The Business Year

Close this search box.
Wael Sawan

QATAR - Energy & Mining

Diving for Pearls

Managing Director and Country Chair, Shell Qatar


Wael Sawan has a Master’s in Chemical Engineering from McGill University in Canada and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Apart from an investment banking stint with Goldman Sachs in New York, he has spent his career in the Royal Dutch Shell Group and has worked in each of Shell’s core business units. He started his Shell career in 1997 as a Field Engineer at Petroleum Development Oman, and he first came to Qatar in 2008 as Vice-President for Commercial, New Business Development, and LNG. He is a member of Shell’s Global Commercial Leadership Team, a Board Member of QatarGas, on the Management Committee of the Pearl GTL project, and also on the Management Committee of Shell’s petrochemicals venture in Qatar.

"We have been the largest spenders in the last five or six years among our peers in terms of R&D."

Shell is one of the largest investors in Qatar, having invested $21 billion since 2006. How would you evaluate the significance of Qatar’s operations for the Shell Group?

Today, Shell Qatar represents over 10% of the Shell Group, whether you use reserves, financial, or production statistics. However, I think that the importance of Shell Qatar goes beyond numbers. Shell Qatar is a story of a partnership with one of the most progressive and forward-looking national oil companies in the Middle East, Qatar Petroleum. The story of Shell Qatar over the last decade is something we can now tell shareholders and partners to explain Shell’s ability to take on arguably the most technologically complex plant in the world at Pearl GTL, and, over time, build it up and operate it efficiently. It is a demonstration of operational excellence, and I believe it has given us the wind in our sails and has affected the Group more than the numbers show.

Pearl GTL is the largest plant of its type in the world. What operational challenges has this posed for you?

Over the course of construction, at its peak, we had over 52,000 people working on this project. One way to describe it is this: some two and a half Eiffel Towers were being erected on a monthly basis for a period of six to eight months, just in terms of the steel that was going into the ground at that time. There is a huge amount of complexity in the project too, by all measures. We tend to ramp up projects of this scale over time in a way that allows us to ensure safe and reliable production. There are 3,500 technologies used in this plant, and by and large they all started up first try. Operationally, we have also been able to move this project along at a reasonable speed. With the exception of some small maintenance issues, it has gone well. If I reflect back, I am extremely happy to be where we are today.

“We have been the largest spenders in the last five or six years among our peers in terms of R&D.”

Shell Qatar recently announced two new corporate social responsibility (CSR) developments in association with Tafawoq. What are these concerning, and what other efforts is Shell making with regard to CSR in Qatar?

With regard to Tafawoq, our project management center of excellence, it is an absolutely critical part of our commitment to Qatar, and it is in partnership with Qatar Petroleum (QP) and Hamad Bin Khalifa University. We are currently formalizing a home for Tafawoq in Hamad Bin Khalifa University, and in 2012 we signed an MoU to bring the university in on the project when Her Highness Sheikha Mozah joined us in Amsterdam. This is where she also met with our CEO, and on the back of that we have really been able to cement the role of the school. In 2012, we graduated around 95 participants, and in 2013 we expect to add around 150. It is part of Shell’s global expertise in project management excellence, something that is known as the Shell Project Academy, which is ranked from a project capability perspective second only to NASA’s program in project management. QP had the confidence to partner with us following the success of Pearl GTL. It is a core part of bringing our expertise to support the Qatar National Vision 2030. The vision really is the guiding light for our CSR operations. As the largest international investor in Qatar, we have a responsibility to support the state of Qatar and its ambitions. We employ over 310 Qatari staff as part of our organization, so we are getting more and more of a Qatari character. Tafawoq is just one aspect of our work though, and we are also very focused on technology, road safety, and sports and healthy lifestyle projects.

How does this commitment to the community strengthen your relationship with Qatar?

It is a two-way street. Partly, it allows us to understand what Qatar wants. If you are out there actively wanting to contribute to society you will be listening to what society wants and learning what you can do to help. As we do this, and because we do everything in partnership with Qatari institutions, we also learn how to grow as a business within the country, but also in a more regional sense we gain an understanding of what is happening on a broader scale. It helps us to align with the evolution of the countries in the region. It is a good way for our staff to take a step outside of Shell and understand what is happening, whether by mentoring or teaching students in university or through the road safety projects, and to see what Qatar is really about.

To what extent is Shell contributing to the diversification of Qatar’s downstream sector?

One of our biggest contributions so far is our involvement in the next large petrochemical project named Al Karaana, which will be a major facility, containing the largest unit in the world for producing monoethylene glycol. We will also be producing linear alpha olefins and oxo alcohols from this project. It is a massive project, and QP is an 80% shareholder with Shell holding 20%. This contribution is really cementing this area of diversification for Qatar. Pearl GTL is a fully integrated project, but all of our products, gasoil, normal paraffins, naphtha, GTL kerosene, and base oils, are all products that a downstream project would normally produce. Between Pearl GTL and Al Karaana, it is fair to say that we are making a significant contribution to Qatar’s downstream ambitions.

Qatar is actively trying to become a worldwide center of research excellence, and you have committed $100 million in the form of your new research center in the Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP). What made Shell decide to commit in such a way to Qatar’s research ambitions?

I think research and technology are in our DNA. We have been the largest spenders in the last five or six years among our peers in terms of R&D. In 2012, we spent $1.3 billion on R&D, by far outdoing our competitors. It is our fundamental belief in the importance of R&D, in a place such as Qatar, which is so crucial for the Shell portfolio, and that led us to be convinced into opening a major research facility here. We were the first tenants in the QSTP, and we were there to anchor and support the Qatar Foundation in its endeavor. It is one thing to sign up and give money, and another to actively try to make it work. One of the things that I am personally proud of is something that is going to be a game-changer, not just for the state of Qatar, but for the world, and here I am referring specifically to our partnership with QP and the Imperial College. We have a significant commitment—$70 million—around studying carbonates and carbon capturing and sequestration. There are 30-40 PhDs employed now, and it is the largest R&D program that includes academia, the private sector, and the government all in one. Labs have opened up in the Imperial College in London and are also being moved out here. A big part of our work force in the QSTP is Qatari.

How do you deal with hiring skilled labor, and do you collaborate with universities?

Good technical talent is in short supply, and everyone is eager to grab any new talent that comes. We have been lucky here, however, as the Qatari education system has been producing some excellent talent recently. We have managed to come from employing zero Qataris 10 years ago to 310 currently, so we have been able to find some very good staff on the market. Beyond that, we tap into the Shell expatriate network and into local non-nationals, too. We have established a reputation in the market for providing good training and support, so this is attractive for potential employees. There have been five Qatarization awards given so far, and we have won four of those. That reputation has gone into the market, and we received a lot of interest in general. The focus we continue to have for employees is in good development, challenging work, and a solid future in Shell Qatar.

What are your medium-term plans and strategies here in Qatar?

For our existing assets, Pearl GTL and Qatargas 4, we are focused on operational excellence as we have invested a significant amount in the country. We need to ensure efficiency in order to pay back our investors. Looking forward, we are anchored to downstream developments with the Al Karaana Petrochemicals project, but there are also opportunities in upstream exploration, non-North Field areas, in Block D in what is known as the Pre-Khuff area. We have a 75% Shell-operated venture with 25% for CNPC, where we are currently exploring in horizons that are deeper than the Khuff horizons. We currently have a rig that is drilling there. We see growth in petrochemicals, in exploration, and, to be honest, we stand ready, with a workforce of 1,500 with all the capabilities and skills, to address any new ambitions that QP has. For us, it is about being the partner of choice for QP as it embarks on its next phase of growth.

© The Business Year – September 2013



You may also be interested in...


QATAR - Finance

Khalifa al Yafei


President, Qatar Finance and Business Academy (QFBA)

QATAR - Health & Education

Forum: Enabling Institutions



View All interviews

Become a sponsor