HASSI MESSAOUD - After persuading oil majors to help explore Algeria's vast shale gas reserves, state energy firm Sonatrach has started reaching out to a different kind of partner: mystical Sufi preachers.
Sonatrach CEO Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour and his colleagues have been courting Sunni Muslim Sufi masters from communities in areas near prospective southern gas fields to win over locals worried about possible disruption from exploration work.
The state company brings Sufi preachers to meetings in the country's southern region, where most of Algeria's energy reserves lie and which is also home to more traditional communities, to explain prospects for jobs and other benefits.
"Sonatrach has to show it cares about people. We appreciate that it invites us to attend its gatherings and conferences in the south," Sufi master Bayziz Ibrahim said at a Sonatrach meeting at Ouargla, near Algeria's biggest oilfield Hassi Messaoud.
Sonatrach has been increasingly turning to foreign firms, which have long been reluctant to invest in Algeria because of red tape and tough terms, to push up oil and gas output.
But it needs to ensure that international companies which sign up do not face protests from local communities, like the demonstrations that forced Sonatrach temporarily to halt shale exploration tests near the southern In Salah gasfield in 2015.
Sufi leaders can influence these often remote communities from their zawiyas, which are houses where people gather to listen to sermons, recite the Koran and conduct rhythmic rituals that aim to bring practitioners of Sufism closer to God.
"We will tell the people and the youth that Sonatrach's efforts are to be welcome," Ibrahim told Reuters on the sidelines of the gathering attended by people from the area, members of the local authorities and Sonatrach employees.
Ibrahim ended the meeting by leading prayers.
"You need to respect people, you need to talk to people, and the best way is to go through their spiritual leaders," said Osmani, a local at the gathering who only gave his first name.
Villagers in the south of Algeria often grumble that too much of the nation's energy wealth heads to the north and the capital Algiers, so Sonatrach has promised to build new public facilities, such as a cultural centre, hospital and stadium.
Sonatrach executives also point to the thousands of jobs it had provided in the energy industry and related work to youths in the south during the past 15 months.
More opportunities may be on the way. In October, Sonatrach reached a deal with Britain's BP and Norway's Equinor to develop Algeria's shale gas reserves, estimated to be the world's third largest.
It is seeking a similar agreement with US firm Exxon Mobil Corp.