From Bedouin boy to oil minister

H.E. Ali Al-Naimi (left) answers questions from the audience during his 2017 Winter Enrichment Program keynote lecture on January 8, with James Calvin (right), KAUST vice president for academic affairs, acting as moderator. Photo by Lilit Hovhannisyan

​​In April 1944, the then American-owned oil company Aramco (later Saudi Aramco) opened the Jabal School, the first company school, in Dhahran, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Established to help educate boys under 18, by the mid-1940s, the school found itself with one of Saudi Arabia’s most famous future figures as a pupil. The student was Ali Ibrahim Al-Naimi, a 9-year-old illiterate Bedouin boy.

He would later become president and CEO of Saudi Aramco and, in 1995, Saudi Arabia’s minister of petroleum and mineral resources. His Excellency Al-Naimi also serves as chairman of the KAUST board of trustees, and has been a part of the University since its beginnings.

Studying in the ‘university of life’

“I was born in 1935 in the Eastern Province, and the only education on offer then was in the university of life,” Al-Naimi told an audience of KAUST faculty, students, staff and community members at a 2017 Winter Enrichment Program (WEP) keynote lecture on January 8. There, he discussed his recent autobiography “Out of the Desert: My Journey from Nomadic Bedouin to the Heart of Global Oil.”

“By the age of 4, I was working as a shepherd boy for my family for our sheep. I was lucky, though—although I didn’t know it, I had been born in the right place at the right time. When they discovered oil in Saudi Arabia, my life and the lives of others would never be the same again,” Al-Naimi said.

Education and hard work

Al-Naimi’s older brother Abdullah became an Aramco employee, and one day, he recounted, Abdullah told him, “Come on, Ali—we are going to school.”

“I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded like fun,” Al-Naimi said, beginning his two years of education at the Jabal School. He then became an Aramco employee—an office boy—and was later sponsored by the company to study in the U.S., completing degrees at Lehigh University and Stanford University. After returning to work for Aramco again, he became vice president of Producing and Water Injection in 1975, and was one of the first Saudis to become an Aramco executive. He became president of the company in 1984 and CEO in 1988.

“Education has played a vital role in my life, and it is important to discuss this while at KAUST,” Al-Naimi said. “What I really learned during my education was how to work hard—it was a lesson in life that I never forgot.”

The secret of success

“When I was very young,” he continued, “someone asked me what I wanted to do when I was older, and I said I wanted to be the president of Aramco, but I didn’t know what this meant. It sounded good—and it came true.

“I was looking forward to retiring from my position at age 60 when King Fahd asked me to become minister of petroleum and mineral resources, a position I held for more than 20 years. When people ask me what the secret of my success is, I tell them there is no secret—it all comes down to hard work. My advice to all of you here is to work hard.”

Education and society

“KAUST is an example of harnessing human talent in a small environment,” Al-Naimi said. “We have to start by assuming that education is the first thing you need to focus on in any society. Without great education for society, there is no hope for it—superior education advances us.

“I see some of the world’s brightest intellect here. Humanity faces some major challenges, and KAUST was set up to tackle those challenges. In many ways, you are fortunate to have been born at this time in human evolution, when we have the benefit of history and the ability to think into the future. You need to succeed in your efforts to help the planet and future generations. Think hard, think big and face the impossible.”

‘A great future’

Al-Naimi also discussed the Kingdom’s movement towards a knowledge-based economy.

H.E. Ali Al-Naimi speaks about his life at a 2017 Winter Enrichment Program keynote lecture on January 8.​​ Photo by Lilit Hovhannisyan​

“The potential to do things at great scale is here—all we have to do is work hard,” he said. “If you combine the intelligence of men and women with what is already available in the Kingdom, you have great potential for a great future when you put it all together.”

However, one can’t go about building this future alone, Al-Naimi noted. “It takes effort to create, develop and get things right,” he said. “If you want to develop something, you can’t do it by yourself. You need people to help you do this, and you need to respect those people. To be a leader, you must respect every human being that you lead.”

Although Al-Naimi held one of the world’s most powerful economic jobs for over two decades, he said, “I’ve always done what I had to do. When I was 4 years old, I had to tend the sheep, so that’s what I did. Looking back, I would have done the same things—maybe not tend the sheep, but certainly everything else!”

- By Caitlin Clark, KAUST News