First come the geologists. They travel light and move on quickly over unexplored ground, searching for exposed clues that may lead to hidden oil deposits. Next come the wildcatters who drill the first well in an area where no oil has yet been discovered. They need a bunk-house and a cook, the seed and root of a camp. If luck is with them and their drill brings a show of oil deep in the earth, a fixed camp will begin to take shape around their rig. The camp will serve a complex venture—the development of an oil field. One day a family cottage appears; wives arrive and civilization walks into the wildcatters' bunkhouse world. A community is born.
This simplified succession of events is one of the distinguishing patterns of twentieth-century life. Allowing for local variations, it is a pattern that can be traced where-ever on the globe men have gone in the great hunt for new oil fields. Swamp and jungle, mountain and plain, coastal waters and blistering deserts have witnessed the silent passage of geologists on reconnaissance, the anxious days and nights of wildcat drilling, and the slow emergence of supply yards, roads and homes. And many times, these distant oil frontiers have seen the wildcatters pack up and leave, the cookstove cool, and the bunkhouse grow silent when the drill bit failed to discover oil, or at least enough oil to merit commercial development.
In the middle 1930's the pattern was vividly acted out in the desert of eastern Saudi Arabia a few thousand yards from the Persian Gulf. There American wildcatters drilled six wells and were nearly withdrawn from what appeared to be a costly failure before their historic well—Dammam No. 7—struck oil in commercial volume.
The story begins in the spring of 1933 in Jiddah, an old and storied city on the Red Sea. There, representatives of the Standard Oil Company of California and the government of King Abd al-Aziz Al Sa'ud signed an oil concession agreement. No one really knew whether there was oil in Saudi Arabia. The American oilmen were anxious to have a look. By the time the 1933 football season was under way back home, two Socal geologists began to explore the concession area, a desert larger than the state of Texas. (In November the concession was assigned to the California Arabian Standard Oil Company. On January 31, 1944, the company name was changed to the Arabian American Oil Company—Aramco.)
The team of geologists was soon joined by others, until the pioneer team had grown to ten men. By early June 1934, the geologists finished the detail work on a geological structure they had named the Dammam Dome and thus completed their first field season in Saudi Arabia. In a preliminary report to the home office in San Francisco, they recommended that drilling be started. The company confirmed the recommendation, and the wheels were set in motion to assign men and equipment to wildcat halfway around the world.
In late September the Bedouin folk, following the astral calendar, began to break up their summer encampments. The season had changed, and the time for nomadic wandering and distant grazing had come. Within a month the oilmen had started their second season of desert exploration, taking up the vast chore where they had left off before the oven heat of summer had forced a recess.
In January the King was officially told of the company's plans to go ahead and drill. The world was deep in the great depression, and it was good news indeed that the oilmen were making progress.
The wildcatters had already started to arrive in the Dammam Dome area where the first well, in drilling lingo, was to be "spudded in." Tents were set up temporarily on a broad terrace near a group of limestone outcroppings. A pier was started down by the shore at al-Khobar, a fishing village. In January 1935, while the geologists were out on the desert reaches continuing their surface explorations, the construction crew was digging a cellar for the first drilling rig.
Most of the pioneer group were experienced in the conditions of wildcatting far away from well-stocked oil field supply centers. They knew how to improvise. Lacking dynamite, they broke up the rock for the derrick cellar by heating the rock with a wood fire and then flooding it with cold water.
By February 19th the cellar was completed, and by mid-April the derrick was up and being rigged. On April 30th the wildcatters spudded in Dammam No. 1, the first oil well in Saudi Arabia.
The hole was first drilled by the cable tool method, a slow process that was at that time being replaced by the modern rotary rig system. Three crews worked around the clock to "make hole" as fast as possible. Arab crews who had to be trained on the job assisted the American drillers, the wildcatters who had been on exploratory rigs in Venezuela, Ecuador and China. The drillers were gifted roamers who liked to discover oil and then move on.
In San Francisco an anxious group of men eagerly awaited progress reports from the pioneer well. Theirs had been the executive decision to risk the money for the Saudi Arabian wildcat. The shadow of the lengthening depression fell ominously across the venture.
From the wellsite in Saudi Arabia a succession of cables was sent to San Francisco. May 7, 1935: drilling in hard limestone at 260 feet. May 14: water at 312 feet; some show of tar at 385; now down to 496 feet.
In July the hole reached 1,433 feet, and on August 25th the daily cable reported slight showings of gas and oil at 1,774 feet. "Not important, but encouraging," the cabled message read.
Five days later the well had reached 1,886 feet with showings of gas and oil at several levels along the way. "Flowing by heads [surges] ... possibly would make 50 bbls. per day," the August 30th cable said.
On September 6th the depth was 1,959 feet. The cable for that day advised San Francisco that the time had come to stop drilling and make a flow test.
The result was nothing to write home about, let alone cable. On September 12th the cable reported the results of a 21-hour test: the well flowed 98 barrels of oil. "Preparing to drill deeper," the cable hopefully added.
Six days later the anxious men in San Francisco were at first overjoyed by a report that at 1,977 feet the well had flowed by heads approximately 6,537 barrels per day. But knowing the vulnerability of international wireless to sunspots, and human fallibility, they sent a cautious cable back to the oilmen in the Persian Gulf: "These figures may need checking...."
Indeed they did. Another cable from Saudi Arabia set the matter straight. The estimated flow was actually about 100 barrels a day. Not good enough to be considered worthy of commercial production.
The year wore on and the hole deepened. 1935 gave way to 1936. On the fourth day of the new year work was stopped at Dammam No. 1, and the construction men started rigging up for a second well—Dammam No. 2. The pioneer well had not been abandoned, but to go deeper a rotary rig had to be brought over from Bahrain Island, which is visible from the Saudi Arabian mainland.
In early February, Dammam No. 2 was spudded in. The original enthusiasm that filled the air in early 1935 had been dampened. Oil had been discovered, but the problem was to find it in commercial volume. By mid-May the second hole (which was now being drilled with the rotary rig) was progressing very well. It was already down to 2,175 feet and had made encouraging showings. Hopes rose again.
Optimism was greatly heightened on June 20th when, during a five-day test, Dammam No. 2 flowed an average of 335 barrels of crude oil a day. A week later production during the test jumped to the equivalent of 3,840 barrels a day. This seemed to be it.
The San Francisco office in anticipation had already decided to drill another wildcat elsewhere in the desert and to expand the drilling program at Dammam. Wells 3, 4, and 5 atop the Dammam Dome were authorized. Before July had ended the company had also decided to drill a deep-test well—Dammam No. 7. It was to probe the so-called "Arab zone" of deep strata. No one then knew the crucial nature of this decision.
Implicit in the stepped-up drilling program were a number of changes in the small world of the Dammam wildcatters. The bunkhouse days were numbered. A boom was in the making; headquarters was "bullish" on the concession. More equipment was coming, and more people would be needed to keep up the pace the company was setting. The rough-rock pier at al-Khobar was widened and pushed further out into the Persian Gulf. Black, oiled roads began to snake out from al-Khobar and the Dammam camp. The Saudi Arabian Government announced a new Bureau of Mines and Public Works.
In August, a month after the decision to drill five more wells at Dammam had been made, the company got clearances from the Saudi Arabian Government for a 70,000-acre reservation on which to build a permanent camp.
Then a string of disappointments clouded the all-out drilling program. The deeper drilling of No. 1 produced no significant results. No. 2, after its exciting test flow in June, dropped from 3,840 barrels a day to 225 late in the year. No. 3 was started in mid-July but never flowed more than 100 barrels a day. No. 4 was a dry hole—it didn't even have a showing of oil. No. 5 was spudded in September 8th but by the end of the year hadn't flowed a barrel of oil. No. 6 lagged behind because of the rush of work on the other wells.
On December 7th the deep-test well—Damman No. 7—was spudded in. As the year turned, the company proceeded with plans for the permanent camp. Despite the poor showings of wells 3, 4, and 5, and the startling drop of flow in 2, an optimistic outlook prevailed. On March 8, 1937, the San Francisco office inquired about the progress on Dammam No. 7, and the cable included this question: "When will married quarters be ready?"
But No. 7 was troublesome. In May it was in bad shape. In July a spurt of good drilling took the well down to 2,440 feet. In early October the hole reached 3,300 feet. Several tests were run. The result: "No oil." Then a few days later the well had its first show of oil.
Again misgivings had begun to grow. San Francisco ordered all work stopped on the shallow wells. Any further work on them would have to be specifically approved.
How would No. 7 turn out? That was the big question during 1937 as month by month the drill bit ground deeper into the earth. But behind this question there was a more profound one that had begun to trouble the executives in San Francisco: should the company pull out of Saudi Arabia altogether? It had already poured millions of dollars down the holes in the desert.
Both questions got a dramatic answer on March 4, 1938. On that day, No. 7 flowed at the rate of 1,585 barrels a day. In three days the flow had risen to a rate of 3,690 barrels a day. San Francisco cautiously included a single word of comment in one cable: "Congratulations."
This time it was no fluke. The test continued, and the rate of flow stayed over 3,000 barrels a day until halted April 20th. Soon thereafter No. 2 and No. 4 were drilled down into the "Arab zone" and both turned out to be good producers in the lower strata. On October 16, 1938, the good news was conveyed by the company to the King: Commercial production had been discovered.
The day of the wildcatters was over. They had done their job and were ready to leave. The first wives to arrive in the Dammam camp had been on the scene for almost a year by the time No. 7 yielded its big flow. The family cottages were growing in number.
By early 1939 the seven wells would become another chapter in the company history. So would the Dammam camp, for it would formally take on the name by which it is now known—Dhahran.