OPEC will have a new public face this summer with the election of Kuwait's Haitham al-Ghais as its new secretary general, as the bloc and its allies are hoping that a volatile oil market will be tamed enough to allow a return to pre-pandemic production levels.
The oil industry veteran was voted in by acclamation during a special meeting Jan. 3, after delegates said no other candidates emerged to succeed outgoing Mohammed Barkindo, who will have served the maximum two three-year terms when he leaves office at the end of July.
Backed by OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia and welcomed by Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Ghais will be the first Gulf official to serve as the organization's top diplomat since his countryman Sheikh Ahmad Fahad al-Ahmad al-Sabah was secretary general in 2005.
He will have the task of representing a sometimes fractious membership that has cooperated with Russia and several other key producers on a series of production cuts since 2017 to shore up the market -- most notably in the spring of 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic crashed oil prices.
While the OPEC+ group has been credited with rescuing the market from those lows with its record production cuts that are now being gradually unwound, it has also come under heavy criticism at times from the US and other consuming countries for overtightening supply. With Dated Brent still hovering near $80/b, OPEC producers can expect continued pressure not to derail the global economy's recovery.
Ghais said he one of his top priorities would be to "preserve and nurture" OPEC's ties with Russia and that his diplomatic background, having served in Kuwait's foreign ministry and been the son of a career diplomat, would be an asset to him in the role.
"It's also a testament to us in Kuwait and our policies, how we are bridge builders," he said in an interview. "This is a role that Kuwait is known for, so I will build on that."
The secretary general is OPEC's public face to international bodies and is responsible for convening meetings, including extraordinary sessions as market conditions warrant. The position also oversees day-to-day affairs of the secretariat in Vienna.
Ghais is a familiar face to ministers and is well-liked among delegations.
He served as Kuwait's OPEC governor, or No. 2 envoy, from 2017-21 and chaired the advisory OPEC+ Joint Technical Committee in 2017. He also was a member and then chairman of OPEC's internal audit committee from 2018-2021.
Since leaving his OPEC governor post, he has served as Kuwait Petroleum Corp.'s deputy managing director of international marketing. He has previously held other senior positions at KPC in Beijing and London, in a 30-year career in the industry.
"I would like to offer my cordial congratulations to His Excellency Haitham al-Ghais on his appointment, by acclamation, as the next secretary general of OPEC," Prince Abdulaziz said in a statement.
In a letter to Ghais, Barkindo said he stood ready to help him transition into the role and called him "a committed, knowledgeable and extremely able technocrat who can lead the organization in the years to come."
Barkindo will depart having helped forge what he called a "Catholic marriage" between OPEC and its non-OPEC allies, which expanded the group's market clout -- though relations have occasionally been strained, including an infamous month-long price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia in April 2020, before the two sides agreed to the record production cuts.
Barkindo is one of Africa's most high-profile oil officials and has had a long history with OPEC, having been a member of the Nigerian delegation from 1986 to 2010, along with holding several positions with Nigerian National Petroleum Corp., including as its head from 2009 to 2010.
Those close to him say he may harbor political ambitions in his home country, which is scheduled to hold a general election in February 2023.
In a statement, OPEC hailed Barkindo for being "instrumental in expanding OPEC's historical efforts to support sustainable oil market stability through enhanced dialogue and cooperation with many energy stakeholders."
Ghais said he learned a lot from observing Barkindo in his role.
"He's a leader, he's well-respected, and I think his legacy will be there for years to come," he said.
Some African members, who saw Barkindo's position as a counterweight to the perception of OPEC being dominated by its Arab heavyweights, had hoped to see him continue on, but in recent weeks, he had told delegates and ministers that he did not want an extended term.
Past secretary generals have remained in office while ministers resolved impasses over candidates, and votes have often exposed geopolitical divisions in the membership. Barkindo's predecessor, Libya's Abdalla al-Badri, served for nearly a decade, with OPEC deadlocked for years on a successor.
In the end, with Barkindo not wishing for a contested election and no other candidates emerging, Ghais was elected in what delegates described as an unprecedented easy vote.
Speaking at a Jan. 3 Joint Technical Committee meeting, Barkindo quoted the 13th century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi: "Your heart knows the way. Run in that direction."