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Volume 15, Number 3May/June 1964

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Saudi Arab Driller

It takes hard-won know how—the kind A.J. Kishi has—to boss an oil rig...

Written by The Editors

ABDULLAH JAZAM KISHI is a 37-year-old resident of Hulailah in al-Hasa oasis of Saudi Arabia. He has a gilded "hard hat," a gift from the American Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors (AAODC) that betokens an unusual accomplishment; a wallet bulging with pictures of his six children; big hands that are calloused from 16 years of handling "iron" on oil derricks; a lively mind that has generated an exhausting flow of questions about drilling and kindred matters; a diploma from the University of Texas Drilling School at Odessa, Texas; an engaging sense of humor; the paradoxically-intense nonchalance of a real "pro"—the relaxed style of a man who, in the midst of a good story can feel that something is wrong on a drilling rig thirty yards from his trailer office; an identity card that certifies that he is a Special Deputy Sheriff in Stephens County—and a variety of other distinctions, some small and personal, and some of a magnitude that should assure him an enduring place in the human side of his country's oil industry.

Kishi was one of the first Saudi Arabs to handle the brake, the critical control lever, on an oil well drilling rig in Saudi Arabia. He was later to become the first man in the history of his country to achieve the rank of driller, the first to join the proud but unpretentious aristocracy of men who run the drilling rigs of the world's oil fields.

A drilling rig is an extremely costly and complex tool, the central component of a family of tools designed to drill, study, record, and maintain an oil well. It incorporates generations of research and thousands of miles of slowly-drilled oil well footage. It is a sophisticated tool and yet something of a curiosity, for it has a basic conceptual flaw: the deeper the hole goes, the farther the drilling bit is separated from the engine that drives it round and round. Thus, the drill stem becomes an ever-lengthening drive shaft. Some of these "drive shafts" have been five miles in length. The driller at the brake controls the speed of rotation of the drilling bit and the weight with which it bears upon the bottom of the hole. His hand must be experienced and sensitive; his intelligence is the final link between the complex of tools that make up the rig, and the earth below. This is a simplification of the matter, for there is a great deal more involved in modern drilling technology. However, it serves to indicate the responsibility that rests upon the hand of the driller, the kingpin of the rig.

Abdullah Jazam Kishi became a "Rotary Driller 'A' " for the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) during 1954. Today he is the "Assistant Foreman" on the rig; he supervises the work of the drilling crews, including, of course, that of the drillers. He has a broad and ready smile, but he is a thoughtful and serious-minded man about his drilling rig. The overhead rigging of the draw works, the pipe racks, the drilling mud tanks and pumps, the huffing rhythms of the diesel generators, the valve complex in the rig's basement, the varying vibrations of the rig floor, the spidery derrick structure that rises perhaps more than 100 feet above his head, and the instruments that "see" what is happening a thousand feet under the ground are extensions of his own personality. In them are his hopes, ambitions, years of work, knowledge, skill, sensibilities, and pride. For men like Kishi, drilling remains an art served by science—he has an almost tactile bond to the rig.

Now that he is supervising the work of several crews he is in a position to observe the attitudes of younger men, some of them just starting out. He was asked recently if there is one particular quality he looks for in younger men. Kishi looked out the open door of his trailer office, conned the T-32 work-over rig nearby, and joined his hands behind his head.

"I'll tell you ... you see, many boys just come to work and go home. They learn their jobs—the things you can teach them. They do all right. But, I look for the boy who comes to work full of questions. The boy who comes and asks me everything he can think of about drilling. Why do this? What is that for? How does it work? Why don't you do it this way instead of that? When I hear those questions, then I think I have found a good boy." (Kishi, incidentally, betrays his long exposure to oil field jargon, and diction that was long ago refracted from more general usage. No one with an ear tuned to the common speech of the American Southwest could fail to note his revealing use of the oil field word boy.

As Kishi described his admiration for the young man who digs deeply into the craft and technology of his work, it became apparent that he was, in a sense, giving a description of himself. A few days earlier, A. C. Vick of the Abqaiq Drilling Division, and himself a veteran oil field man, remarked: "Abdullah Jazam is the kind of man who never stops asking questions. He will wear you out if he knows there is something about drilling he can learn from you." When reminded that he is a notable question-asker himself, Kishi smiled. "You know," he said, "a lot of the men helped me by talking to me. But, sometimes I asked too many questions and someone would say, 'Aw, shut up, boy. We're busy'." Kishi laughed heartily at the memory. "But I kept asking anyway," he added.

A. J. Kishi, as he prefers to sign his name, was born during September 1927, in the village where, by choice, he continues to live—Hulailah. He was only six years old when the predecessor company to Aramco signed an oil concession agreement with the Saudi Arabian Government. As World War II drew to a close and Aramco was able to swing into high gear, hundreds of young Saudis were added to the swelling payroll—Kishi among them. He worked briefly in the dining hall at Dhahran, then quit. In 1947 he rejoined the company in a job more to his liking. Shortly afterward he was transferred to Abqaiq, another of the three oil communities in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. There he became a rigman and began his drilling career. He advanced steadily. In seven years he was a driller. Seven years later, in 1961, Aramco sent him to the University of Texas Drilling School. Last year he was promoted to assistant foreman.

Kishi learned on the job. He has a remarkable grasp of English. Because drilling rigs are often hundreds of miles from the Aramco training centers, Kishi had little opportunity to attend the company's formal classes in English, so he taught himself with the aid of American friends and a company language book. When he entered the University of Texas Drilling School for a three-month course in 1961 he was given the usual entrance examination. He was asked, along with the other students, 257 questions. The questions were read aloud— in English. He scored low, partly because of the problem of comprehension. At the end of the course the exam was repeated.

"The exam was stiff," A. C. Vick, who accompanied Kishi as his training supervisor, recalls. "I took it myself, and with all my experience, I found it difficult. The second time Abdullah Jazam took the test he scored 88.7 per cent. This was an excellent grade and it revealed a very high order of comprehension and retention."

In 1948 Kishi was working on a rig in the 'Ain Dar area. "The driller was 'Goldie' Goldsmith," he remembers. "He was a tough man. One day he said to me, 'You go on the brake.' First he let me handle the brake when we were coming out of the hole. You have to bring up the drill stem and detach a section at a time. Then he let me 'go in'—it's the same thing in reverse. You add a section at a time and the bit goes back down to the bottom of the hole. You must let it go in just right. Easy, boy. .. Easy. And Goldie said to me, 'If you get nervous I'll do something to you.' I thought to myself, 'Okay, boy, this is what you want.' Connie Ridgeway was the drilling superintendent, and he wanted Saudis to learn to be drillers—and 'Goldie' Goldsmith put me on the brake."

And there were other problems—and other teachers. "When I was working in the 'Uthmaniyah field one time Jake Sims said to me: 'You know just about every job but the tour (pronounced tower and means shift or tour of duty) report. I'm going to teach you right now.' And he did. Every day he showed me something and every night I studied it in my room in the crew trailer. Inside a month I was making reports: time report, drilling log, and the rest.

"There was another man who pushed me—Jim Noel. Jim was a tool pusher, a boss on the rig. He told me more and more all the time. He told me, 'If you study you will have better chances.' He kept talking to me. He liked me to try something new, not just the same thing all the time.

"I appreciated these guys. They pushed me. They really helped. When I was ready to become an assistant driller and then a driller, A. C. Vick was my training advisor. He's my teacher."

Kishi talks about his trip to the United States with enthusiasm. He did not care much for New York City ("Too big!"), but when he got into the Southwest—into the heart of the "oil country"—he felt like a man sliding down the far end of a rainbow. Now he was deep in the show-place of drilling technology, the Texas-Oklahoma oil fields. He not only studied the latest methods of drilling technology, but also attended workshop classes in oil well cementing and testing, conducted by the Halliburton Company; classes in wire line pressure control, offered by Otis Engineering Company; classes in the preparation and maintenance of drilling mud, conducted by Magnet Cove Barium Company, and classes in the use and maintenance of oil well "fishing tools," offered by the Bowen Company. Classes and field trips took him to Odessa, Dallas and Houston in Texas, and Duncan, Oklahoma, as well as many oil field sites, some of them in the offshore Louisiana fields.

Kishi thrived on the opportunity to ask questions of experts versed in the latest state-of-the-art developments in oil well drilling. It was a rare opportunity; he made the most of it. He cherishes many memories he carried home to Saudi Arabia. One remains ever-present in the gilded safety hat (the oil rig "hard hat") he wears on the job. He received the hat from AAODC when he completed his three-month course at the University of Texas Drilling School and passed the repeat test.

Kishi earned his gold hat the hard way, for there was no father, nor were there uncles, older brothers, or friends of the family who were in the oil business and could offer experienced guidance to his generation about the oil business—its varieties of opportunity, and the possibilities for personal progress.

Kishi's was the pioneer generation of young Saudi Arabs in the oil business. They went to work for strangers in a strange venture. Now they are in a well-earned position to counsel coming generations of young Saudi Arabs on a growing number of technical aspects about their country's largest industry.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the May/June 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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