Mayfair is an unlikely spot to find a lowly paid hack like me let alone a Palestinian oil boss. It is very much the territory of fair-skinned British and American hedge fund and private equity bosses of rude wealth. They glide along the streets in Bentleys and Jaguars and drink Tanquerey gin at £9 a pop. Mayfair is an island of gold in a sea of lead; it displays no hint of recession.
Nor does Harry’s Bar at 26 South Audley St., where I am to meet Amjad Bseisu, the chief executive of EnQuest PLC, the aggressive oil company, stuffed with refugees from Canada’s Talisman Energy Inc., which has become the biggest independent player in the U.K. slice of the North Sea.
Both Mr. Bseisu and EnQuest are odd creatures. Wealthy, self-made Palestinian oil bosses are exceedingly rare in the global energy industry and his rise was buffeted by some of the typical prejudices directed at executives of his background. And EnQuest is going where Big Oil now fears to tread. The company is showing that reports of the North Sea’s imminent death are premature.
When I roll up to Harry’s, one of London’s more exclusive clubs (with no relation to the bar of the same name in Venice) on a Monday evening in September, the doorman gives me an unsubtle sneer. Fresh from the airport, I am wearing black jeans, black T-shirt, black jacket and am lugging a black overnight bag. To him, I must look like an East London thug from a Guy Ritchie film. He condescends to let me in when I explain I am a guest of Mr. Bseisu’s. Once inside, the Sardinian maître d’ invites me to vanish – quickly please – into the men’s room and change into the jacket and tie he correctly assumes are stuffed into my bag.
The whole place reeks of old money and then I get it. To Mr. Bseisu, the ultimate outsider, a man without a country, membership in Harry’s must mean that he has landed in, and been accepted by, high-end English society.
Mr. Bseisu, 49, is rather short with a full head of thick black hair and permanent 5 o’clock shadow. He wears rimless glasses and an expensive dark suit. He obviously enjoys his career and wealth and is chatty and opinionated about everything from peak oil (he’s a believer) to Middle East geopolitics.
As we tuck into our £240-meal – fish for him, veal for me, mushroom soup and prosciutto to start – we quickly get on the topic of Israel and Iran. “Unfortunately, there is a high probability that Israel will bomb Iran,” he says, predicting that oil would hit $150 (U.S.) a barrel if it does. “The U.S. is trying to constrain them.”
Rumoured to be worth close to a billion dollars, he must be among the very richest members of the Palestinian diaspora and is not afraid to show it. Through his family trust, he recently bought an old schoolhouse in Knightsbridge and is converting it into a 10,000-square-foot family home – he and his wife Suha have two young children – complete with a double-level basement. Last December, he bought Kylie Minogue’s hybrid Lexus for £30,000 at a charity auction, removed the headrests that had been signed by the singer-actress and returned the car.
Mr. Bseisu has not always been accepted in spite of his success. During his formative 14 years at Atlantic Richfield (Arco), the American oil giant bought by BP in 2000, he lived in Texas and was routinely treated as an exotic, and vaguely menacing, stranger from afar because of his Palestinian heritage. He remembers working at a project in Kermit, an oil town in the state’s far west, where he felt as if he had landed on a different plant. “This lady would come and ask me my name every night, and she’d ask everyone in the restaurant to listen,” he says. “They all laughed, they just cracked up. They couldn’t believe someone had a name like mine.”
One of his Arco bosses suggested he would have to change his name to AJ or similar “if you are going to succeed at this company.” He kept his name and succeeded nonetheless, leaving in 1998 as president of Arco Petroleum Ventures, where he steered the company into energy-rich Algeria, and Arco Crude Trading.
Mr. Bseisu is the son of a Palestinian banker who lost his home, in Jaffa, in what is now Israel, when the Israeli state was created. “In 1948, he came back from school, found a note on the door that he should go to the port as quickly as possible,” he said. “The Israelis had given them an ultimatum. So he left Jaffa on a boat, with no possessions, and went to Gaza. Then from Gaza, he went to school in Egypt, then went to school in Lebanon, then started working in Saudi Arabia.”
At one point, the peripatetic family found themselves back in what was left of Palestine. Mr. Bseisu was born in Jerusalem in 1963 and the family moved to Bahrain two years later. The young boy was something of a prodigy, skipping three grades, allowing him to enter the American University of Beirut at age 15. That was just in time for the Lebanese civil war. He remembers a bullet whizzing through his classroom when the Syrian army was fighting the Phalangists in Eastern Beirut. “The shooting was random enough to be worrisome,” he said.
With Lebanon crumbling, Mr. Bseisu in 1979 fled to Duke University in North Carolina, where he studied mechanical engineering, then shifted to Stanford, where he received a master’s and a doctorate in aeronautical engineering. Unable to work in the defence industry because he lacked U.S. citizenship, he considered working as an engineer for IBM in Florida, was turned off by the anonymity of its vast labs, and landed at Arco. “I decided I wanted to be in oil, I wanted a link back to the Middle East, my roots are there,” he says.
His 14 years at Arco taught him the oil business, but it was his next job, at Petrofac Ltd., an oilfield services and engineering company, that gave him true professional independence and wealth. At Petrofac, he launched the operations and investment business, which saw him oversee projects in which the company would not only build the infrastructure, but take a stake in the producing field.
By the time Petrofac went public in 2005, Mr. Bseisu owned 10 per cent of the London-listed company, whose market value is now more than £5.5-billion (he gradually sold his shares after the IPO). Two years ago, Petrofac spun out its North Sea assets and merged them with those of Sweden’s Lundin Petroleum to form EnQuest. Mr. Bseisu was installed as CEO and Jim Buckee, the former CEO of Canada’s Talisman Energy Inc., became chairman. Nigel Hares, Talisman’s former international operations boss, became EnQuest’s chief operating officer.
They embarked on what Mr. Bseisu called a “scavenger” strategy, one that has proved the allegedly clapped-out North Sea still has some life left in it. As the North Sea’s U.K. production declines – oil output has fallen to one million barrels a day from three million since 1999 – the big oil companies packing up. “They become so large, that the economics of 50 million barrels of reserves is of no interest to them,” he says.
EnQuest is filling the void and drilling like mad. Production and cash flow are soaring, with compound annual growth rates of 20 per cent. By 2014, EnQuest expects to produce 33,000 barrels a day or more. Mr. Bseisu wants to replicate the scavenger model in other wheezing elephant fields off Malaysia and Norway.
On a good trading day, EnQuest is worth almost £1-billion. Mr. Bseisu is a great believer in the company – he owns 9.5 per cent of the shares. “It’s almost his company,” says chairman Mr. Buckee, who professes disappointment that the shares trade at a low multiple by North American standards, where an oil company’s cash flow trumps net asset value.
Mr. Bseisu’s goal is to turn EnQuest into a global company, pump up the share value, maybe sell the company and live well in his new adopted country – there is no going back to Palestine. “Success is measured by your internal happiness, and I am very happy,” he says.
* Born in Jerusalem in 1963, the son of a banker.
* Holds passports from Bahrain and Britain.
* Married to Suha, a Palestinian Shia Muslim (Bseisu is Sunni), who is an artist and interior decorator; they met at a wedding in Amman, Jordan.
* Two young children, a boy and a girl.
* Moving into former schoolhouse in Knightsbridge, London.
* Denies he’s a billionaire, but admits he’s “clos.e”
* Speaks English, French and Arabic.
* Spent more than half his career at Atlantic Richfield Co. in Texas, where he pushed the company into Algeria.
* Joined oil services and engineering company Petrofac in 1998 and developed its energy investment business.
* Created EnQuest PLC in 2010 from merger of Petrofac’s and Lundin’s North Sea oil assets.
* Owns 9.5 per cent of EnQuest.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
On Israel and Palestine:
“I want the Palestinians to have the same rights as everyone else who lives there … I don’t believe in a two-state solution. I want a one-state solution with equal rights for everyone.”
On Enquest’s North Sea strategy:
“Our business model is a scavenger model.”
On why he likes the oil industry:
“It’s the juxtaposition of commercial, politics, scientific, technical. It requires a wide breadth of experience and skills.”
On oil prices:
“Much beyond $130 [a barrel] is not sustainable in the long term because it’s elastic and you would see a reduction in demand.”
On London, his adopted city:
“London is more accepting of everyone. It’s the most international city and liberal in its approach.”