Many Twists in this tale Print E-mail

By Roy Kietzman » Few youngsters start off with so many hard knocks in life before successfully climbing a career ladder as Mustafa Al Sayed did.

He was just five when fire broke out in a neighbouring barasti in Hoora and completely destroyed their family's thatched hut too, leaving Mustafa, his parents and four brothers and sisters homeless. Months later his father died, and Mustafa admits that, moving to different abodes in Manama as a child made him feel like he was leading an Oliver Twist life when in later years he read the Charles Dickens novel.

"But despite adversity, our mother gave us hope and nurtured us on to greater achievements. She taught us that if God closes one door, he opens another."

Mustafa al Sayed
Mustafa's elementary education was at best scrappy, and by the time he entered his teens he had to work to help boost the family income. Most youngsters his age dreamed of becoming a pilot, a doctor or teacher. But, Mustafa says, "I just dreamed of one day being able to go to college and say I got a diploma."

In 1960, at age 13, he joined as an apprentice at Bahrain Petroleum Company (Bapco) which also provided a basic education.

At the Bapco School, he was impassioned by the adventure stories of Dickens, John Steinbeck and Pearl S Buck. But his teacher scrawled at the bottom of one of Mustafa's essays: "If this is the level of your English, you will not last in this class". That stern evaluation only prodded Mustafa on in his studies, and two years later he completed his O levels which demanded five subjects, including English.

Bapco obviously saw potential in the boy, and he was sent to London to learn mechanical engineering. He returned to Bapco to become a shift-change engineer at a power station, and, by 1970, was put in charge of the entire utility - an enormous responsibility for a 23 year old.

In 1974, the power station became a government operation, and steam was harnessed to run the facility. Someone was needed to take charge of the station. The enterprising Mustafa Al Sayed went to London for the interview, but his relative youth and the fact that he had only seven years' experience in managing a technical operation, fewer than other candidates, stood against him.

So back he went to Bahrain College for some brushing up in the world of academe and technical education. But, by that time, he was married, started a family and "was afraid I might fail".

The late Majid Al Jishi, then Minister of Works, Power and Water, had heard of Al Sayed and called him to his office saying that the country was in need of skilled Bahrainis who could accept the challenge of working in the private sector at a time when the country was diversifying from purely petroleum-based industries. Al Sayed was shortly named chief executive of Midal Cable in 1983, a post he held for five years.

Then Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa, head of the Civil Service Bureau, offered him "one of the biggest challenges of all": to head a new corporation, Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company, which was born in a climate of national challenges in the industry where traditional markets had collapsed. At the time, there was a non-availability of Bahraini skills, huge financial outlays to get the company fully operative and challenges in attracting and retaining good staff.

"I've found over the years that an enterprise, no matter how large or small, has to show that it cares for its staff, from management down to the shop floor. You have to demonstrate consideration for them, join in their happiness, share in their despair," says Al Sayed.

What he calls creative management is one of the hallmarks of his way of doing things, and that includes "mind mapping", a method of cogitating with foremen, supervisors or managers and working out snags and problem areas and exploring creative ideas to solve those problems and manage better.

"Often you can't change the market but you can adapt to it if you've got a creative system in place."

Asked to name one person who might have had the greatest influence in his life, Al Sayed said he would have to say his mother who passed away a few years ago. "She taught us that it wasn't a sin to be poor."

He credits, however, his wife Miriam with successfully building a genuine home, bringing up four children, now aged 19-29.

As retirement looms on the horizon, we wondered what plans Al Sayed might have. He surprised us by explaining that his retirement dream is to build a nursery school with modern equipment, a highly qualified teaching corps, green grounds and a bright, open environment conducive to developing the creative skills of disadvantaged tots 3-5 years old.

Doubtless, with recollections of his own Oliver Twist childhood, he would want such youngsters to start in government schools at the same level of opportunity as other children.

Al Sayed said he would also get particular pleasure out of reading stories to these children. When his own brood was younger, he would often tell them tales, usually weaving them into the adventures too. His stories also subtly taught them how to be brave, be kind to animals, care for safety, look after the environment, appreciate good food and take a high moral ground.

"Daddy, why don't you write these stories down so everyone can enjoy them?" he was asked one day.

At first he laughed at the thought but then wrote first Safe Journey to Wonderland in 1994 followed by The Tree of Life and Manar and the Beautiful Beach, much to the delight of neighbour children who could see themselves in the adventures and depicted in the drawings.

A man of many talents, Al Sayed enjoys a bit of tennis, plays a mean game of chess and sits on panels as diverse as fertilisers, marketing and education.

Having worked his way up from what others might see as a hopeless dilemma, Al Sayed sits back, a gentle smile on his face and speaks quietly, almost inaudibly.

"Bahrain's a country that gives everybody a chance to succeed and progress, provided he or she has ambition, motivation and is willing to work hard."

Published in the Visitor's Complete Guide to Bahrain 2001