ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Today, Planet Money's Alex Blumberg brings us the story of the unlikely man at the center of Norway's strategy, and the lessons he has for Libya.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So first off, just how bad is it, having lots of oil?
MARTIN SANDBU: It's awful. Most countries would probably have been better off without oil than they are with oil.
BLUMBERG: So how did Norway avoid this fate? A lot of it was due to this guy.
FAROUK AL: My name is Farouk al-Kasim.
BLUMBERG: Kasim not a Norwegian name, right?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KASIM: No, it isn't.
BLUMBERG: Al-Kasim is Iraqi. And for over a decade, he worked in Iraq for an oil company. He was trained as a geologist. But in the 1960s, al-Kasim and his wife, who is Norwegian, decided to move to Norway. Their son had cerebral palsy and needed medical care. Job-wise Norway seemed, at the time, like the worst place in the world for an oil guy like al-Kasim.
KASIM: You see, the Norwegian Geological Survey had already said that there is no hope in heaven of ever finding oil or gas.
BLUMBERG: Al-Kasim figured, worst case scenario, he'd drive a taxi. But it turns out al-Kasim's skills were needed in Norway. Even though Norway's geologists had said there wasn't oil, companies were still out there looking for it. And so, the Norwegian government hired al-Kasim to review the reports these companies were sending in about their explorations. And what he saw in the data was surprising.
KASIM: Remember, the country was saying there is no way there's oil out there. And here I am looking at data that says, my God, they have already found it four times over. Admittedly, not yet commercial size.
BLUMBERG: Not yet anyway. But around a year later, the Ekofisk oil field was discovered, a massive find. Norway was officially rich. Now, how to keep the riches from destroying them. Al-Kasim and a colleague wrote a series of proposals that found their way into a government plan that most people credit with saving Norway from the oil curse.
SIEGEL: limit the amount of oil money there is. Don't drill everything at once. As you might imagine, this plan didn't go over so well with everyone.
KASIM: It was received with skepticism by the industry, who wanted Norway to go full-speed ahead.
BLUMBERG: Again, journalist Martin Sandbu, who himself is Norwegian.
SANDBU: It's been saved in an oil fund, a savings fund, and the government only gets the interest on the financial wealth that's in that fund. The trust fund is, I haven't checked the latest numbers, but it's on the order of $500 billion now, which amounts to $100,000 dollars per Norwegian citizen.
BLUMBERG: Does anybody in Norway say - you know what, I just want that money now? Can you just give me $100,000?
SANDBU: Surprisingly few.
KASIM: Well, that's what I call the Norwegian Miracle.
BLUMBERG: Again, Farouk al Kasim.
KASIM: The Norwegian Miracle is that all the parties in parliament agreed on a policy. And they agreed among themselves that they will never use oil policy as a subject during elections.
BLUMBERG: For NPR news, I'm Alex Blumberg.
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