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Volume 13, Number 9November 1962

In This Issue

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Vanguard At Jubail

For many in the Persian Gulf hamlet, the newcomers were the first Americans they had ever seen, and they would long remember that day when the oil industry came to Saudi Arabia.

The census of Jubail had almost doubled since daybreak. The Saudi Arabian pearl-fishing port and caravan terminus was in a holiday mood. Even Bedouin tribesmen had come in from the desert to see the two "strange" men arrive. A crowd waited at the customs pier.

The strangers were American geologists Robert P. (Bert) Miller and Schuyler B. (Krug) Henry. The Saudi customs launch had been sent to bring them from Bahrain Island to the Arabian mainland, a trip of several hours.

Miller had been in Bahrain for a year and a half and Henry for a year. Both had done geology in Venezuela for the Standard Oil Company of California. To seem less strange to their Saudi Arabian hosts, the Socal geologists had grown beards, adopted Arab dress, and had learned some everyday Arabic.

On the launch that had gone to pick them up were two men who would smooth their entry into Arabia and help them start their unusual mission: Muhammad Ali Tawil, the customs officer and Saudi Arabian Government representative, and Karl Twitchell, an American mining engineer who had investigated water and mineral resources in Saudi Arabia for King Abd al-'Aziz.

As the launch made its way along the coast toward Jubail, the geologists strained to get a look at an interesting group of sun-bleached sandstone hills they had studied from Bahrain on clear days. These barren jebels, scoured by hot winds, would one day mark the site of Dhahran, the oil center of Saudi Arabia.

It was Saturday, September 23, 1933. Four months earlier the Standard Oil Company of California and the Saudi Arabian Government had signed an oil exploration and development concession agreement. Bert Miller and Krug Henry neared Jubail eight days ahead of the target date, set in May, to begin the search for oil in Arabia.

Royal dispatches and the amazing Bedouin word-of-mouth "telegraph" that sends news and rumor racing across the desert had heralded the arrival of the geologists.

The Government launch slipped past the jetty into the breakwater. Dhows lay tilted in the mud tidal flats, their sails furled for the day. The festive crowd on the pier gathered to watch the two American geologists disembark.

Among those who greeted Henry and Miller were the amir of the area and dignitaries from Jubail and from Qatif, an oasis along the coast to the south. A soldier escort, provided by the King, was also on hand.

Dressed in long, white thobes, their heads covered by Arab ghuttras, the strangers certainly looked less strange than had they arrived in business suits.

Ten thousand miles away in San Francisco a group of Socal executives and officers had bet on the presence of oil in Saudi Arabia. It was a calculated risk that the company had to underwrite at a moment when the world was plunged into economic depression. The United States had 1 gone off the gold standard and had staggered through a bank holiday.

Thus, Bert Miller and Krug Henry had arrived on a crucial mission. They, and the other oil men who would soon join them, had to find out if the company was right—or wrong.

And they were in a hurry. As soon as they paid respects to the amir and exchanged courtesies with their Saudi Arab hosts, they went to work. Out came their sampling tools. They walked to a small island in the tidal flats and immediately started to chip away chunks of rock and examine them. The crowd that followed was puzzled by the way the geologists slipped quickly, but courteously, into high gear.

Henry and Miller learned that Karl Twitchell had rented two touring cars from the Saudi Government. He had driven them more than 800 miles across Arabia from Jiddah, the ancient Red Sea port. The cars were quickly put to use. With the help of Shaikh Tawil and Twitchell, the newcomers organized the first American geological reconnaissance party to enter the Arabian desert. Off they went—touring cars, soldiers, camels, and the crowd.

The specific goal Miller and Henry had in mind was a jebel, named Al Barri, 12 kilometers south of Jubail. But the greater goal that lay before them was a formidable and mysterious expanse of desert comprising the concession area—more than 300,000 square miles of virtually unmapped dunes, salt flats, hardpan and desert steppe.

Few Westerners had ever entered upon this desert heartland. The most sophisticated of these had come only recently: Bertram Thomas in 1931 and Harry St. John Philby a year later.

The maps available to the pioneer American geological parties were casually marked, largely inaccurate and far less useful then the trained eye of Bedouin guides.

Transportation was a difficult problem. Miller and Henry found this out before their historic Saturday ended. They hadn't gone far when their touring cars yielded to the deep, loose sand. The Americans climbed astride camels the soldiers had waiting for them and went on.

On the way back, the soldier escort showed the ready Arab sense of fun—they began to run the camels at a fair clip. For the Americans the ride was rough and wild. It was the first and last American geological trip aboard the lurching "ships of the desert." Thereafter, camels were used by the Americans as baggage animals only.

As the odd caravan of geologists, officials and interested stragglers crossed a salt flat coming back into Jubail, Miller and Henry experienced one of those suspensions of reality that would lead a desert greenhorn to suspect that his wits have fled.

The September sun burned down upon them relentlessly during their inspection of the Al Barri jebel and on the ride there and back. Their eyes began to play tricks. On the oven-hot salt flats the relentless sun and haze combined to distort reality and create weird, shifting images.

The geologists saw something tower in the air. It was a man on a camel coming over a distant dune. Then they saw other dunes ahead begin to rise from the desert floor and float in the air. Other objects grew, twisted strangely and vanished.

Suddenly Jubail loomed ahead, but not the cluster of low buildings they had left earlier. Instead, its skyline rose to impressive heights—a New York in the desert!

Day by day the geologists extended their range of exploration. On their fifth day in Arabia they searched the limestone hills that they had observed from Bahrain. They had a strong feeling that this was a spot worthy of close geological study, an area where the underground conditions might be right for the discovery of oil.

Only five days after their September 23rd landing, Bert Miller and Krug Henry began to feel that the company had made a good bet.

This article appeared on pages 17-19 of the November 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November 1962 images.