Kuwait Petroleum Corporation: Searching for Strategy in a Fragmented Oil Sector

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PESD Working Paper #78


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By most measures, including Kuwait Petroleum Corporation's ability to meet its own targets, the enterprise performs poorly.  Many of the problems are traceable to the profound dysfunction and fragmentation of the government, which translate into excessive interference and incoherent governance of the sector.  Government ministers are appointed by the Emir, but then these same ministers face withering scrutiny from the elected National Assembly, encouraging excessively cautious behavior.  Sector strategy reflects the whims of the oil minister, but five different people have held this post since 2000.  Unworkable governance structures inhibit effective strategy and execution: for example, the oil minister may approve a decision in his role as chair of the board of KPC and then overturn it with his ministerial hat on.  Bureaucratic requirements including extreme micromanagement of procurement and a tortuous budget process make it nearly impossible for KPC to run like a normal oil company.  On top of these problematic interactions with government, management and engineering talent within the company itself are generally weak, notwithstanding the presence of some excellent and knowledgeable senior managers.  People are given posts with insufficient experience and knowledge-a reflection of a governance system laden with political interference in the appointment and promotion of personnel and, increasingly, removed from the frontier of the industry.

In recent years these fundamental problems have been disguised by relatively high oil prices.  The small population and large accumulated reserve funds have helped paper over the cracks, and thus these severe problems in the oil sector could persist for a long time without creating a crisis in the country.  At the same time, increasing geological challenges in Kuwaiti fields, popular resistance to more deeply involving international oil companies, and political gridlock that makes it difficult to resolve problems quickly have created a dangerous situation for the sector.  If oil prices slip as the cost basis rises and KPC lags in performance, the problems could unfold quickly in a society where the population has become used to living in a rentier society with extensive and expensive benefits and pension rights.

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