Sara Akbar, a chemical petroleum engineer, worked in the oil sector at the Kuwait Oil Company from 1981 to 1999, and at KUFPEC (Kuwait Foreign Petroleum Exploration Co.) from 1999 to 2005. She played an important role in oil production recovery efforts following the 1990 Iraq invasion, shortly after Saddam Hussein’s army had blown up 80% of the Kuwaiti wells. Her action earned her the name “firefighter”, and she received the “Global 500 Award” from the United Nations Environmental Program in recognition of her work.

Akbar – currently the CEO and deputy chairman of Kuwait Energy — is the only woman holding a senior position in the oil and gas industry in the Middle East. Last November, she received the “Leader in Energy” award at the 2009 “Women in Leadership” Awards and Forum in Dubai. She recently sat down for an interview with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton. 

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You are famous because you extinguished oil fires after the Iraq War. What exactly did you do when you were a “firefighter”?


Akbar: Up until 1990, I was working as a petroleum engineer in the Kuwait Oil Company, [primarily] responsible for maintaining almost all the wells. My job was to find solutions to problems that came up. I had to know all the details, including the pressure, production, equipment and so forth. When wells were set on fire, we created the Kuwaiti firefighting team. I was a member of that team. We worked for about 45 days and we controlled about 42 oil wells.


Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Why have you chosen the oil sector? Is it because in Kuwait oil is important? Or is it because of your family?


Akbar: I was actually born in an oil field. My father was responsible for drilling up wells. So it was very natural; it was my environment and my habitat. When I graduated, the first thing I did was join an oil company.


Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You have a chemical engineering degree. You studied [this] because your father gave you the same chance that he gave to your brothers?


Akbar: We have a big family: We are 10 brothers and sisters. My father gave us the choice of path and career we wanted to follow — full responsibility for choosing our own life and what we wanted to do [with it]. We have been blessed to receive much love and support from our parents. We all 10 made it to university into various disciplines. There are four engineers in the family and a doctor.


Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You had a double difficulty – being a woman in a man’s sector and being a woman in the Arab world. Did you have to work twice as hard [as men] to get ahead?


Akbar: It is the case for most women. It is not specific to the oil business, or even to the Arab world. It is the same story wherever you go. I don’t really know where this comes from, how ancient this is. But up until now, women have had to fight twice as hard to prove their capacities, to get results and acquire responsibilities, to reach a management position. There are numerous obstacles limiting women’s [opportunities].


Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think it is more difficult in the Arab world or is it the same everywhere?


Akbar: Well, it varies. The Arab world is not the same everywhere. In Iraq, for example, they had a woman judge and a minister in 1959. This was a long time ago. Today, in Kuwait, it’s not even permitted to have a female judge. Some countries are very advanced and some countries are not so advanced…. If you compare Kuwait to the rest of the Gulf — for example, the rest of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries — Kuwait is top of the class in women’s rights, access to education, business and work. [At the same time], the country remains way behind in terms of political rights, which we finally got four or five years ago. I strongly believe in the “power of women,” i.e., their ability to fight for what they are entitled to and to finally win the battle. In Kuwait, this movement is quite strong.


Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: In the Arab world, women have to take care of the family, maybe much more than in western countries. How do you manage your work-life balance?


Akbar: I don’t have a precise opinion as to how it “works out” for business women in the rest of the Arab world, but here, in Kuwait, it seems easier for two reasons. First, we still have very strong ties with family here, and some people live in extended families. Being close to family definitely helps — your parents, your husband’s parents, your sister or someone else in the same house who takes care your children when you are at work. That makes life much easier for working women, [having] someone they fully trust take good care of their children. I think children remain the top priority for working women. Having family around to look after the kids when you are out is the only way you can feel not too guilty. 


Second, in this part of the world, we have access to nannies, to drivers, to cooks and to various [domestic] services. Those people serve you at very low cost. It helps a lot. It eases the pressure off any woman who works because it frees up some of her precious time to look after her career. Those two things make life easier.


Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: However, it is not enough to succeed.


Akbar: Although we have all of that, I agree the biggest challenge is to face that life-work balance. Women need to plan their life properly in order to be successful in both their career and their family. We are responsible for explaining how it works for us [in order] to help them find the right balance. Young women will have different needs during different phases of their life.


During the first years of work, just after education, you need to concentrate on learning and getting as much expertise and knowledge as you can. You have to develop and establish yourself in your business. If you try to do that along with raising a family, you will not have the right work-life balance. It’s impossible, because raising a child is a full-time job. It is necessary to plan your life, to phase it. Sometimes, your family will take more of your time than work, and the reverse. It’s a very difficult balancing act. But finding the right balance enables each and every woman to achieve her goals and become successful in both of her lives.


Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: The glass ceiling is one of the big issues for a woman. Is it one of the reasons you started your own company?


Akbar: Of course it’s still a glass ceiling. It’s not going away. But you have to be smart enough when you are confronted by it. If you cannot go through that ceiling, you can eventually move laterally and use a different path. A glass ceiling should not stop you from moving ahead.


Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You have joined Kuwait Energy, which is a private company. Why did you move from the public sector to this private company?


Akbar: I moved because I could not see myself going forward in the government sector. There is too much bureaucracy and too little flexibility. I believe I can do a lot more. I can make better use of my time and knowledge in developing a business. After 23 years in the government sector, I believe I [have paid my] dues. The company I used to work for was not very efficient and I was personally not adding value any more to the organization.


Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Is it difficult to manage a private company in a country where government holds a lot of public companies?


Akbar: Oh yes, it is challenging. But our company is not just focusing on Kuwait. We have businesses in Yemen and Oman, various companies outside of Kuwait. There, doing a lot of business is possible if you have the right contacts, the proper tools to value assets and so on. 


Of course in Kuwait, most of the assets are government-owned, which makes it difficult for the private sector to fully develop. But I believe the private sector will gradually play a bigger role in Kuwait, and we have to be prepared to seize the opportunities as they come by.


Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What is your competitive advantage?


Akbar: We normally don’t think about competitors. In our business, we like to cooperate rather than compete. There are very few independent oil and gas companies in the Middle East. We are a leader in Kuwait, one of the first. Even in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), there are only two or three other companies. So the competition is not that serious here.


Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Is it difficult for a private firm to sign contracts in a country where there is already a government oil company? 


Akbar: Not with government companies. However, we have to face competitive offers coming from other private companies…. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.


Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What do you do to win a contract? What is your competitive advantage?


Akbar: First, we are an engineering company. Most of the people in this organization are really the best in the region in terms of professionalism, technical quality and managerial abilities. Second, we have exceptional relationships with all government entities and companies as well as with national and international oil companies throughout the whole region. Third, Kuwait as a country and as a name is very welcomed because we have been active investors in many areas and we are not considered a threat. On top of that, we have exceptional technical abilities in the company to manage declining sales, to enhance production and to find oil. So, it’s a combination of management, business ability and technical ability. 


Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What are the risks your company could face in the future? Iraq will soon open six new oil [explorations]. Is it a new competitor? 


Akbar: Why is it a risk? Why would it be a risk? No, it’s not a risk. As you see now, the demand for oil is slowly increasing and the financial markets are on the rise again. So, I think the oil sector will do very well.


Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Do you have any projects in a specific country in the future?


Akbar: We will continue to work and operate in the same countries where we currently operate. We are not planning to expand into new countries. Our main activities are in Russia, Ukraine, Egypt, Yemen and Oman, and we are working on Kuwait and Iraq. We are not planning to go anywhere else.


Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: One last personal question. You won an award at Women in Leadership in November 2009. Do women identify themselves to you, and do you help them [find] the confidence they need to get out there and do it?


Akbar: Every year I make speeches to get women to be aware of their abilities. The key is that they must persevere in their efforts and work to achieve their goals. .