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An oil industry novel that reads like the real thing

Not surprising since the author was privy to years of Opec intrigues and back room deals

Gulf News

What happens when a well-known energy consultant turns novelist? What happens if he uses the experience of old stories, contacts, conferences and even romance to be woven into a true thriller where Opec and Middle East politics are prominently central figures?

The result is “The Sacred Sands” written by Vahan Zanoyan, a retired “global energy expert with over thirty-five years of experience serving as a consultant to numerous international and national oil companies, banks, and other public and private organisations”. And he is also my friend.

Surprisingly, there aren’t many novels where Opec and oil policy is central except perhaps “The Crash of 79” by Paul Erdman and still reads like today’s headlines. The plot, set in the late 1980s, has “some of the largest exporters of crude oil are colluding to bring down the price of oil” after the failure by Opec and non-Opec producers.

The central figure in “The Sacred Sands” is James Blackburn, an American by necessity, and “advises oil traders, oil producing governments as well as the CIA and the US Department of Defense, to uncover a brewing conflict in the Middle East” towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the two wars that followed.

Throughout the plot, the impact on policy and oil price movements is like reading in a specialised report. The romantic element comes via an Opec assistant, who also acts as a source for Blackburn. The conflicts in a relationship are as wild as those in the oil market or the varying interests of clients.

I am not a literary critic and I leave that to the readers or to the more specialised. But what I am interested in are the great lessons from reading this book. The back cover tells us that “With an inside look at foreign policy and the geopolitically charged oil industry, “The Sacred Sands” is a different kind of mystery, one that educates as it entertains, and warns us to beware our history, before it becomes our future.”

We know how geopolitical factors have — and continue to have — a great impact on the oil markets and the novel is never short of proof on this. Opec often complains about speculators in the futures market and the novel tells us in gripping detail how traders engineer price movements and which makes oil market participants lose or gain millions.

We often hear about hedge funds and their role in oil market operations. They guarantee a future price for a producer for a small fee. If the price falls, the producer will only lose his fee, but if the price rises, the upside is shared equally between the producer and the hedge fund. The novel explains this through its characters like an economics textbook.

Opec meetings and how they are followed by consultants, company representatives, traders and the media are an essential narrative in more than one chapter. The lively Vienna hotel lobbies are essential places where to follow what is going on. Reading this part of the novel made me feel like I was actually living the events back in 1987 when I was working for Opec Secretariat.

The consumer side is not forgotten and the writer takes us to Japan, a technologically advanced oil consuming country with limited opportunities in oil production. And where major oil companies are deliberately excluded from having a share in Japanese companies. The way Japan is looking to change that is informative and the agreements and disagreements between Japanese companies and government entities make for essential reading.

The author, Zanoyan, was recently invited by Webster University in Geneva to talk about his book to the students of a “Global Energy Economy” course. Rightly so as the novel is so close to a textbook on “the political economy of crude oil”, where technical analysis is less important than “policy aspects, the geopolitical shift, the competitive environment of the large commercial interests, and the strategic challenges faced by both governmental and commercial actors — none of which could be quantified or entered into a spreadsheet”.

Zanoyan’s choice of characters is so real and I could easily associate them with a large number of real-life individuals. In the space available to me it is difficult to give justice to the book, but I only wish the author told more inside stories about Opec and less about the unfortunate history of the Middle East.

The writer is former head of the Energy Studies Department at the Opec Secretariat in Vienna.