Monday, May 17, 2010

Saudi Aramco at 77, a street with no name


I have always been fascinated by what Aramco does and what it stands for. I have always been attached to this company either emotionally or in reality.

Two years ago Saudi Aramco celebrated 75 years of oil exploration in Saudi Arabia. It was only 6 years after King Abdul Aziz announced the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. That was in 1932, so in 1938 oil was discovered in oil well No. 7.

To a lot of analysts, the date of oil discovery in Saudi Arabia is when the map of strategic influence changed.

The celebration in Dhahran, to mark Aramco’s 75 years, was attended by King Abdullah. Hundreds of Saudi royal family members and thousands of Saudi dignitaries too attended the event. In addition, to hundreds of Americans, including some of the older generation of Americans who first came over during the 1940s to Saudi Arabia, there was a possibility at the time that President Barack Obama was going to attend.

I attended the ceremony, and when I asked a lot of Saudis who work for Aramco and ordinary Saudi citizens about some of the American pioneers who left the comfort of the US to the harsh environment of Saudi Arabia, I found out that none of the Saudis knew the name of the people who really made Aramco the most powerful company in the world. That really shook me.

So, whom do we blame. There is not a single street in the Eastern Province named after any geologist, doctor, farm developer or engineer who played a part in building Aramco.

Here is my side of the story as someone who never worked for Aramco, but simply was raised and followed its way of life.

I attended schools in Hofuf (Al Ahssa) that were built for the government by Aramco and maintained by them. They provided us with free daily meals and free notebooks. “Boy Scouts” was free at a time when it cost SR30 for boys to join the Scouts in Saudi Arabia if you were not in an Aramco school. That was in the 1960s when I was in junior high school, grades 7, 8 and 9. Aramco took us on trips which included the Dhahran Oil Exhibit and the Ras Tanura loading docks.

I used to know when the world’s largest oil tanker of the day, Tokyo Maru, docked and left port. In those days there were no Saudi TV stations in the whole Arabian Gulf region except the Dhahran Channel 3 which was broadcasted from Dhahran. We used to take the weekly TV program from local appliances outlets in every town in the Eastern Province. We enjoyed TV series such as Bonanza and stories from Laramie.

During Christmas we used to see the lights being put up on the houses without really knowing why except somebody is happy inside these houses. And for some reason we used to go to Aramco camp every year on Oct. 31 and watch these Americans — young and old, men and women dressed up in funny clothes. And I remember on the Thanksgiving Day when all of a sudden all Americans in Aramco camp are 5 pounds overweight.

Another fond memory was when Aramco’s top man, Thomas Barger, showed up and congratulated those who had television sets on the Eid occasion, because now they could receive Dhahran Channel 3. During one of my years at the junior high school, (at Madrasat Al Hofuf Alnamouthajyah) which means the ideal school which is now called Alandalis Preparatory School, I was one of the five students chosen to compete on television against another preparatory school from Mubaraz (the sister city of Hofuf ) in a general knowledge quiz. We won, but my joy came from having the chance to meet Barger whom we met by accident. From that day forward I have continued to read about the old Aramco pioneers including Barger, Karl Twitchell, Floyd Ohliger, Anita Burleigh, Dr. Louis Dame and Capt. Joseph Grant.

So I learned about the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Cowboys when I was but 15 years old. My greatest satisfaction has come from seeing about 25 of my cousins working for Aramco, which has meant that I have been able to go to Aramco facilities like the open air movie theater and the cafeterias at Abqaiq and Dhahran. I learned to start using a seatbelt because Aramco said so, even before it became law in the United States. Another scene I can’t forget is seeing the Thursday market in Hofuf where these strange Americans would buy old stuff that most people from Al Ahssa simply were throwing away. Now those things are priceless.

When I graduated from Hofuf High School in 1974, I was on my way to college which would have meant the College of Petroleum and Minerals (now called King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals ). That was the shortest way into Aramco. And this is the dream of all graduates from the Eastern Province. But my life simply came to a sudden turn in the road when I found myself at the old Saudi Navy headquarters on the Dammam Coastal Highway taking an English test. In Saudi Arabia you normally register in more than one place just in case you don’t get accepted.

Now, being a graduate of schools which were supervised by Aramco and taught the English language by British, Irish, Scottish and New Zealander instructors, I had no problem passing the test. So I was told by the navy that I could go to the US within three months. When I told my mother, she almost fainted. At that time, King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz decided to send thousands of Saudi high school graduates to the US. It was the oil economic boom, initiated by the American pioneers who found this “Black Gold.”

With all my love and loyalty to Aramco, I had decided to go to the US. I took with me some addresses of pen pals to whom I had been writing while in high school. There had been a British instructor at Al Hofuf High School named James Patrick Lee, who had arranged for the pen pals with the International Youth Organization based in Turku, Finland. The addresses ranged from Texas to Washington State. So I decided to go to the United States. Of course, I was worried about the weather. The navy told me I would be at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

Just a short time before my departure to the US, I sat down next to an American lady on a train ride between Riyadh and Hofuf, (Al Ahssa). The lady’s name was Charlotte Thomas. She was visiting from the US with her mother to see a farming project in Alkharj city which is about 30 miles from the capital Riyadh. They were hosted by Abdulateef Al-Ajaji. I asked her about the weather because she told me that she was from Yuma, Arizona, and would eventually move to Anchorage, Alaska. She told me I would enjoy Texas weather because if I didn’t like it, I could just wait five minutes and it would change.

On the morning of Oct. 23, 1974, I boarded a Saudia flight from Dhahran Airport (my favorite airport) and considered the Gulf state hub airport at that time, and landed in Riyadh with a 45 minutes layover before continuing the flight to London. We spent four hours at Heathrow, then off we went to New York’s JFK aboard a Pan Am flight. I spent the night at JFK, then boarded a Braniff Airlines plane for the trip to San Antonio via Dallas.

When I settled in at Lackland Air Force Base, I thought of ending my emotional ties with Aramco, but how could I forget Aramco if I was in Texas? My English course went more smoothly than I expected. I was given a TOEFL test at the University of Texas at Austin because I was supposed to go to the State University of New York, Maritime College.

Because my course at Lackland had gone well, one of the public relations personnel by the name of Sheffield chose me to visit the LBJ Ranch. While we were there, Lady Bird Johnson, the widow of former President Lyndon Johnson, was taking a walk. For some reason, me being the only student from the Middle East on the bus, I was given the privilege of shaking hands and having a photo taken with her (I still have the photo). I was given the chance to ask her one question.

My question was, “What was the one thing you were happy to do when you were the First Lady?” She said that her clean highway policy was the thing she was proudest of. I loved her for that because she reminded me of the way Aramco kept their streets very clean. And she asked me the question I remember to this day. Name a town in Saudi Arabia using a Texan name for our oil to oil relation. Well, Saudi Aramco headquarters is in Houston, Texas.

A short time later, I was told I might be joining the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, but since it would take a long time for my papers to be processed, the other choice for the Saudi Navy was the State University of New York’s Maritime College. I started at the Maritime College in August of 1975. To my surprise, the Maritime College was a little Aramco, which exposed me to oil tankers, cargo ships and Exxon, Chevron and Mobil.

I was attending the college two years after the oil embargo had been imposed on the US in 1973. So here was a Saudi Arabian student raised in Hofuf, but gaining a university education in the Bronx. During my four years at the Maritime College I did my major research paper about OPEC and got an A+ on my papers from Dr. Wills. All the materials I used for the paper came from Aramco office including an 8 mm film sent to me when I requested it. But what attracted my attention about some of my classmates is their extensive knowledge about the Saudi oil installations like the Al Ghawar oil field. As a matter of fact, some of the school’s graduates worked for Aramco including Shapely, Tom Allen and Tom Scott.

When I finished my Bachelors degree on May 19, 1979, I was transferred by the Saudi Navy to take some courses. I was stationed at Little Creek Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Virginia. Then I finally came back to Saudi Arabia. My emotions were with Aramco. Talking to my friends and cousins who work for Aramco and also talking to ordinary Saudi citizens, I was very surprised at their almost complete lack of information about the oil industry. Few people from the Eastern Province who were above the age of 50 knew about the Shaybah, Al Ghawar, Satanyah, Othmanyah, Abqaiq, Shadjam and Odaylyah installations. As for the pioneers, no one knew who Thomas Barger and the others were.

Over the past two years, I have asked a lot of Aramco employees about Achanacarry Castle. They have never heard of it. I started wondering about the lack of common information about the oil and gas industry among Saudis, even though the oil industry is our bread and butter. The oil industry is what put Saudi Arabia on the map. When our king or our oil minister talks, everyone listens, even E.F. Hutton.

A couple of months ago, I was watching Saudi television and there was an interview with Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman. In the interview he suggested having a think tank about oil and gas to educate Saudis about the industry.

So I can’t help but wonder why there isn’t one single street in Al Ahssa, Dhahran, Alkhobar, Abqaiq or any other town in the Eastern Province that is named after an American or Saudi oil pioneer. Those names could include Ali Al-Naimi, Abdulah Jomaih, Thomas Barger, Floyd Ohliger and others including Dr. Louis Dame or Khamis in Rumaithan (a guide). Why wouldn’t we name a hospital or clinic after Dr. Dame? Why couldn’t we name a farm or farmland road after one of these pioneers? This way we could show the old pioneers and today’s pioneers the appreciation for the good life we are enjoying today because of their sacrifices. Why should we name our streets after Arab scholars who have never been to the Kingdom and never served the Kingdom.

When on April 29, 2010, Capt. Joseph Grant died no one whom I met from Saudi Arabia Airlines knew that he was the pilot for King Abdul Aziz and he had laid the foundation for the Saudi national carrier, and no one knew him because Saudi Airline never thought of naming even an airport terminal after him. In Alkharj city no one has ever heard of Sam and Mildred Logan and their input regarding farming nor have I heard of a Saudi banker who has ever heard of Arthur Young and his contribution to the modern Saudi finance. Also no one in any electric company in Saudi Arabia has heard of Wallie Ballor or his contribution to power expansion in the Eastern Province.

The American pioneers left the comforts of life in the US in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and came to work for a company that was considered the best thing that ever happened to Saudi Arabia. It was a company that made two countries from opposite sides of the world come together in one of the most special and strategic relationships in modern history.

From the historical meeting between King Abdul Aziz and President Roosevelt aboard the USS. Quincy to the casual meeting between King Abdullah and President Bush at his ranch in Texas, it has been 75 years of Aramco that has been a binding force for the two nations. So we Saudis need to know about the history about the great company that lies at the foundation of our prosperity.

So, this is why Saudi Aramco is a street with no name.

— Abdulateef Al-Mulhim is commodore, Royal Saudi Navy (retd.)

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