ever had".

Yemen, which is Mrs Akbar's favourite foreign Arab country, is another story: "People say it might split into two countries. Parts are independent now. We don't know what is the future. It's not obvious."

But whatever is in store for the Arab world's most impoverished state, its people will still need revenue from oil and gas production, she adds. Mrs Akbar views "the Arab awakening" as unstoppable because of the deep-rooted desire of peoples in the Middle East and North Africa for self-determination.

Unsurprisingly, she believes Arab women have a big role to play in building the region's future.

"For women, the sky is the limit."