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On the life of the late Robert Mabro (1934-2016)
Reem Saad's profile of the oil academic 20 years before his death

Alexandria-born academic and leading analyst in the oil sector Robert Mabro died at 81 on the Greek island of Crete earlier this month. Mada Masr republishes this profile, written by anthropologist Reem Saad 20 years ago and first printed in Al-Ahram Weekly.

One of Mabro’s legacies is his role in mediating between Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Mexico over oil production cuts in 1998 and 1999. The deal facilitated the recovery of the price of crude oil by the mid 2000s, according to Bloomberg. Mabro’s mediation stemmed from a “desire to bridge differences between OPEC and oil consumers,” following the challenges of the 1970s/80s oil embargo in the Arab World.

On March 7, 1996, Robert Mabro the Alexandrian went to Buckingham Palace to receive a medal from Queen Elizabeth II. Mabro, the founder and Director of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, and fellow of St. Antony’s College, was made a Commander in the British Empire (CBE).

He is one of very few Arabs to have received such a distinguished decoration. His story is one of many surprises and sharp turns. Born to a family of Lebanese origins, people sometimes shouted at him, “hello Khawaga,” on the streets of Alexandria, and he used to insult them for it. When he went to live in England, however, he did the opposite, and insisted he was a “khawaga.” His purpose for going to England was to study economics, but it was not exactly the average “study abroad” story. Before this he turned his hand to many things, including a career in civil engineering and four years of theological and philosophical studies in a Jesuit seminary. “A life without contradictions is as tasteless as boiled courgettes,” he says.

Both his grandfathers were part of the 19th Century wave of migration from Greater Syria. Coming originally from Tripoli, their trading business took them to Alexandria, where they settled. His father’s father, Niclas Mabro, was a tobacco merchant, who married from the Khlat family, another big Tripoli family. The rumour that Mabro was Greek started because his grandfather obtained Greek protection on the basis of his commercial dealings. Mabro suggests, half jokingly, that his Greek-sounding surname may have facilitated this arrangement. He remarks that the funny thing about the protection system, which many Jewish and Christian merchants sought in order to protect their interests in case of disputes with local merchants, was that it was possible to find, for example, five brothers with five different “nationalities.” “My grandfather was ‘Greek,’ his brother was ‘French,’ and their nephew was ‘German’,” he explains.

But the Ottoman Empire world of fluid boundaries and flexible “nationalities” in which Mabro’s grandfather lived was very different from the world of nationalism and colonialism that Mabro grew up in. “That was a time when Egyptians were asking for independence and they were rather strict about who was to be considered a real Egyptian. But also the majority of the “Shawam” were a bit Westernised.

Robert Mabro is a nightmare for those who are into slotting and labelling. They will not get anywhere, especially in his presence. In fact, he welcomes such attempts, but only to amuse himself and appease his insatiable appetite for mischief. “He will take them to the water and bring them back thirsty,” as the proverb goes, very thirsty in fact. There is, however, one pigeonhole into which Robert Mabro would gladly be slotted: he is an Alexandrian Egyptian. One thing he will not joke about or make light of is his passion for Egyptian Alexandria, or “Eskenderia el-Masrawiya,” as he likes to call it.

The Alexandria Mabro grew up in was a place for everyone, yet it was undoubtedly an Egyptian city. What bothers him is the way in which Alexandria has been appropriated by Europeans — “cosmopolitan Alexandria” was a way of stealing the city from the Egyptians to whom it belonged. He argues that “foreigners” who were born and raised in Alexandria were not responsible for this imagined and imaginary construction. “You would not find any foreigner who was born and raised in Alexandria who did not feel that the city was essentially Egyptian. The ones who created the impression that Alexandria was a cosmopolitan (as in Western) city are those authors and writers who did not actually live there. They just visited, and when they looked around, they found a mix of people who spoke different languages. They then produced their beautiful writings, like Khawaga Durrell and so on. The idea of cosmopolitanism is an attractive one for Europeans because they do not have this: the English are English, the French are French and the German are German. At that time you did not find a mixture of people together in one city, except for New York and Alexandria, and perhaps Istanbul. So it was kind of exciting for them…”

Mabro does not deny that there was actually something special about the city, but that this “cosmopolitan” character had a brief history, and even at its height it did not represent the culture of the city as a whole. “I am not saying that this character did not exist, nor that it is unimportant. What I am saying is that the concern and interest in this “cosmopolitan” character came at the expense of the Egyptian part, about which you find almost nothing’s been done. When I read in French and English books that Cavafis is “the poet of the city” I get furious. Well, I’ve read every line Cavafis wrote. He does not write about the modern city. It is all about Roman Alexandria. Who is the real “poet of Alexandria”? It is undoubtedly Bayram al-Tounsi, not Cavafis. Tounsi has no mention in Western writing, except for one study at Oxford University by Marilyn Booth. Yes, Cavafis is a great poet, but he could have been anywhere: Tunis, Athens, Paris, Vienna.”

Mabro speaks with anger about the inexplicable gap in the study of the modern history of Alexandria. “The more I read, the more I get furious. Books are full of writings about Shawam, Armenians, Jews, Greeks, and nothing about Egyptians… how is that possible? They claim that Alexandria was created by foreigners, but in fact it was created by the Egyptian fellahin. At the time of Mohamed Ali, they were the ones who built the arsenal and the port and dug the Mahmoudia canal, without which there could have not been the Alexandria we know. Foreigners came later: they built some villas and brought some trade, and that’s all. You would find records about even the most insignificant of foreigners. You come to Egyptians, you find nothing. But we must search, and if there are no records we have to resort to oral history.”

Four years ago, Robert Mabro started his “Alexandria collection.” Regarding his motivation to do such a thing, he says: “One always needs something to occupy oneself with. Also, when one grows older, nostalgia always attacks. I lived in Alexandria for 26 years and I have been away from it for 35 years. Although I visit very often, I still needed something to make me feel close to it when I am away. That’s how I thought of ‘collecting.’ I collect books, maps, antiques, postcards… whatever I find. I also collect things written about it or things written by people from Alexandria.”

But we should not believe him when he adds modestly that, “this is just collecting; it is neither here nor there.”  He is far from being the possessive collector whose sole interest is to acquire and stack rare objects before others do. For him, the collection is only important insofar as it would assist his project of recovering the history of Egyptian Alexandria. He started by writing a piece about Bulkeley, the place where he was born. “There is only one idea in this piece: that despite Bulkeley being the area with the greatest foreign presence, it could not have survived without Egyptians. My memories were that the street was an Egyptian street. This is what I wrote about Bulkeley, and this is what I want to be done on Alexandria as a whole.”

Robert Mabro’s background is not the only aspect of his life that cannot be rendered in one sentence. The development of his career is no less intriguing. Although he had wanted to study medicine, the first degree of this renowned economist was in civil engineering. He graduated from Alexandria University (then Farouk University) in 1956, and started practicing straight away. Even before the results were out, one of his professors approached him for a job with one of his acquaintances, who was a contractor. “At that time we did not have money, as my father was a small employee. When I heard that I was to receive a monthly salary of 30 pounds, at a time when my pocket money was one pound a week, I jumped at the opportunity. I started in Alexandria, then the contractor sent me to Belbeis, where he had a contract for building officers’ houses. I stayed there for one year, then I was transferred to Damanhour to supervise a building site.”

This assignment was a turning point in the life of the young engineer. It led him to quit engineering forever. He faced many problems and difficult situations, which his young age and university education did not prepare him to deal with. “I can say that, in all my life, the time when I really learned something about people and about real life were the five years I worked with that contractor. My colleague was a thief, my direct supervisor was a thief, the owner of the company was a thief, his brother was a thief and his partner was a thief, and they used to steel from each other. I fell into despair, and one day, I just left and headed to the Jesuits in Cairo, and told them I wanted to be a priest. I was 26. People who knew me were justifiably shocked; for I was not that involved in religion — at least not to the extent of going into a monastery. I acted on impulse, and the move was inexplicable, even for me.”

In 1960, the Jesuits sent him to France for training, and he spent four years studying philosophy in a seminary near Paris. Although he liked philosophy, he finally reached the conclusion that he was in the wrong place. “I told them that and they told me you can leave if you want, but is there nothing else you would like to learn? I said well, I like this philosophy very much but I can’t earn a living with it. I studied engineering at home but I don’t think that what I learned would be of any use here. What I think I would like to do is study economics.” They sent him then to London to study economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). After two years, he was quite sure he was never really going to be a priest, and he left the Jesuits. “I found myself in London, unattached to the seminary, and with an MA in economics, an engineering BSc from Egypt and some philosophy from the seminary.” He worked in the SOAS department of economics as a researcher for two years. This is where he met Judy, who was to become his wife in 1967.

One day in 1969, he received a surprise phone call from the late Albert Hourani, who was at the time the director of the Middle East Centre at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, asking to meet him for lunch. Not yet used to “the English way of saying important things,” Mabro was baffled when Hourani told him: “We shall soon be advertising a position in Oxford. I would hate it if you didn’t notice that.” And he applied, and was selected for the job and became a fellow of St. Antony’s, teaching Middle East economics. It was at that time that he wrote his authoritative book on the Egyptian economy, in addition to a book on the industrialisation of Egypt. His academic interests were not confined to Egypt, but extended to other areas of the Middle East, and included his work on small industries in Iran and labour in Libya. His interest gradually shifted to the issues of oil and energy, and before long he became one of the world’s authorities on this subject, for which the ex-priest engineer is best known today.

The simplicity with which Mabro tells his story should not leave anyone with the impression that things just “happen to him.” He is in fact someone who chooses his initiatives carefully. On this, the founder and director of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies says: “In some things I am smart, in other things I am an idiot. But yes, if I put my head into something, I have to do it. Otherwise, would I have been able to create the Institute? Before the Institute, I established something called “the Energy Club” in 1976. When it worked, I started The Annual September Seminar in 1979. Then I thought: now there is the Club where people meet and talk, and the Seminar where people meet and talk… there has to be a place where people can think and produce ideas. This is where the idea of the Institute came from… I worked on it for three years, and it opened in 1983. I conducted lengthy negotiations with the Arabs, Japanese and French, and each had a different approach and interest. I think that my experience in dealing with different people in very difficult circumstances on the building sites has taught me to approach more efficiently the simpler problems that I have encountered in the academic world and in the civilised British society.”

It is admirable how the very different aspects of his background and career blended so smoothly for him. One decision he took when he first arrived in Britain put him at ease with himself and spared him many of the agonising questions that others in his position constantly confront. “I realised very quickly that however much I twisted my tongue, I will not be English, so I made a decision that I will not try to be English: I will be myself — khawaga. In Egypt It used to infuriate me to be called a khawaga, and I used to fight back. In England my attitude has been the opposite: yes, I am a khawaga. If you accept me like that, fine. If not, then goodbye. I adopted the opposite policy and it worked. But also when I took this decision, I became at ease with myself; I don’t keep asking myself these identity questions… are you English, Egyptian, Greek… Philosopher, engineer or what… I did not bother… I am what I am… I am all of these things.”

Note: This profile has been edited for republishing with permission from the author and Al-Ahram Weekly.