A Postcard from Kazakhstan

Hilary Walsh is a controller and business services manager for ExxonMobil Kazakhstan Inc. Having worked for ExxonMobil for the past 34 years, Hilary took on the assignment in Kazakhstan two years ago. Here, she writes about her experiences…

A Postcard from Kazakhstan
Image: Hilary Walsh

“If I’m honest, I think I would have struggled to spell Kazakhstan let alone find it on a map, so it was a surprise to all (myself included) to find myself two years ago agreeing to an unaccompanied assignment to a country that I knew little about.

“Despite being the ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan is part of the globe that is still undiscovered by many. It has had a turbulent past, but the locals are extremely friendly, very hospitable and have great fortitude – many have become good friends.

“Kazakhstan has access to huge reserves of Crude and Gas and although ExxonMobil doesn’t operate here, we are partners in two large ventures (Kashagan and Tengiz) that provide significant cash and profit for the Corporation.

“The affiliate has two offices, one in Nur-Sultan, the modern capital and cultural centre of the country, and one in Atyrau (where I am based). The latter sits on the north side of the Caspian Sea, close to the drilling operations, and is much more limited in terms of entertainment. It has a slightly more temperate climate than the capital, but annual temperatures still fluctuate between minus 30 and plus 30 degree centigrade! There are just three ExxonMobil expats in the Atyrau office and only 30 secondees with the operators. This makes the expat community relatively small.

“The experience so far has been unexpected. 2019 flew by with multiple business trips overseas and the chance to catch up regularly with family. The work is exciting and challenging and the small team not only manages its own affiliate work (requirements for everything with wet signatures, stamps and translations into three languages) but also works to influence the Government on creating a better investment environment. We work with the operators to ensure that we protect the very significant investment we have here whilst pursuing competitive growth opportunities and try to align with our partners to achieve the above.

“As a country that borders China, we felt the impact of COVID-19 ahead of Europe. Kazakhstan reacted quickly by either stopping flights from high-risk countries or requiring isolation on arrival, often in state infection hospitals. The use of masks became mandatory very quickly and I couldn’t understand why the UK didn’t introduce similar regulations early on.

“Although Kazakhstan was initially managing the virus well, the numbers began to rise and with more limited medical care (hospitals, doctors, PPE, drugs etc.) we had to decide whether our non-essential secondees should leave Kazakhstan and how to protect our local staff in the offices.

“We took a strong approach, going beyond Kazakh laws to keep everyone protected. But this was a hectic time, with regulations changing regularly and risks constantly evolving depending on number of cases. It also became very difficult to travel in and out of Kazakhstan even for those of us living here. Returns to the country required government approval making many of us reluctant to leave. It was therefore six months before I returned to the UK in the summer.

“Today, we still face challenges although returning after the Christmas break to a country where restaurants, gyms and shops are open felt like freedom after four weeks of UK lockdown. Kazakhstan now feels like home. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be here with all the amazing people I’ve met and in a country vastly different to anything I have experienced previously. If it has taught me anything, it’s never to say no to chances like this even if, like me, they come late in your career.”

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A Postcard from Kazakhstan