n the early decades of the 20th century, the people of what is today Saudi Arabia lived lives of considerable austerity. Formal education was uncommon, and the conveniences of the industrial era were mostly unknown. By the time ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman Al Sa‘ud—known to westerners as Ibn Sa‘ud—merged his central Arabian realm of the Najd with the western Kingdom of the Hijaz to form the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, the new nation was deeply in debt. The principal source of national revenue—a tax on pilgrims to Makkah—had declined sharply as the worldwide Great Depression reduced traffic to the Holy Cities.
Oil, of course, would soon liberate Saudi Arabia from hardship, and most accounts of the kingdom’s stunningly rapid modernization begin with the narrative of its oil industry: the 1933 signing of the concession agreement with the Standard Oil Company of California (SOCAL), the 1938 gusher at the now legendary well called Dammam No. 7 and, in 1939, the first export shipment of crude oil.
And yet the full story began several years before SOCAL arrived on the scene. There were reasons why ‘Abd al-‘Aziz chose far-off America as his partner in development rather than Britain, then the dominant foreign power in the region. Some of these reasons were geopolitical: The king was protective of his independence and his new sovereignty, he mistrusted Britain because of its record as a colonizer, and the Americans offered more money.
But beyond these, the king’s reasons were also personal. He had never traveled outside the Arabian Peninsula and had met few foreigners, but over the years he had come into close contact with a handful of Americans who had won his trust. As often happens, respect between individuals opened the doors of commerce and built the foundation of an otherwise unlikely partnership between an industrialized United States and an as yet undeveloped Saudi Arabia.
For the better part of a century, Americans have participated in the development of almost every aspect of contemporary Saudi life except religion. In addition to setting the oil industry in motion, it was Americans who helped mechanize Saudi agriculture, create the national airline, set up the national television network and organize the central bank. Americans trained and equipped the several branches of the Saudi armed forces, and Americans provided educational opportunities for countless thousands of students, many of whom are today national and corporate leaders.
It is important to recognize that the work of those Americans who won the king’s favor in the first third of the 20th century was not undertaken at the behest of the United States government. Until World War II, Washington had no official interest in Saudi Arabia, and it stationed no representative in the kingdom. The pioneers of partnership were private individuals, and it was a measure of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s wisdom that he took advantage of what they offered to improve the lives of his subjects.
wo camel-riding couriers suddenly appeared out of the desert with an urgent message for Louis Dame, MD: The sultan was seriously ill. Though he was already en route to Riyadh, the couriers asked Dame to leave his slow-moving traveling party and race to Riyadh on the fastest camel available.
It was November 12, 1923, nine years before ‘Abd al-‘Aziz would proclaim the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ruled al-Hasa, the leading oasis of the eastern Arabian Peninsula, and the central Najd, but not yet the west, the Hijaz. He was acquainted with Dame, who was part of a medical team that already had treated hundreds of his subjects.
Accompanied only by one of the couriers and a medical assistant, Dame rode until midnight and all through the next two days and evenings, arriving at ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s bedside after almost 40 hours aboard a camel.
Dame found ‘Abd al-‘Aziz suffering from a “cellulitis of the face” that had swollen one eye to the size of a baseball. The surgeon lanced the inflammation and changed the dressing three times daily for the next several days. After less than a week, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was on the mend, soon “quite himself again,” according to Dame’s narrative in Paul Armerding’s Doctors for the Kingdom, which tells the story of the first western physicians to systematically treat Saudi patients.
Dame was not only a physician; he was also a Christian missionary—not the sort of person often encountered in Riyadh in 1923. He was based at a mission hospital in Bahrain that had been established just after the turn of the century by the Reformed Church in America. The doctors there were all Arabic speakers, and their assignment was to minister to the health-care needs of anyone on the Gulf littoral who was willing to receive them, from southern Iraq to Oman. They were enjoined not to preach, but to attract by example, using as the instruments of their message the scalpel and the hypodermic needle, not the Bible and the pulpit.
‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s knowledge of their work can be traced back as far as 1911, when 10 of his warriors were wounded in a battle over pearl-fishing proceeds. They had been ferried across the strait to Bahrain to seek treatment at the mission hospital. After ‘Abd al-‘Aziz expelled the Turks from the eastern Arabian Peninsula in 1913, local rulers began to invite the doctors to visit. At that time, and for years afterward, there were no formally trained doctors among the Saudi population.
The first American ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ever met appears to have been the Bahrain mission’s C. Stanley Mylrea, MD, who in 1914 went to Kuwait to treat a group of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s followers who were suffering from malaria. “He impressed me immensely,” Mylrea wrote. “Every line of him, face and figure, told of intelligence, energy, determination, and reserves of compelling power.”
By the time Dame joined the Bahrain hospital in 1919, the doctors were traveling frequently into what is now Saudi Arabia and, upon invitation from the sultan, they had begun to visit as far inland as Riyadh. There they would stay a month or six weeks, until their medical supplies ran out, then return to Bahrain. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz understood that his people’s need for medical care was acute and, as he did throughout his life, he found a way to import western technological services without breaching social or religious traditions. He welcomed the doctors as generous Americans who helped the Arab people and asked for nothing in return.
Dame returned to Saudi Arabia periodically and, by 1923, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz knew him well enough that he invited him back to Riyadh to treat his aged father. Thus Dame and a mission medical team were already in Arabia, making their way slowly toward the capital, when the King’s facial infection developed.
Doctors and nurses from the Bahrain mission worked in Saudi Arabia until ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s death in 1953. According to Armerding’s account, in some 42 years the mission doctors treated nearly 300,000 patients, of whom 3500 required major surgery.
Dame left the mission in 1936, but he did not go far: He moved to the new frontier town called Dhahran, where he joined the medical team at the California Arabian Standard Oil Company (CASOC), the predecessor of Saudi Aramco. The American doctors from Bahrain had demonstrated to ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and his people the power of modern medicine, and due in part to this record, the king insisted that the emerging oil-producing company provide medical care as part of its operations. As a result, for decades, Aramco was the primary supplier of medical care to Saudis as well as Americans in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Today, Saudi Arabia’s hospitals are among the most modern in the world, and they are staffed largely by Saudi doctors trained in American medical schools.
y the mid-1920’s, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz knew by reputation of another American, a world traveler and philanthropist, who might be helpful in a different way. Charles R. Crane became the improbable catalyst for the rise of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry.
Born in 1888 in Chicago, Crane was heir to his family’s plumbing-fixtures fortune. As a young man, he briefly held the position of president of Crane Bathroom Equipment Company, but sinks and toilets bored him. He was far more interested in affairs of the world—and in particular the affairs of the Arab world. He spent much of his adult life and a great deal of his fortune supporting economic development in Arab countries and the dissemination of knowledge in the United States about Arabs and Islam. As early as 1914, he financed a lecture series at US universities by the renowned Dutch scholar-diplomat C. Snouck Hurgronje.
Crane had been a generous contributor to the 1912 election campaign of Woodrow Wilson, and the two men became close friends. Wilson responded to Crane’s interest in Asia Minor and the Middle East by appointing him to an advisory commission on Palestine and the Levant, along with Henry King, president of Oberlin College.
After extensive travels and interviews in Palestine and Syria, the King-Crane commission recommended that Wilson support only limited Jewish immigration to Palestine so as not to interfere with self-determination for the Arabs, newly free of Ottoman rule. Crane’s endorsement of the Arab cause caught the attention of prominent Arabs, including ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. Throughout the 1920’s, Crane financed water exploration and road-building projects in Yemen. In those years, he developed a deep respect for Islam and Arab culture, and even commissioned a new translation of the Qur’an into English.
Crane’s first meeting with ‘Abd al-‘Aziz took place in February 1931, arranged by St. John Philby and Shaykh Fawzan al-Sabik, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s representative in Cairo. Nominally, the subject was horses: Crane admired Arabian horses and had heard of Shaykh Fawzan’s renowned stables. When the shaykh made him a gift of two prize steeds, an astonished Crane offered on the spot to send a geologist to Arabia to help the new country prospect for minerals. Shaykh Fawzan communicated this offer to the king, who promptly accepted and invited Crane to visit him. So high was Crane’s reputation that the king himself traveled to Jiddah from the capital to receive him.
Their conversations extended over four days. Crane formally restated his impromptu offer to provide the services of a geologist who would explore the hinterlands for water and minerals. This was not so simple a proposition as it sounds: In those days, foreigners were generally restricted to Jiddah, and it would be a sharp break with tradition to have outsiders roaming the country’s interior. But the king was pragmatic. He accepted Crane’s offer for the same reason he had accepted the medical services of the doctors from Bahrain—he knew he needed help. The engineer dispatched by Crane was one whom Crane had employed on bridge-building projects in Yemen. His name was Karl S. Twitchell.
n industrious Vermonter, Karl Twitchell wrote in a 1947 book about his work in Saudi Arabia that “I have probably been longer and more closely associated with King ibn Saud and his country than any other American.” It seems beyond dispute.
Twitchell arrived in Jiddah in the spring of 1931, together with his wife Nora, and they set out immediately on an exploratory trek through the Hijaz. On the subject of water, they brought disappointing news to ‘Abd al-‘Aziz and his finance minister, Abdullah Suleiman: There was none. Small amounts might be captured with catchbasins and wells, but there was no possibility of large-scale development of water resources because they didn’t exist. However, Twitchell did report good prospects for mining gold and other minerals, but an extensive geological survey of the kingdom would be required. Crane agreed to finance it.
Upon returning to Jiddah, which was importing drinking water by boat across the Red Sea from Egypt, Twitchell and an Arab colleague repaired and expanded an aging network of pipes and water tunnels and constructed a windmill that raised 150 liters (40 gal) a minute from a well outside the city, “making an appreciable addition to the water supply,” as Twitchell wrote.
Twitchell was supervising a search for gold in the mountains near Taif when he received a request to travel to Riyadh to see the king. Going to Riyadh was difficult, as there was still no paved road, but he set off immediately. The king, thinking of the financial future of his kingdom, wanted to discuss the possibility of finding oil in al-Hasa, on the east coast of Arabia. The geology there was similar to that of Bahrain, where SOCAL was already prospecting. Twitchell advised the king to wait for the results of the exploration in Bahrain: If oil was found there, it was likely that it would also be found on the Saudi Arabian side of the strait.
SOCAL met with success in Bahrain in 1932 and, at the king’s request, Twitchell returned to the US to seek mining and oil companies that might be interested in Saudi Arabia. It was the midst of the Great Depression, and all turned him down except SOCAL.
So it was that Twitchell was part of the SOCAL team when the oil company’s chief negotiator, Lloyd Hamilton, arrived in Jiddah in February 1933 to begin talks with Abdullah Suleiman about an oil exploration concession. Hamilton was responsible for the legal terms; Twitchell, trusted by both sides, was responsible for the geographic provisions that defined the area to be explored. Hamilton and Suleiman signed the concession agreement on May 29, and the first SOCAL geologists arrived by boat at Jubail on the shore of the Gulf on September 23.
“These oil men deserve great credit for their faith in America and American enterprise,” Twitchell wrote, praising SOCAL for its willingness to invest during a time of economic hardship.
Twitchell spent another two decades in Saudi Arabia. In 1942, he led a team that traveled more than 16,000 kilometers (10,000 mi) through the kingdom to assess prospects for agriculture, identifying several regions where soil conditions made farming feasible despite the limited water supply. The resulting agriculture is today increasingly important in the Saudi economy.
nce the oil exploration concession was granted and American geologists and engineers set up the permanent encampment that became Dhahran, the oil men faced the challenge of running an American operation in a foreign country. These early Americans were well aware of the difficulties their colleagues in the oil business had brought upon themselves in other countries by high-handed or insensitive treatment of local populations; they wished to develop a positive relationship with their hosts. Doing so required the Americans to educate, train and care for Saudi workers and their families to a much greater extent than corporations usually did and, more generally, to treat the people, their customs and their religion with respect. The concession agreement actually mandated the use of Saudi workers wherever possible, and this requirement could be met only through extensive training and education. Moreover, the king and his countrymen were proud that their country had never been colonized, and at no time did they feel themselves inferior to their more technologically advanced guests. It was essential for the Americans to learn Saudi ways and treat Saudis as partners and co-equals. Few did so more completely, or with better grace, than Thomas C. Barger.
Unlike Crane, Barger had had no particular intention of going to the Arab world. He was a young mining engineer who found himself out of work during the Depression. He desperately needed a job so he could marry Kathleen Ray, a young woman he had met while teaching at the University of North Dakota. There, he also had met J. O. Nomland, a SOCAL geologist who was heading a crew looking for oil in the state. With no prospects of work in mining, Barger asked Nomland for a job, and SOCAL hired him in 1937—and put him on its Saudi Arabia project. Though having a job meant he could marry Ray, the assignment also meant he would be separated from her right after the wedding because she could not—yet—accompany him to Dhahran, then a bachelor camp without amenities. His letters to her, now compiled and published by his son Tim, provide the most extensive firsthand reports about the early years of American life and work in Dhahran.
“When I agreed to work in Saudi Arabia, I didn’t even know where it was,” Barger wrote late in life. He learned where it was, and much more, in the 32 years he spent there.
His career began with the most basic of tasks: roaming al-Hasa with Arab guides, mapping the land, looking for likely drilling sites. This required days of hot, dusty travel and nights in tents. In the enforced intimacy of these explorations, Barger learned Arabic, and he developed a lasting appreciation for his Arab companions’ navigational skills and inventive storytelling.
During World War II, Barger was one of what became known as “The Hundred Men,” the core American staff of the company, by then known as Aramco, who stayed on in Dhahran to maintain the oil installations, mothballed until shipping lanes cleared. After the war, joined at last by his Kathleen, he transferred to the company’s government relations department, which was responsible for keeping lines of communication open between Aramco and the king and his government. By all accounts, Barger was the Aramco executive most committed to training and educating Saudi employees. He spoke Arabic, understood the need for medical care and housing, and took to heart the company’s contractual commitment to promote Saudi workers.
This meant that within a single generation, Aramco’s Saudi workers were transformed from a largely uneducated corps that performed manual tasks to a broadly trained workforce that today fills technical and executive positions at every level, including that of Saudi Aramco’s CEO. It was an evolution that did not just happen; rather, it came about because Aramco, through Barger and others like him, abided by the wishes of King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz to raise his people’s living standards and provide opportunities. Barger put this commitment in writing in the early 1940’s in an 83-page document stressing that Aramco’s future success would depend on its relations with its Saudi workers, whose aspirations would have to be met.
Beginning with elementary-level instruction in Arabic for a handful of eager young men, Aramco became a virtual university of training. Its schools and training centers taught English, arithmetic, basic science, hygiene, nursing, typing, driving, geography, industrial management and oilfield operations to thousands. By the early 1950’s, more than half the workforce was enrolled in one training program or another. The proportion of Saudi workers classified as “skilled” rose from nine percent in 1953 to 57 percent a decade later. The company sent the most promising to Beirut, Cairo and the United States for advanced education.
Barger, a principal architect of this policy, became president of Aramco in 1959, chief executive officer in 1961 and chairman in 1968, a year before his retirement. When one of the company’s early trainees, Ali Al-Naimi, became the first Saudi president of the company in 1984, Barger sent him a congratulatory message. In reply, Al-Naimi paid Barger this compliment: “I am honored that you were one of the pioneers in shaping many a young Saudi Arab career. You…had the greatest vision when you supported the training effort of Saudi Arab employees during its early days.” In 1995, Ali Al-Naimi was appointed Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Petroleum.
||Thomas Lippman is an author and journalist who has specialized in Middle Eastern affairs and us foreign policy for more than three decades. A former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, he also served as that newspaper’s oil and energy reporter, most recently visiting Saudi Arabia in May. His most recent book is Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia.
||Norman MacDonald ([email protected]) is a Canadian free-lance artist who lives in Amsterdam and specializes in illustrative reportage. His art is in private collections on five continents.