“I really do not know a lot about
That might seem a strange
sentiment coming from a Michel T. Halbouty
Outstanding Leadership Award winner, but
Mahmoud Abdulbaqi, this year’s honored
recipient – who has spent his career in
leadership positions in the oil and gas
industry, its corporations and associations
– is not your typical Halbouty medalist.
Through his career, he found opportunities
to lead, as all good leaders do, but equally
important, opportunities needing leadership
He made good use of them. And
the industry, generally, and certainly his
companies, specifically, benefitted from
A Career of Exploration and Advocacy
Abdulbaqi started his industry career in
1971 after graduating from the University
of Baghdad when he was hired by Arabian
American Oil Company to work in its wellsite
geology unit, monitoring the drilling of
exploration and development wells. In the
early ‘70s, Aramco had already discovered
the world’s largest oil fields, but never
stopped searching for new and lucrative
It quickly became apparent to the
company how good Abdulbaqi was at the
interpretation of raw well logs – and this
was before the computer era – as well as
his abilities to spot pay zones. Such skills,
along with his ability to lead people, have
impressed future generations of computersavvy
log analysts for decades. In 1987,
after the incorporation of Saudi Aramco
as the national oil company, Abdulbaqi’s
organization was charged with exploring
for hydrocarbons throughout the entire
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Between 1989
and 1997, a total of 18 new fields were
discovered in central Saudi Arabia, along
with four fields in a Miocene hydrocarbon
system in the Red Sea basin, as well as
additional gas discoveries in Paleozoic
sandstones in northern and eastern Saudi
Arabia. These sites are now being targeted
as unconventional resource plays.
He was then, he is now, even after
retirement, one of the country’s biggest
proponents of the promise of oil and gas.
As an example of his full-throated
advocacy, back in 2004, there were concerns
by some in the industry that the Kingdom
could no longer continue to produce
abundant, cheap, easy-to-produce oil.
Abdulbaqi would hear none of such talk.
As the vice president of exploration for Saudi
Aramco at the time, the company sent him
to Washington to set the record straight.
“We have plenty of oil,” he said at the
Center for Strategic and International
Studies, a prestigious Washington, D.C.-
based think tank. “We have the potential
to add more oil than anyone else. Our
track record shows that we delivered for
70 years ... overcoming any operational,
technological, organizational and financial
concerns ... and we’re going to continue
delivering for another 70 years, at least ...
(and) we can do it at a very reasonable cost,
which makes it extremely attractive.”
That was then and, frankly, that’s still his
“I’m even more bullish,” he said more
recently. “The history of the last 20 years,
since I said it, proved me right. The
combination of quantity and quality of Saudi
reserves is still unparalleled. The ability to
put these reserves online has been tested
many times with sterling response.”
This is a leader with
defiance and pride and
born in 1944 in Acre,
Palestine. After his
family was displaced
by the 1948 war, they
went to Lebanon and
Syria before settling in
Jordan. His interest in
petroleum geology is moored in the region.
He was a contributor to the Middle East
Show, which began in 1979, sponsored
by the Society of Petroleum Engineers.
Back then, there was no venue for such
an exchange of ideas among industry
professionals in the region.
“Even with MEOS, there was no proper
forum to address exploration topics in
the Middle East. We started the Dhahran
Geosciences Society in Saudi Arabia,” he
As he remembers, AAPG was interested
but did not have the appropriate resources
at the time.
“We decided to develop the idea
ourselves,” said Abdulbaqi.
Through the years, with the help of Saudi
Aramco and the country of Bahrain, he also
played a significant role in launching the
Middle East Geosciences Conference and
Exhibition, first held in 1994.
“I was the chairman in 1994 and still
heavily involved. I served on the executive
committee of every GEO,” he said.
Years later AAPG became the conference
All of this is to say that, as far as
leadership goes, Abdulbaqi understands,
whether it is business or simple outreach,
there is an intangible dynamic in motivating
and directing subordinates and co-workers.
He said it is not something one can find in
“I learned more by doing it,” he said.
Leadership, he said, starts with integrity,
professionalism and honesty, and manifests
itself through work ethic.
“If you walk the talk and add to it open
and direct communication – open-door
practice, walk around the office and visit
remote work sites – you are on the right
track,” Abdulbaqi said.
Further, in order to successfully lead
people, he said, “You need to know the
people and what is on their mind and
care for them. Get close to them. You
have to put in the time and effort. There
are no shortcuts, either in motivation or
He differs with many of the standard
practices used to monitor development and
success in the workforce.
“Annual, quarterly performance reviews
are practiced in all in big companies, they
are beneficial but they are normally too late,”
Such evaluations and immediate
feedback, rather, should never stop, he
Life Beyond the Oil Field
As for his motivation, his drive, he said it
is due to the balance in his own life.
“I learned with time that a leader can
bring a lot from the family home experience
to the office, and vice-versa,” he said.
Which brings him to his father, Mustafa
“He was my role model for integrity, work
ethics, perseverance and caring for people.
He left a lasting impression on me as a
family man and a leader,” he related.
The son knows that without his wife
of 47 years, Abiyya Sharif, whom he said
helped him navigate the “challenging
passages” of life, and people like Jim Kline,
his first supervisor in the oil industry, for
instilling in him the importance of technical
excellence and setting high standards, he
wouldn’t be the man, or leader, he is today.
As for the industry itself, the fundamental
changes facing the direction of energy these
days, he said he wishes he was just starting
out again. To the question of regrets, well, he
“I am a happy camper. I love geosciences
and our industry. If I had the choice, I would
do it all over again. It was (and still is) good
Abdulbaqi advises people – not just
industry people – to be optimistic, to get
out of their own way, to work and play hard,
avoid burning out, and mostly to take care of
“If you are not healthy, you cannot work
hard or play hard or help others,” he said.
If none of that works, if none of that
leads you to your goals, Abdulbaqi’s advice
is pretty straightforward: “Love it or leave
it. If you like your work, you will do well and
progress comes naturally. If you do not like
what you do, make a change. Life is too