One summer afternoon a year ago, ten red stake trucks drove along an asphalt highway on the 'Asir plateau in southwest Saudi Arabia. The caravan had left Abha, the capital of the 'Asir region, earlier in the day and had driven nearly 150 miles north. The air was relatively cool; the elevation was still over 3,000 feet, but it had been cooler back in Abha where the crest of the tall coastal range rises to 7,200 feet.
The trucks made good time. Each carried a cargo of odd-sized crates, all painted grey, all numbered. As they neared the town of Qal 'at Bisha, a highway junction, the trucks slowed down—luckily.
Ahead, a group of townspeople stood across the road. They signaled the lead truck to stop. The signal went back from driver to driver. The caravan halted. A spokesman for the town came forward. He knew what the trucks carried. He demanded, courteously, that the trucks turn off the road, put down their cargo, and that the oil industry "tent show" hidden away in the grey crates be put up immediately. The town, he said, had petitioned the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) to book the show into Qal 'at Bisha at a future date. However, rumors had come down the road from Abha where the show had just completed a four-week stand. According to those who had seen it, it was great. The people of the Bisha area wanted to see it now— not next season, or the next.
It was a flattering impasse, but Ahmed Lughod, the manager of the Aramco Mobile Exhibit at the time, and a tactful and persuasive man, explained that the show was scheduled to open in Tayif, the "summer capital" of Saudi Arabia, in a couple of days. Besides, he added, it would be a better show when it came back this way again. The trucks started up again and rolled on toward Tayif.
The enthusiasm of the Saudi Arab public for the Aramco Mobile Exhibit does not usually take so dramatic a turn. However, in the six years that it has been "on the road," the show has generated a broad and lively interest among government and local officials, educators, students and the general public. Attendance is nearing the one million mark—this includes "repeaters," people who come back to see the show more than once. They are in the majority. Not long ago in Hayil, one of the old and historic communities in Najd, an elderly man who had come to the tent show several times told Ali Ganadiely, the present manager, "To make three or four visits is like reading a book like this," and he held his palms several inches apart, one above the other, to indicate a work of considerable size and merit.
This desire to see the exhibit more than once is reflected in the mounting number of requests from the Amirs and the education officials of the areas visited to "please come back, every year if possible."
Also, the alert interest in the show from coast to coast in the Kingdom reveals the intense interest of the Saudi Arab public in the country's biggest industry, biggest employer, biggest taxpayer, the biggest source of national revenues. The Aramco exhibit is designed to help fill that interest—to inform Saudi Arabians about their major natural resource.
The exhibit, which occupies a three-tent pavilion covering 7,000 square feet, presents a comprehensive picture of the petroleum industry; a complex world enterprise once characterized as "this fascinating oil business" by a veteran observer. It educates, and through the adroit use of bemusing audio-visual techniques, as well as sophisticated showmanship, it also entertains. It tells its story clearly to both the educated and the uneducated by using handsome scale models, dramatic photo murals, animated maps and diagrams, earphones with question-and-answer messages, motion pictures, charts and graphs, pamphlets, and the personal touch of guided tours. The exhibit not only shows what the oil industry is in Saudi Arabia, and how it works, but also shows where it fits in the larger picture of world oil competition—and, even further, where world oil fits into international economics.
The eye of the Saudi Arab has been pleased. Wholehearted letters have praised the "charming scenes and elegant designs," "the complicated and excellent working models," the "beautiful arrangement, lighting, and elegance," and the general "good taste" of the exhibit. In turn, the mind has been enriched. Education officials, teachers, and students have given the exhibit their thoughtful endorsement:
"We saw miracles, great projects and technical models that inspire us" ... "it is a speaking picture that expresses the development of the oil industry in Saudi Arabia" ... "Through this exhibition the young men and the intelligentsia of the country will gain knowledge of this important industry which is one of the pillars of world economy" ... "a practical school where the people can learn much about the country's oil production" ... "it provides a cultural and theoretical idea" (of world oil) ... "We admired the tangible progress we saw and acquired very useful knowledge about the operations of the Arabian American Oil Company."
The high opinion the show enjoys has given rise to the world's best advertising, the word-of-mouth praise that goes from town to town, say from Abha to Qal 'at Bisha. As far as the people in the Bisha area were concerned, they had heard enough—they wanted to see. But even if they had added their numbers to the attendance total (which they will, in time) they could not have seen an aspect of the show that is hidden from all viewers—the back-stage details. These can be seen only in a low building in Dhahran, the interior of which might, appropriately, pass for a theater scenery loft in New York City. In Dhahran, once a year, the show is stripped down, rebuilt, repainted, rewired, edited, modernized—in short, transformed.
Out of their banged-up crates come the models: a working drilling rig, looking like a spider-web Erector set, its structure bent, its draw works out of kilter; the three-legged "AMDIP" (Aramco Marine Drilling Platform) that stands on the sea bottom and supports an offshore drilling rig on its deck, its tiny railings pushed in now and needing a general touch-up; a silver GOSP (gas-oil separator plant),a tiny replica of the big spheres seen out in the desert reaches; a twin-towered crude oil distillation unit with one tower leaning slightly and looking road-weary; a big tanker; a complete refinery; five types of Aramco Home Ownership Program homes; an employee cafeteria ... one by one the dramatic scale-models of the oil industry in Saudi Arabia come out of their packing cases for a complete refurbishing.
New pictures may be added as new Aramco facilities are completed. New production figures and records are inserted into the charts as Saudi Arabia's output of crude oil continues to rise. A recent addition to the show is a handsome, new integrated map on which the entire Aramco network of facilities and oil fields can be lighted up by pressing buttons. New Aramco documentary motion pictures are shown to Mobile Exhibit visitors as soon as they are produced. And not long ago the last of the English-language panels disappeared from the show, making the end of an era in which it served to instruct American employees as well as the Saudi Arab public. The "tent show" idea first grew up in the Eastern Province oil communities after Aramco had participated in the Saudi Arabian Government's pavilions at four successive International Fairs in Syria.
Once refurbished and modernized, the Aramco exhibit is ready for "another opening, another show." It has already traveled several thousand miles: twice to Jiddah, the cosmopolitan gateway to Mecca, clear across the country on the Red Sea; twice to Riyadh, the nation's capital; to Hayil on the southern margin of the Great Nafud, the vast north desert; to Buraidah in the heart of Najd, almost due west of Dhahran; to Tabuk in the northwest Hijaz, where the sand-burnished rails of the historic Damascus-Medina railroad can still be seen; to Yanbu' al-Bahr and Jaizan, ports on the Red Sea, the one above, the other below Jiddah; to Tayif in the mountains where the Amirs of the Hijaz summered for generations and where much government business is now conducted during the hot months of the year; and to Hofuf in the heart of the al-Hasa Oasis, and Dammam, the country's great Arabian Gulf port, both in the Eastern Province, the "oil country" of the Kingdom.
Besides the ten trucks it normally uses to get around the country, the show also requires the temporary use of a company DC-3 to transport 23 crates by air. The rest of the 83 crates go by truck. Because of the logistics involved, each road tour takes careful planning. And because the show is still such a new idea to many parts of the country, it requires that the manager be a combination impresario, diplomat, promotion man.
The present manager, Ali Ganadiely, only two years out of college, was groomed for the assignment in the Public Activities and Services Division of Aramco Public Relations. Fahmi Basrawi, the general supervisor of the division, is an old hand in dealing with distinguished visitors to Aramco facilities, guiding them on plant tours, dealing with educators, and other responsibilities requiring tact and diplomacy.
Ganadiely has to work well "ahead" of the show. He makes all the arrangements with the Amir of the area to be visited, selects and gets permission to use a central location, arranges for housing, and looks to matters of protocol and local custom. Before the exhibit opens he visits the education officials and all the schools in the area. He arranges a special schedule for school children to visit the show (usually the mornings are reserved for them), charters busses to pick them up from outlying districts, and if the journey will be a long one for the youngsters, he arranges to have a lunch prepared for them. Over 3,000 school children visited the oil show at Yanbu' al-Bahr, some from Mecca, about 80 miles distant.
Opening Day ... for almost three weeks the community has watched the show grow into a handsome carnival of green and white striped tents. The four Saudi Arab attendants are on duty and waiting. An Aramco plane has arrived with a company delegation. Afternoon prayer has been completed. And now the ceremonies begin:
An honor guard of police escorts the Amir and his guests to the exhibit majlis (the traditional Arab receiving place). An Aramco executive (T. C. Barger, the company president recently addressed such a gathering in Arabic) makes a short speech of welcome to the Amir and the people of the area. Arab coffee is served to all and the chief Aramco delegate is introduced to the Amir, who then cuts the traditional green ribbon opening the show. As the impresario, Ali Ganadiely then conducts the Amir as the honored guest through the pavilion—and the show is on. Usually, there is a good bit of excitement in the air, and an opening-day crowd often numbers 5,000.
The Saudi attendant-guides have created an enormous amount of good will for the show. Their countrymen frequently comment with pride on their knowledge and their courtesy.
It is a rule of thumb in show business that you have to offer something new or the public soon loses interest. Will Aramco apply the rule, and will the people who stopped the trucks at Qal 'at Bisha really see a better show than the people at Abha saw?
This prediction was made with full confidence last July by Ganadiely. The show had been stripped down for repair, and Ganadiely had just returned from a vacation in Europe where he had visited the World Oil Congress exhibit in Frankfurt, Germany. "What a show!" he said. "They had a working model of a drilling rig on which the drill stem actually went down into the hole and extra lengths of drill pipe were automatically added. You know, maybe next we could..."
There's no business like the oil show business.