Odyssey in the Middle East and North Africa

Published October 10, 2021, 12:05 AM

by Former House Speaker Jose C. De Venecia Jr.


Jose de Venecia Jr.
Former Speaker of the House

Our foray into entrepreneurship began in the 1950s, when we were lured by the romance of oil exploration and subsequently joined our friend, the late Jose Tiong, founder and president of the old oil company Redeco and a leader in the Manila Stock Exchange, who appointed us vice president of Redeco, now no longer in operation.

We had our brief delirious experience of a legitimate oil strike on hilly land in southern Cebu, where we were indeed splattered with crude oil, but as with the earlier oil discoveries in Cebu, quickly petered out with forgettable production of about a dozen barrels a day, which was meaningless since at the time the price of crude was at about $1.50 a barrel and the exchange rate then was at ₱2 to $1.

Thus we quickly abandoned the well and dropped our dreams of a meaningful Cebu oilfield.

Nonetheless our pioneering learning experience in Cebu led us to more adventurous foreign forays much later as we put together a modest international consortium and drilled a Filipino-first and Filipino-led Arab-Asian oil well in Ajman, the small Emirate in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which today includes the bustling Emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaima, Fujeira, and Um Al Quain.

We mobilized from the Philippines a large oil drilling rig which we leased from the legendary Andres Soriano oil company PODCO and engaged as well their experienced exploration general manager Mario Nieto to head our oil drilling team.

With our brother Oscar de Venecia, then president of Basic Petroleum, deploying Basic’s renowned American geologist Francis Gibson, who chose most of the sites for the first American oil discoveries in Iraq, while working previously for Iraqi Petroleum, we then succeeded to drill the first Philippine-Arab and the first exploratory well ever drilled in Ajman.

We do not remember now at what depth the oil was struck but we did hit good quality oil in commercial quantities in Ajman, nearby its richer sister Emirates, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, and we were really shouting with joy when we struck black gold there. But the glory was short-lived. With the price of oil hovering at its highest price then at $38-$39 per barrel, the price steadily and rapidly plunged downwards to what we remember at $8 per barrel.

And so, with much gnashing of teeth, we tearfully closed the first Filipino-led oil well in the Arab world even with the successful discovery. And then we began to pull out, and shipped home our oil rig and our crestfallen Filipino drilling crew after a day or two of nursing their disappointment in Dubai.

In the neighborhood, we already sensed a long threatening tragedy was unfolding. In a few months the Iran-Iraq war exploded across Basrah, on the border and confluence of Iraq, Kuwait, and Iran, near the 200-kilometer Shatt-al-Arab river area which leads to the Persian Gulf, Arab Gulf to the Arabs. In Iraq under our company (Landoil Resources) flag, we had more than 1,000 Filipinos working from Kuwait to Baghdad, building highways, sewerage systems, and mass housing.

Several years earlier, we, in a real sense, made history when we won in competitive international bidding, the operation of the Port of Jeddah on the Red Sea and deployed a more than 3,000-man stevedoring force there led by our Filipino, British, and Singaporean executives and middle managers, and immediately thereafter, also opened and operated as prime contractor the new Port of Jubail with another workforce of less than a thousand and a management team on the Persian Gulf side of the Arab Peninsula.

Winning the Jeddah port bid was in a sense a classic. To operate the Arab world’s largest seaport, as Arabia’s economic mobilization was starting and international firms were jostling over contracts, we had to quickly deploy our workforce in 60 days, when we acquired and deployed the old British Bremen tourist ship, perhaps the largest Atlantic cruise vessel before World War II, outwitting the competition, to immediately house our workforce, whereas the other European, US, and other Asian bidders declared along with their bid bonds that they would begin their Jeddah operations within about two years of mobilization since they had to first build housing barracks for their workforces.

After winning the bid, we immediately purchased the cruise ship, long parked in the Piraeus shoreline in Athens, Greece, had it towed by Dutch tug boats across the Aegean Sea into the Suez Canal, into the Red Sea, and into Jeddah to the cheering of more than 3,000 Filipinos who had just flown in from Manila and disembarked from more than 10 707 jet aircraft for their immediate port assignments in the Arab world.

As we had earlier reported these were the glorious and halcyon days where we, from the Philippines, proudly pioneered in the Arab world, in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, the UAE, and Libya in North Africa, in ports operation, electrification, oil exploration, agriculture, operations and maintenance (O&M), mass food catering, healthcare, and other public works projects as prime contractors, and not as labor recruiters, competing with the best and large international companies.

Our other Group company, Global Electrification Systems, also successfully built the extensive electricity grid in Riyadh, the Saudi capital and throughout most of Saudi Arabia’s vast central region.