Challenging Perceptions: Journeys in the Global Oil Industry

Working in the global petroleum industry I’ve had the privilege of travelling to places I would never have visited otherwise. These journeys often provided remarkable encounters that challenged my preconceptions of different countries and cultures – and of the petroleum industry itself. The world is a complex place, but what we read in the news headlines is often oversimplified or misrepresented.

Here are some stories that made me think different about the world, appreciating its diversity and its multi-layered, nuanced nature – from gender equality in Islam to the redefinition of tropical paradise, from Norwegian liberalism to what it means to work in oil and gas.

world map

Locations featuring in the stories below.


Houston, Texas

Houston, the world’s oil capital, is a sprawling concrete jungle with endless freeways and shopping malls. People wear cowboy boots and eat man-size steaks. The dress code in oil companies consists of slacks, polo shirts and gym-sculpted bicepses. The 61st Mayor of Houston (2010 to 2015) was an openly gay woman with a green liberal agenda; she was re-elected twice, totalling three terms.

Feel free to read that last sentence again.


Mirror cube in the Museum of Fine Arts Sculpture Garden, another surprising find in Houston. (2013)



Tripoli and Sahara Desert, Libya

I visited Libya during Gaddafi’s regime in the late 2000s, after the lifting of economic sanctions. Tripoli had become a thriving boomtown with good infrastructure; clean and safe to walk around. Out in the desert, however, we were faced by a silent danger imported from European shores: German landmines left behind from World War II. In many areas we had to rely on bomb disposal experts to clear the way for seismic survey crews.

Today, Gaddafi’s dictatorship has gone, and the country has imploded into civil war. But in some areas those landmines, lurking beneath the sands, still pose a greater danger than anything that is happening above the surface.


German landmines from WWII, somewhere in the Libyan desert. (2007)



Seria, Brunei
Jakarta, Indonesia
Oman, Muscat
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The gender equality I’ve come across in Islamic countries is often more evenly balanced than anything I’ve seen in the West. This is particularly remarkable for technical disciplines such as geomatics and IT.

In Brunei, for example, almost 50% of the 30-strong geomatics department I once audited were female. These women occupied mostly junior positions, but western oil companies can only dream of such ratios. Some years later, one of these women was posted to her parent company in Europe, climbed up the ranks and returned to the Far East to become Head of Geomatics for the whole Asia-Pacific region.

It was a similar story with a major Jakarta-based operator: both the GIS and IT managers I dealt with were Muslim women. And in Oman, the Head of GIS at a ministry I worked for was a local women with nearly 20 years of technical experience. Next door, at the national oil company, one third of board directors (5 out of 15) were Omani women.

Once, when a client opportunity came up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, we sent our people with the most relevant experience and expertise for this particular project. The fact that all three of them happened to be women did not raise any concerns, and the project was as successful as any other. It makes me proud to work with people who do the right thing regardless of any preconceptions other people might have.


The Sultan Qaboos Mosque at Muscat, Oman, is a marvel of modern Islamic architecture. (2014)



Perth, Australia

“Paradise is not some place you can look for… It’s how you feel for a moment.” – Alex Garland, The Beach.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Perth a few times on business. When schedules allowed I naturally headed for the beach. But Perth is also a windy place and, by evening, the sea was often too choppy to swim or surf. When I did get a swim in, it wasn’t always that pleasant. One day I got stung by a jellyfish. On another, a teenage surfer had a close encounter with a small shark (luckily it ended with just a few scratches). I had lived in Sydney many years ago, but this was not how I remembered paradise.

One day, though, I returned to Perth to find a major sculpture exhibition taking place on the beach. It was a stunning scene, with over a hundred artworks made of glass, metal and stone. The sun was just beginning to set and the sculptures reflected the vanishing daylight like giant amplifiers, magnifying the sense of occasion. The balmy night air filled with the sound of crickets and cockatoos, carried by the smells of dune grass and Norfolk pines. The full moon came up and, searching for the Southern Cross, I noticed that the Orion constellation was upside down – a reminder of how far away from home I was.

It was by now too late to go for a swim, but that didn’t matter. The unexpected sight of an art exhibition had erased my preconceptions of what I should be doing on a white sandy beach. It was perfect.

Later that night I went back to my city-centre hotel and badly missed my wife and children at the other side of the world. The moment was gone.


Sculpture exhibition at sunset on Cottesloe beach, Perth. (2015)



Port Harcourt, Nigeria

One of the joys of travelling to far flung places is to experience cultural differences. Like things I never knew were a problem:


Health & Safety concerns in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. (2005)



Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Astana, Kazakhstan

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Progress means different things to different people. In high-growth economies it tends to spawn tall buildings and shopping malls. The resulting familiarity of finding an Apple shop sandwiched between Starbucks and Louis Vuitton can be mind-numbing, like a geographic version of Groundhog Day. Add to that the packed schedule of a business trip, and there is often no time left to sample true local culture.

In Dubai, where I stayed for one night and ended up feeling I’d seen everything there is to see, my cultural highlight was the purchase of two duty-free bottles of Bombay Sapphire. To my great annoyance I left them behind on my flight home, maybe as a subconscious act of rebellion.

In Astana the architecture was positively bonkers, but at least it was in keeping with the local sense of humour. Apart from almonds and horsemeat, however, there was little else to differentiate Kazakhstan’s capital from any other global metropolis – which was probably the intention.

In KL I was repeatedly told “there is lots to see”.  But no matter how far I wandered around the city centre, it was impossible to escape the grip of luxury consumerism. When I enquired about what else there might be to do, someone suggested Times Square. I checked it out the next day: it was, of course, another shopping mall. And the best food I had all week was Japanese.

Vietnam, finally, provided a glimpse of how economic progress may retain a local vibe. Ho Chi Minh City was a curious blend of colonial history, communist capitalism, and distinctly Vietnamese street culture. Yes, there were western shops, a French cathedral, and even an Opera House playing Bach and Handel, but all of these were counter-balanced by busy streets filled with locals going about their daily business. Reassuringly, the city somehow retained its own madness, including millions of scooter riders that flowed through the streets like water – no traffic lights required.


Progress (clockwise from left): Astana, Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh City. (2013-2015)



San Diego, California

America is not renowned for being pedestrian-friendly. But America is also the country where everything is possible. And so, America is – of course – home to the only major city I know where everything, including the international airport, is within walking distance. There is a car park on top of the hill where you can almost touch the wheels of landing planes.

San Diego is one of my favourite destinations in the petroleum industry. Not just for its fabulous climate, but for the inspiration it provides as the host city of an important event: Esri’s annual GIS User Conference. During this time over 15,000 delegates from every conceivable industry sector converge from around the world to share their passion about maps and geography. It is literally a breath of fresh air. And not just because you can walk everywhere.


View of San Diego airport from a residential street. Photo by Eric Harmatz (2007) on Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons.



Aberdeen, UK

I used to visit Aberdeen quite regularly. It never rained when I was there. I don’t dare go back now, in case I break the spell.


Heading into the Cairngorm mountains near Aberdeen, Scotland. (2009)



Cairo, Egypt

I remember the pyramids, and the grumpy camels. I remember the death-defying taxi ride to the airport, wondering whether it may be my last.

But I remember mostly Mohammed, our host. He wore trousers with braces and big, thick-framed glasses, and he had a wicked sense of humour.

Every time Cairo makes the news I can’t help but think of Mohammed.


Sunset over Cairo. Photo by Loic Lagarde (2009) on Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons.




At Changi Airport I once missed a connecting flight. The only option of getting to Perth on time was to buy a new ticket with another airline. But the cost I was being quoted was preposterous, and the flight options limited. I tried another desk, where a friendly ticketing officer tipped me off about a travel agent that was quietly tucked away in a remote corner of the underground lobby. Indeed, this agent had seats on flights that only 10 minutes earlier I was told were full – and for much cheaper. But there was a catch: cash only.

So here I was in Singapore, one of the most advanced and connected cities on earth, securing my seat on an intercontinental flight like a dodgy dealer – with a massive pile of dollar bills.

In times of emergency, cash is still the most powerful currency. (And luckily the ATM didn’t eat my card.)


Departing Changi Airport on an intercontinental flight paid for, 3 hours earlier, entirely in cash. (2015)



Above China

I’ve never been to China, except for Hong Kong airport and a brief hike in the nearby mountains of Lantau Island between connecting flights. Perched on top of a mountain ridge, looking down at the South China Sea, was not very different to being in an aeroplane – except for the fresh air, of course. And, walking past a giant Buddha statue, I learned that Chinese people love selfie sticks.

But that’s my entire experience of China in a nutshell. Even though I’ve crossed its length by air a number of times, I basically don’t know anything first-hand about the most populous nation on Earth.

It’s the same story with many other countries in the world. I’ve seen Mount Fuji in Japan, or Mount Elbrus in Russia – but only through a protective layer of plexiglass.

If you fly over a country at 30,000 feet, or touch down at one its airports, or even decamp to one of its nearby hotels, have you actually been there? As a frequent business traveller I’ve visited many places, but how many of these were more than just a simple shift in spacetime coordinates?


Top: Full moon and mountains, somewhere above China. Bottom: View atop Lantau Island, near Hong Kong airport – note the giant Buddha on the ridge. (2014-2015)



Stavanger, Norway

Norwegians, like all Scandinavians, are renowned for their open and egalitarian attitudes. But on successive trips to Stavanger I found the limits of their liberalism in a graffiti depicting Mona Lisa in a pose deviating from da Vinci’s original masterpiece:


Graffiti depicting Mona Lisa in Stavanger, Norway. (April vs October 2013)



The Hague, Netherlands

Holland is where I started my career in the oil industry. I was first posted to regional operations in a northern town, followed by an assignment at global head offices in The Hague. This dashed some of my preconceptions of the industry.

As anywhere in the Netherlands, most staff commuted by bike or tram. Not only did they slightly dent their employer’s oil revenues in doing so, but many of the geoscientists I worked with were active outdoor enthusiasts with a natural affinity for the environment. One senior geologist I worked with was a proud member of Greenpeace; he went on to lead oil exploration teams in Africa and Russia.

Everyone was made to attend countless Health, Safety, and Environment briefings. People obsessed about healthy, ergonomic work places. Holding the handrail on the stairs was mandatory at all times. Environmental standards were such that often no expense was spared to get permission to drill, whether by wrapping an entire rig in a sound-absorbing cocoon or rerouting a pipeline to avoid whale breeding grounds.

As a group of GIS analysts we mapped oil and gas assets, but we also mapped environmental sensitivities and animal migration paths. In one project I helped locate a massive wind farm off the Dutch coast; the success of this project largely depended on offshore expertise derived from decades of oil and gas experience.

The energy industry is huge and complex, but mostly it’s an industry that is changing dramatically. These experiences have marked new beginnings in every sense of the word. Long may it continue.


Wind turbines in the Dutch North Sea, installed using expertise and investment from the offshore petroleum industry. (2007)


Text and photographs by the author, unless indicated otherwise.
World map made with ArcGIS Online, where this post originally appeared as a story map.