In the 34 years since oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia, the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) has brought over thousands of Americans to pump oil. Since nee Americans tend to like work they never had problems keeping busy on the job, but as the years went by and families poured into Dhahran, occupying leisure time became a problem.
Americans are by nature an active people. They need to be doing something. But what, in those days, could you do in Saudi Arabia? You had the waters of the Arabian Gulf. You had sand that stretched on all sides out to the horizon. You had summer temperatures that soared to above 110° by day and never dropped below 90° at night. Furthermore, a huge investment in recreation facilities would, in that remote desert location, be difficult to justify before t he profit-picture clarified. Aramco's business was, after all, oil, not recreation.
Aramco's sports nuts therefore, had to provide, often by their own sweat, what the company did not. The result is the most complete—and most enthusiastically utilized—American-style sports plant in the entire Middle East.
Aramco's present 3,000 Americans (employees and dependents) have their choice of golf courses, baseball diamonds, tennis courts, bowling alleys, gymnasiums, yacht clubs, riding facilities, and a whole range of leisure-time activities ranging from badminton to bridge. Many of the facilities may be simple, but most have been built and are maintained to meet recognized standards. The bowling alleys, for instance, are inspected every year by engineers sanctioned by the American Bowling Congress and maintained to meet strict A.B.C. specifications. Aramco regularly sends a team (the Arabian Knights) to the annual Bowling Congress world championships in the U.S. Furthermore, Aramco's six-team Little League is officially recognized by international headquarters in Williamsport, Pa.; the local riding group, The Corral, is affiliated with the international Arabian Horse Association; and even Dhahran's golf course, a 6,000-yard grassless horror of oiled fairways, sand "greens" and limestone hillocks, has an official—if low—rating.
Like the proverbial mad dogs and Englishmen, many Aramco sports nuts go out in the hot midday sun—especially on their weekends, which fall on Thursdays and Fridays to conform with Saudi Arabia's Friday Islamic Sabbath. During the extremely hot summer months—August and September—Little League play is canceled, most tennis players and golfers play before the searing sun gets up too high, and, to spare their steeds, the riders go out early. But most other sports activities continue right through the day, year around.
If there used to be a lack of enthusiasm for expenditures on sports, however, today there is recognition that certain basic facilities are important. "It is vital in this location for people to have something to do," says Board Chairman Liston Hills. "It keeps them happy and in good health. We try, to help wherever we can." Still, most sports facilities are run by, kept shipshape by and paid for by the people who use them. The Half Moon Bay Yacht Association's waterfront facilities, set on the edge of a big inlet of the Arabian Gulf, 20 minutes from Dhahran, were constructed almost completely by its membership—the original clubhouse, the finger-pier dock and all. So were most of The Corral's riding stables and paddocks, which are conveniently located near land where Dhahran sewage (happily deodorized) can fertilize successive heavy crops of alfalfa with which to feed the horses.
Most sports activities in Dhahran are pay-as-you-go. Aramco built the 12-lane bowling center there, but charges a usage fee. The company's Recreation Division supplies bats, balls and post-game hamburgers to Little League players, but uniforms are supplied by such team sponsors as IBM and Chicago Bridge, which are Aramco contractors. Other sports groups are pretty much on their own. Members of The Corral purchase their own horses and pay set fees for stall rental and feed. Yacht club members own the boats they use—a collection of more than 30 power craft and a sailing fleet of Lightnings Albacores, Dutch-built Terns, British Wineglass Sloops, Hobey Cats, Sailfish and Sunfish, all of which race regularly in intensely competitive contests.
The power boats are launched mainly for water skiing and fishing, both of which, in the warm, shallow Half Moon Bay, are excellent. Fishermen who do not own boats can either surfcast or form groups to charter local Arab dhows to take them out on the Gulf. The best fishing is for hamur, a grouper-type sluggard that fights well on light tackle, or for spati (sea bass) and chanad (king mackerel), excellent surface fighters for those who troll. Everyone thinks there must be sailfish in the Gulf too but, as far as is known, only one small example of this exotic species has ever been landed.
Most Aramco fishermen acquire their tackle when they are on home leaves in the U.S. but at least one, Bob Wilson, prefers to make his own and generally outfishes his colleagues with his homemade gear. And not all fishing is done from the surface. A small band of scuba divers and snorkelers press the hunt underwater, despite sharks, stingrays and barracudas.
For official competitive sports events the company will supply transportation. Company buses move teams between Dhahran and the nearby company towns of Abqaiq and Ras Tanura, and an Aramco F-27 Friendship propjet airlifts competitors to the nearby states of Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar to compete against teams of other oil companies in the region. To utilize fully the plane's 40-seat capacity, a typical sports flight to another country in the Gulf area will include in some combination team members bound for a weekend of competition in sailing, tennis, soccer, golf or bridge.
Employees not only build and maintain much of the sports plant, but also finance the importation of professionals to improve performance in sports of their choice. Corral members have an English instructor to teach dressage and show jumping to young riders, Rolling Hills arranges for the services of a teaching pro, also from Britain, and the tennis group has brought in a Pakistani instructor. None draws any salary from Aramco, but each has found that he can make a decent living by coming to Dhahran and giving lessons in his specialty for a fee.
"The trick around here," said one sportsman, "is to organize something and then go to the company for a little support. There's not much money available, but if enough people want some new activity, and are willing to work hard for it themselves, something can be worked out."
Over the years Aramco employees and their families have also learned to put to good recreational use the vast desert that is so handy and ubiquitous. The shifting dunes that are merely part of the landscape to most people are seen as something else by the owners of dune buggies. Dhahran car nuts have built eight so far, from shortened Volkswagen chassis, with roll bars and fancy, imported fiber glass bodies added (Aramco World, January-February 1969). And much of the year, cool, moonlight nights in the desert outside Dhahran offer plentiful opportunities for horseback riding and camping out.
"You've got to stay active and busy here or you'll go up the walls," another man explained. "We all know that Rolling Hills is no Oakmont, but we play it anyway because we have to make do. Our first clubhouse was a broken-down bus, and my clubs look like I've played with them for 50 years in a rock quarry, but it doesn't matter. What matters is playing golf and having fun."
The preoccupation with athletics is everywhere evident. Sporting News and Sports Illustrated are big sellers in the company commissary and N.F.L. highlights, often more than a year old, are great attention-getters on Aramco's television station. Sports participation goes right to the top. Up to the time of his retirement, former Board Chairman Bob Brougham seldom missed a set on the tennis courts after a day's work, and the present chairman, Liston Hills, is still an active golfer.
Despite this, a decline in sports activities had set in a couple of years ago, as young Saudis gradually took over positions held by Americans and the expatriate employee age averages rose. The company still fielded two adult basketball teams (in a five-team league that included the nearby U.S. Consulate, the American Advisers to the Saudi Air force at the Dhahran Air Base, and a team from the Saudi Arabian College of Petroleum and Minerals), but the star was a balding fortyish guard named Al Porto, and the future looked dim. But suddenly some major construction projects got underway and almost overnight new, young faces came crowding into Dhahran. Many of them arrived wondering what they were going to do after work and weekends but they didn't wonder long. This time Aramco was ready.
Except for short stints as a writer for what became Sports Illustrated and sports editor for Time, Lee Griggs, now a Time associate-editor, has kept a safe distance away from organised physical activity. Instead he went abroad as Time correspondent in the Congo, Vietnam and, for five years, the Middle East.