Mohamed Al Thani is the former Minister for Economy and Trade for the State of Qatar, as well as a published author. Also among his most notable accomplishments is the prominent role he played in the early rise of Qatar’s liquefied natural gas industry.
Born in Qatar in the 1960s as the grandson of the country’s founder, Mohamed received his early education in Qatar before seeking further education in the United States. He earned his degree in Industrial Management from Central Michigan University in 1984, and worked in Qatar’s oil and gas industry from then until 2002, when he became the Minister for Economy and Trade. In 2006, he left his position as Minister to further his education, explore entrepreneurial opportunities, and write. He earned his MBA from Duke University in 2010, and has since focused on personal investments, as well as small industrial efforts in oil, gas, and petrochemicals in Qatar. Mohamed often writes and speaks at conferences about subjects concerning the oil and gas sector. Additionally, he makes TV appearances in both Arabic and in English about topics ranging from oil and gas to the general political economy. Currently, although he is seriously considering fully embracing retirement, Mohamed is always looking for new investment and business opportunities.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
When I was studying in the US, I met another gentleman from Qatar. He came to our university by accident. He was studying for a Ph.D. in gas engineering, but he came to the wrong university. His school was completely different, but the names of the schools were similar. While he was there, though, he wanted to talk to Arab students, to meet them and see what they thought of the place. This was around 1982. I asked him why he was studying gas engineering, and he said that Qatar has found a huge gas field underneath its sea that would likely be the economic future of the country. He was studying because he wanted to go back and work in the gas field. I didn’t take him seriously at first, but when I spoke with some well-placed people after I came back home between studies, I learned that there was a lot of talk about this field and that it might, in fact, be developed. I changed my major from economics to industrial management, which was the closest field that my university would accept. So, I graduated with a major in Industrial Management and Supervision, and a minor in Economics.
When I came back home to Qatar, I was sent to a steel factory at first. But I refused, and a six-month struggle ensued before I was accepted in the oil industry. That is how it all started.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Right now, I’m running a small business, so I come into the office more to enjoy time with my co-workers than anything else. I will do some research, which consists of monitoring certain markets, news, and geopolitical developments. Other than that, during a typical day, I will meet with people to talk about general things, and show my face so that people are aware that I’m around. I don’t usually go straight home after work. I’ll play tennis or sometimes go to the gym to work out. I end the day at home.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I love reading. The more I read, the more ideas come to me. Although I don’t really read newspapers anymore, I still like to know what’s going on. With the news that is conveniently brought to your phone these days, you don’t even need to watch the news on television anymore, as long as you are linked to certain providers. Aside from that, I’m always reading a book about something that interests me. I’m mostly interested in reading about religions and political economy. Sometimes history, as well. These are the topics that cause my brain to become active and give me ideas. I also look at how people are running organizations, whether it’s a government agency or whether it’s a business, and I see how well or how poorly they’re faring. My mind is always looking for ideas. Every week, I try to bring something new to the table.
What’s one trend that excites you?
When the markets go up, when everything is positive, that is exciting to me. I cannot forget the days when COVID started to take its toll on peoples’ lives, on peoples’ businesses, and on peoples’ livelihoods. I remember the palpable feeling of fear that was present everywhere. That depressed everyone. From March to July of last year, we managed things, but people were scared. So, seeing the news throughout the world, not just in the economy but in general, that the world is back to behaving somewhat normally, that is the trend that most excites me. Once again, thankfully, there are so many new opportunities.
To be more specific, there is a trend in oil and gas that is becoming very, very interesting. Right now, there is a lot of pressure on western companies and on international oil companies like Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and so on. The climate change groups are pressuring them to reduce their carbon emissions. Other producers outside the western world, while they are trying to show goodwill and trying to prevent emissions, are not under the same kind of pressure. If we lose a large chunk of oil production from western companies, we may see a spike in oil prices, because the world cannot meet the demands of electricity production, petrochemical requirements, jet fuels, the transportation industry, and industrial activities. All of those sectors of the economy still require large quantities of oil and gas to operate, and they will for a good 30-50 more years, at least. If you have an electric car, you still need reliable electricity. So, I think the oil industry may see price increases if the big western and international companies are afraid to produce due to environmental pressures.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I have something inside me that is like a spark. If I miss something, whether it be in business or in my personal life, I don’t feel good. I feel as if I’m a little off—as if my day is missing something. It’s hard to describe but there’s a spark when I open my eyes in the morning, and I ask myself if I’ve missed anything, and if I need to jump out of bed to take care of something.
I’m also not the sort of person who likes to stay at home. I try to spend at least half of the day outside doing something, and I thank God that I still have the power and the energy to do it. So, I think the habits of constantly being aware of my surroundings, putting myself out into the world, and exercising on a daily basis all help me to be more productive.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I was raised during the late ’60s and the ’70s. At that time, if you lived in our society as an adult, education was not that well established. Proper education in Qatar started in the late ’40s. To illustrate, when I attended high school, there were very few graduates. So, my advice to my younger self would be that the only path for a bright future is to get the best education possible—to pursue an education that will take you somewhere important, and that will help you serve your country. Luckily, my younger self did in fact focus on getting the best education available and earned admittance to go to a western school. I was taught through Grade 12 only in Arabic, so I had to learn to speak English from the Indians that used to work in Qatar at that time. I didn’t speak it very well or have much of a chance to practice, but when I went to the US, I was able to communicate a bit and I learned quickly.
I would also tell my younger self to remain in close contact with my father and my mother. I was the first in my family to go to the US. My older brother went to England to study, and he was able to return to Qatar more frequently during his studies. But the US is so far that I only went back once per year. I would advise myself to stay in closer contact with my mother and my father, and my brothers and sisters.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
It is my belief that the use of gas as the most efficient, reliable, and safe fuel will remain for many years to come.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
To have a clear mind about what you want to do with your life. You don’t just jump into businesses or investments unless you are first convinced of their merit and know what you want from your participation. You need to fully understand the risks and the rewards attached to such things, and you need to look at it from a professional viewpoint. If you are in doubt or you don’t know the subject or business very well, I would say don’t participate. Just don’t do it. There’s the chance that it might work, but the chance of it not working is much bigger, and it can push you back in life. Life is about having a clear vision of what you want to do and where you want to end up.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
If I’m looking at investing in a product, my strategy is to look at the scarcity in the market. I look at the competitors. I don’t like to jump into territory where many people have already staked a claim, because the odds are good that I will be bruised and beaten by those who were there before me. So, I primarily look at unique opportunities that nobody has seen or considered. That’s my strategy. I look at my competitive and comparative advantage, and if I see that it is economically rewarding, and if I have the funding to do it, then I’ll do it. But I’m not a believer in copying others, or competing with others on the same products and the same ideas. I’m always doing something new and different.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
In my line of work, the biggest challenge, honestly, is when raw materials or shipping costs just shoot through the roof without any reason or expectation. I’m new at this—I started 9 years ago—and my team and I are only just starting to feel like we have our footing.
Look at the challenges related to the drop in oil in 2014/2015. If you had real estate in the Arab Gulf, it went down in value. Why? Because the income of the state is based on the prices of energy. First, the markets tend to react psychologically, so when the prices of oil and gas go down, and your business is based around those resources, you’re in trouble. Second, if you are buying materials that are derived from oil or oil production, and oil goes up, the prices of those products go up. If they’re at $100 one day, and then the next day they’re at $150, you’re in trouble. And this very thing has happened as recently as this year when things rebounded from the pandemic.
We also have a scarcity in shipping. As an oil or gas provider, you agree to deliver large quantities of the stuff to people with contracts set at certain terms, even though the shipping prices are always in flux. For example, let’s say you make an agreement with a client, and let’s also say you based your per-ton shipping prices at $100. You signed a contract. You are bound to it. But now, out of the clear blue sky, prices change, and the shipping cost is now all of a sudden $270 per-ton. Then it becomes a crisis, because those inflated costs were not included in the budget. Problems like these rear their heads far more often than you might think, and they must be overcome on a case-by-case basis.
As we speak, very intelligent people are working on solving these problems, but luckily, these are not big problems for me because I run a small operation compared to the others. We talk to our clients to see how we can help them or how they can help us. But these situations are painful when they happen. And the whole world is having these problems.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Invest in renewables or think of a new idea to create a new product or service that people need.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I spent $100 on a bunch of stock whose shares were worth $0.25 at the time of purchase. Honestly, it was one of those cryptocurrencies. I don’t typically invest in that stuff, but I was told about it, and I allowed myself to put $100 into it. That investment went up over 2000%. I haven’t sold it—it’s still in my portfolio. In hindsight, I can say that a $1000 investment would have been better. The key to these small investments is to make them when you are young, and to hold on to them.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
The thing that helps my business the most right now are these virtual conferencing platforms that you can connect to through your iPhone. Take Zoom, for example. It has advanced our lives so much that we don’t even have to go to the office anymore. I could stay at home all year and run everything from there, if I felt like it. I don’t want to sit at home and see the same people every day, though. I want to go out and see new human beings and then come back. But the technology is remarkable.
I can move things smoothly between my laptop and my phone. I can talk to people clearly on my iPhone or on my computer. I do have concerns about security, but these telecommunications devices and services have advanced us as a society so much. For example, I am currently in France, but I can open my iPhone and see the people in my factory working, loading, unloading, and manufacturing. I can talk to people in my house. I can be close to the events of the world. In the interests of my business, it’s very helpful for me to be able to get information as fast as possible. So, I look at oil prices, inflationary movements, gold, the value of the dollar versus other currencies, and so on. I’m subscribed to multiple news providers, and I’m receiving data all the time, far faster than it would arrive on TV.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I would recommend Bits, Bytes, and Barrels: The Digital Transformation of Oil and Gas by Geoffrey Cann and Rachael Goydan. It is an insightful analysis of how the oil and gas sector is presently in a transformative state, as well as the industry’s probable future.
What is your favorite quote?
“A century ago, petroleum—what we call oil—was just an obscure commodity; today it is almost as vital to human consumption as water.” James Buchan said that sometime in the 1970s, I think. I’ve always felt it was very observant and very true.
- When you see a new opportunity, don’t be afraid to change course to meet that opportunity.
- Seek to fully understand your intended course of action with an endeavor before you jump in.
- It’s often better to find a new market than to try to be the new player in an existing market.
- Keep up with the news, so you can be aware of how current events will impact your business.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.