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Volume 19, Number 5September/October 1968

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Discovery! The Story Of Aramco Then

Chapter 5: The Pioneers

Written by Wallace Stegner
Illustrated by Don Thompson

SYNOPSIS: Dick Kerr, pilot and geologist, didn't know what he was getting into when Standard Oil of California (Socal) hired him to make an aerial survey in Saudi Arabia, where, in the early 1930's, the American company was conducting its first search for Arabian oil. But when he did know he was delighted. To Kerr, and mechanic co-pilot Charley Rocheville, helping design a plane mounted with an aerial camera, shipping it to Egypt and flying it to Arabia was the greatest lark evereven though Kerr, having survived Egyptian customs, a sand storm and RAF hospitality, was immediately arrested when he eased the Fairchild 71 down onto the Jubail landing strip.

Kerr and Rocheville were the ninth and tenth members of the exclusive, hand-picked, ten-man team Socal had dispatched to make the first geological reconnaissance. But on the list of people who, since the 1920's, had been preparing the way for this searchpeople ranging from financiers, explorers and engineers to an American philanthropist, a shrewd land-lease expert and a far-sighted Arab kingthe two geologist-pilots were way down at the bottom.

Neither they nor the other eight, of course, cared a fig about where they stood in the sequence of events. For them, it was a job like other jobs and for six months the men in the field had been waiting for this plane so they could get on with it. In the meantime they had made a good start by inspecting a promising structure they called the Dammam Dome and mapping at least a small section of the eastern coast. They had also begun to import or build the products of an industrial age that would spark what today they would call a revolution of rising expectations.

The mapping job was sometimes routine, a simple matter of flying back and forth along ten-kilometer strips, sketching and or photographing what they saw and transferring it onto maps. On other occasions, when sandstorms closed in or the engine coughed as they hauled supplies to a camp 150 miles into the interior, it was far from routine. But then on any frontier, very little is normal and in these years this land, in all its harshness and challenge, its color and its excitement, was indeed a frontier, and these ten were the pioneers who had come to find its treasures.

In later seasons, and at a geometrical rate of acceleration, life in the coastal regions of al-Hasa would be transformed. Though for a number of years field trips would let recruits taste Arabia almost undiluted and unaltered, the coastal region was a frontier that changed with a magical swiftness once the Americans began to impose upon it the full range of their control over physical nature. The life the first ten men lived in their first season or two has already, after hardly more than 30 years, a remote and half-legendary look, and some of the towns they knew are now unrecognizable.

How was it? Later recruits always asked that as they tried to imagine their way back to a time when no Dhahran existed, and no Abqaiq, no Ras Tanura, no al-Khobar; when there was no place where you could buy spearfishing equipment or color film or a sports car; when there were no roads, no pipelines, no airfields, no U.S. consular officials, no international air transport, no piers, no air conditioning, lawns, swimming pools, golf courses, tennis courts, or clubs; no women and children; no intricate corporate divisions and delegations of work and authority and loyalty. How was it when the few Americans wore not only the agal and ghutra, but the thaub; when, except in the field, they walked around in sandals of ornamented camel hide? How did it feel to be thrown so completely on their own resources and their own decisions? How did they get along?

Not one of them apparently kept a diary for posterity and they wrote few letters. (Nothing new here. I'll write you a good long letter when we get back from our next desert tour. All well except for prickly heat.) But being gadgeteers, they had camera bugs among them; and a good many of them are still around with memories not only unimpaired by time, but enhanced. From such sources came the answers to the question: How was it?

"I wonder who it will be?" Krug Henry had said to Bert Miller before they left Bahrain for the mainland. "In every outfit there's always one .S.O.B. I wonder who it will be this time?" But as their numbers grew to the final ten, and their weeks and months of frontier service lengthened, they found no S.O.B. among them.

They did not lack personal oddities, to be sure, and they were not in incurable good health. Miller worried too much. He was a terrier, a nibbler; he had a feeling that somehow they should be suffering considerably more hardships and making greater sacrifices. He seemed to vacillate between the opinion that desert duty, if properly organized, was the pleasantest of all kinds of foreign work, and the opinion that it was not quite normal to organize it too well and make it too comfortable.

Burchfiel and Hoover assured him a little sourly that they were making all the requisite sacrifices. Hypochondriacs, they swore they could taste camel urine in the water, their stomachs turned inside out at some of the food, and they listened anxiously at their own doors for the knockings of liver flukes, amoebas, roundworms, and other specimens of what was in those days still a lavish variety of intestinal parasites.

Dreyfus too worried about himself, but with more cause: he was what a later generation would have called accident-prone. His entry into Arabia had been delayed for weeks by a badly-burned hand, and there was never a time in all his period of service when he was free of scabs, bruises, bumps. Likewise he was pathologically difficult to awaken in the morning. When the rest of them struggled out from under the mosquito nets, and stood on the roof yawning and stretching and blinking into the intense flat morning light, there lay Dreyfus, stunned and paralyzed with sleep. They could shake him, yell at him, kick him, roll him out on the bare roof, set his bedclothes afire, blow him up—he slept on.

Their clothes, at first purely Arab, underwent progressive hybridizings, but they never adopted the sun helmets that were standard among the British on Bahrain. The ghutra they found most useful, both as costume, to match their beards, and as a protection against flies, wind, sand, and sun. It could be wrapped around the mouth or around the throat and used to wipe sand out of an eye. It shaded the back of the neck as well as the face. Because they all wore it, they blended more quickly and completely with the Arab population, and they felt themselves different, in dress and attitude, from the British: when they saw a Bahrain Englishman in his pukka sahib sun helmet they referred to him among themselves as a lion-tamer.

Even in a country with none of the artificial entertainment, they found recreation. They swam. They fished—with troll lines borrowed from dhow crews—and if they caught a hamur or a shanad and could get him to the table quickly, they ate him.

It was the Gulf that gave them most. The Gulf offered, as a matter of fact, excursions of considerable interest. Mikimoto's cultured pearls had not yet, in 1933 and 1934, nearly destroyed the Gulf pearl fisheries. They all managed at some time or other to visit the pearling dhows and watch the nose-clipped divers come shooting out of the green water as fast as barracuda with their oysters in the baskets.

Everybody too went to watch the curious spectacle of the dhows filling their water tanks from fresh undersea springs. With the dhow anchored directly over the spring (located by some skill that the Americans could not name), a diver went overboard carrying a rolled camelskin ghirba. Down on the bottom, distorted and wriggling, he opened the roll and placed the neck over the flowing fresh mouth of the spring. When he had been down about a minute a second diver went down, took over the ghirba, and let the first one rise for a breather. After three or four exchanges the skin would be fully distended. With a twist of the neckskin the diver floated it to the surface, the crew hoisted it aboard and dumped it in the tanks, and the divers started over.

Sometimes when the Portuguese man-of-war was around in force, the divers put on black cotton suits like long underwear. They did not fear at all the deadly five-foot sea snakes, fast enough to catch fish on the run, but they were extremely respectful of the jellyfish. At first the geologists thought this one of the positive cultural differences between an Arab and an American: an American, coming up from a dive and meeting a red-brown water snake nose to nose, was likely to tear the Gulf apart getting ashore or onto the boat, but meeting a little innocuous two-inch jellyfish with delicate trailing feelers, he had at first no such feelings of alarm.

He acquired them, just as he acquired the Arab's disregard of the snakes. For the snakes never seemed to cause any trouble, but a jellyfish that laid his feelers ever so gently across a swimmer's chest left him burning as if he had been whipped with nettles dusted with red pepper.

As the season wore into May, however, no diversions could ease the growing strains. Desert temperatures had begun to lift above 110. The Bedouins had begun to gather in great camps around the wells; at waterholes, the windlasses creaked almost the clock around and the donkeys pattered back and forth in their runways, drawing up in camelskin ghirbas the water for hundreds of impatient animals. From the north the dry shamals had begun to come down, filling the air with red-brown dust, grounding the air operations, driving grit through and into everything, and sandpapering the nerves. To make it worse, most of them, spongy with sweat all day and most of the night, bloomed all over their bodies with the red intolerable rash of prickly heat.

Arab-American relations too began to show the strain. All season long Miller had had to deal only with the local government representatives, all of them concerned lest they make an error, most of them without authority to decide anything major. He had seen nothing, not a trace, of any higher officials, not even the redoubtable Ibn Jiluwi, the Amir of al-Hasa province. Far from their own base, they had been trying, often with difficulty, to establish or compromise matters of high policy with Muhammad Tawil, as isolated from his own base as they were. It was just as well the season was about over. The record of good relations might have blown up in a row if there had been many more incidents like the one at Dammam Dome. Going back there to finish the detailing of the structure, Henry and Hoover had found all their survey stakes pulled up, perhaps for firewood, perhaps out of curiosity, by the Bedouins.

In short, they were ripe for a change and since the Concession Agreement specifically allowed field work to be suspended in favor of office work during the hot season they decided it was time for a break. First, though, they had to tie up some loose ends; one of them was to complete the detailing of the Dammam Dome before Hoover and two Babco engineers came to survey the possibilities for fresh water, roads and harbors. It was an important survey because it would affect the Company's decision whether to drill or not.

Accordingly, on June 6, as one of their last acts of the first season in the field, Kerr came down from Jubail and took a lot of horizontal pictures with the airplane camera and helped pile up a cairn of stones to mark what they hoped would be the first Arabian oil well, Dammam No. 1. On June 7 they closed up the Hofuf office and brought up to take charge of the Jubail compound poor Allen White, who had already had the lonesome assignment at Hofuf but who was also their best Arabist. Dreyfus, though sick, would also have to stay behind to help overhaul the cars and trucks in time for the next season. The rest, with one exception, joyfully got ready to go to Lebanon. The exception was Charley Rocheville. On a rough drive looking for a site for a landing field near Jabal Dhahran, Charley, already sick, was seriously hurt and had to leave. He wound up, after stops in Bahrain and London, in the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, the first casualty of the campaign. He did not recover for several months and even when he left it was clear he would not be back.

Lebanon, where the seven geologists were gathered by mid-July, first elevated them to beatitude and then let them sag into a mental and physical collapse. No sooner had they arrived in the cool mountain climate of Dhour el-Choueir, where Miller had booked them all en pension at the Medower Palace Hotel, than the uncertain ailments of Hoover and Burchfiel turned into colds and bronchitis. Those who escaped the germs were afflicted by a great lassitude, an unwillingness to stir except in the rediscovery of diversions and pleasures that they had almost forgotten existed. In the Medower Palace dining room they ate well and largely, became connoisseurs of the wines of Lebanon. They kept their own table, invited many guests, and every Thursday listened with flattering attention to an orchestra of Russian refugees. There were women around, too: wives and daughters of Lebanese and Egyptians and Jewish families from Haifa. It was all most pleasant, and thoroughly unproductive.

By the second Thursday of their stay, however, they had begun to recover. And since Burchfiel and Hoover were recuperating and Miller was getting ready to go on to London and spend a month arranging supplies and conferring with Hamilton, they all decided to have lunch together. They sat down, looked over the menu and the wine card, listened vaguely to the refugee Russians who were tuning up. And then the dining room door opened to admit a woman and a girl.

Krug Henry was facing the door. His eyes followed the pair to their table, stayed on them as they sat down, did not even look away when the girl, petite, dark-eyed and pretty, glanced across at him. She blushed. Henry did not hear the ribald and witty words of his companions. If the girl had carried a charge of 6,600 volts he could not have been more paralyzed. But he did not waste a moment. He was an extremely direct man and in this instance he knew his own mind completely.

Within minutes he had bribed the headwaiter to arrange an introduction through the girl's mother, had overpowered the mother's objections, and had brought the two to the geological table. Only when he had them there did he begin investigating the possibilities of conversation. He himself spoke English, some Arabic, and Spanish with a Venezuelan accent. He discovered that Mile. Annette Rabil, Lebanese- French and the daughter of an engineer who had helped build the Suez Canal, spoke French, Arabic and Italian. It wasn't the best combination, but it would do. And she was an excellent listener.

By the time Bert Miller left for London, Madame Rabil was scared to death. She had never experienced such an approach. For assistance she called in Annette's two sisters, but they quickly melted before Henry's advances and became his allies. The Egyptian women in the hotel were agog and aghast. Did he mean to marry her? If not, how did he dare take her photograph? Why would he spend every spare minute in her company? They sympathized with Madame's troubles and were so delighted they could hardly talk about anything else. The geological table was an uproar of festivity every night.

Unfortunately, and unwelcome as it was, there was also work. Hoover and Henry, who, in their first report had recommended drilling the Dammam Dome, were now working on their second. It concerned an "area in Hasa" and they had concluded that though surface geology revealed no clear indications of oil-accumulating structures, geophysical methods to learn more about it would be justified.

While they worked on this, Burchfiel was preparing a general report called Arabian Geology, al-Hasa Concession (in which he was pointing out that the only place that justified test drilling was the Dammam Dome), and Koch and Brown, who had covered more territory than any of them, were also recommending in a report on Central Hasa, further exploration by geophysical methods. When this was done, they said cautiously, enough would be known to permit the Company to decide whether it should retain or relinquish the concession.

In the meantime Henry's romance proceeded apace, and sometime in August, Bert Miller, then in London, received a cable. It said that Krug Henry had married Annette Rabil and needed fifty pounds.

Hugh Burchfiel had gone into Beirut with Henry to pick out the diamond. Since they did not fully trust the jewelers of the gold suq, and since they themselves were experts on rocks, the diamond was subjected, said Dick Kerr later, to every mineralogical test known to man before it finally wound up on Mile. Annette's finger. The two were married in the Rabil home in Beirut with many geological attendants and Tom Koch for best man, and the foundation was laid for another revolutionary innovation in Arabia. In 1937, Annette Henry would be one of the first two wives to arrive in the Company's outpost in al-Hasa. othing else in the summer of 1934 quite equaled for interest Krug Henry's whirlwind courtship, but other things were happening nonetheless, some of them important. Casoc, after some pondering, decided to take the recommendations of its geologists and drill the Dammam Dome. It was time to go back to work.

The work, of course, had never really stopped; it had just been upstaged by the events in Beirut. Even there it had never quite come to a halt and in places like Bahrain, where Fred Davies was working out the logistics of a drilling operation, and in places like London, Alexandria and Jiddah it had gone along at a pace fast enough to suit even the man who was expecting al-Hasa to sink into the sea tomorrow: Bert Miller.

Miller was having a busy summer. In London he had discussed the problems of the past year and the plans for the next with Lloyd Hamilton and he was now in Alexandria to do the same with Bill Lenahan, up from Jiddah where he had paid over Casoc's second £20,000 loan to Saudi Arabia, opened negotiations for land in Ras Tanura, and ironed out some more problems about the plane. There was much to discuss, but the paramount problem was relations with stubborn local officials. Lenahan said that everyone from the King on down was anxious to help and Miller, relieved, went on to Beirut to collect his geologists and lead them back to Arabia.

In Lebanon, there were also problems. Burchfiel was in the hospital and Felix Dreyfus, who had been left in Arabia, was shortly to join him. An infected appendix, they learned later, had sent him off to Bahrain for surgery, after which his doctor told him to take a vacation. He set out for the Kashmir in India, suffered an attack that he was certain meant heart failure and decided he had better go to Lebanon. With his fingers on his pulse he did so—by way of the Kashmir, a return trip to and up the Gulf and an overland trip across Iraq and Syria. In a hospital in Lebanon he and Burchfiel comforted one another for a month before they felt strong enough for a second go at al-Hasa. They arrived in Jubail on October 20, just one month after the star Canopus appeared on the horizon, signalling to the Bedouins that it was time to move on and to Casoc's team that a new season had begun.

Unexpectedly, returning to Jubail was for the geologists a little like returning home. On the dock to meet them were familiar faces. Old Muhammad Tawil, troublesome and officious as they had sometimes thought him, seemed genuinely glad to see them: they pumped his hand, crying upon him the peace of God. Here were the qadi and the Amir, smiling and without warrants for anybody's arrest. And here were employes carried over from the previous season—Nasser the mechanic, Saleh the cook, a driver or two, the water boy, soldiers, guides, all making up the first small core of a westernized work force.

The original 10 Americans were now 13 and among the new faces was a man who was to be most important to the history of Arabian oil: Max Steineke.

It is conceded by those who worked with him that Steineke was the man who first came to understand the stratigraphy and the structure underlying eastern Arabia's nearly featureless surface. As a field geologist he rated with the best anywhere and as a man, a companion, a colleague, he could not have been better adapted to the pioneering conditions he now encountered. Burly, big-jawed, hearty, enthusiastic, profane, indefatigable, careless of irrelevant details and implacable in tracking down a line of scientific inquiry, he made men like him, and won their confidence. He was a very pure example of a very American type and heir to every quality that America had learned while settling and conquering a continent. In a man he respected most of all enthusiasm, intelligence, a capacity to do his job; to systems and procedures he applied only the pragmatic test: he wanted to know if they worked.

As he would have said himself, Steineke was "no son of a bitch for civilization." Since his graduation from Stanford in 1921 he had worked in Alaska, Colombia, and New Zealand and was one of Socal's senior geologists with 13 varied years of experience when he wrote to Clark Gester from down under in 1934 and asked to be put on the Arabian venture. A fine shot with either rifle or pistol, a man who loved the outdoors and thrived on work, a "big man with a big arm and a big voice," as the Arabs said, he had worked in the California desert and had packed with mules across the Andes. He never stopped driving, never stopped thinking, and habitually could not be bothered with details.

But if Steineke, now just getting his first curious glimpses of Arabia, represented and epitomized the Americans, expressed their collective virtues at the highest pitch, gave them a leader and a model and gave the Arabs a standard by which to know the American type, one of the familiar faces on the dock did the same for the Arabs: the guide Khamis ibn Rimthan.

Khamis ibn Rimthan—his first name meant" Thursday"—had come to Casoc no more willingly than Friday came to Crusoe. An Ajman tribesman of al-Hasa, Khamis was about 19 in 1929 when the Mutair rebellion against Ibn Sa'ud led by Faisal al-Dawish was suppressed, and when the fierce Ibn Jiluwi in revenge for the death of his son all but decimated Khamis' fellow tribesmen. When, therefore, about the middle of October, 1933, Ibn Jiluwi sent a peremptory order to Khamis to report to him in Jubail, it was with considerable uneasiness that Khamis complied. It took five days to get there and many hours of waiting, but at last he was told why he had been summoned: he was to be the guide for the foreigners who had come, gossip said, "to search for gold and the relics of the old people."

Khamis, who had no desire to be separated from his family for months, indicated that he was a very poor guide, that there were many better to be had, and anyway he was not a soldier, he did not belong to any form of army. But Ibn Jiluwi had said Khamis, and Khamis it was.

Khamis was a little disingenuous in saying that there were better guides. Though he spoke no English, the geologists soon found him sharply and steadily intelligent, at once a great joker and a man of dignity and loyalty. Considering that he was both illiterate and almost totally ignorant of any world other than his own, he had an extraordinary understanding. Also he had built into him somewhere a foolproof gyroscopic compass.

It was impossible to lose him. He did not use the maps, but ask him in what direction a certain landmark lay, and he would tell you. Ask him how far, and he would know within a very narrow margin of error, although he didn't learn to estimate distance in kilometers until after he had joined the geologists. Before that, he had used the terms of the desert, reckoning distance in so many hours or days by a specified kind of camel: as "six days by dhalul." Even in country which he had not seen before, he had a knack of finding his way, and if the Americans accused him of using black magic he would tell them innocently that he had got information from two good men. How he told reliable informants from others, and how he managed to make such nearly infallible use of the information he got, was his own secret.

During the first season he had worked mainly with Henry and Hoover. During the second, and later, he was assigned more and more often to Steineke's party. In the years to come, Khamis and the Americans he worked for made the sort of cultural exchange that nations wish they knew how to promote. They did not change their known ways to fit one another: they overlapped, supplemented and informed one another. If Khamis or the soldiers told stories of raids or battles, the geologists could counter with Custer's Last Stand or the Alamo. If Khamis astonished them with tales of jinns and afreets, they could try to kid him into believing the world was round. If Steineke or Hoover or Koch brought down a gazelle, they might find Khamis sliding in front of them to stoop and turn the gazelle toward Mecca and cut its throat with a swift Bismallah: In the name of God, most gracious, most merciful.

What they learned from one another was respect and friendship. Just as the Casoc people who knew him felt that King Ibn Sa'ud would have been a great man no matter where or in what circumstances he had been born, the geologists felt that Khamis would have stood out in any society as a man of great ability, integrity and character.

The new season's work was a continuation from where they had left off, an attempt to read the structure of their 320,000 square miles underneath its masking of dunes and dikaka, to interpret the enigmatic outcroppings, establish the age and relationships of strata, locate every regional high that might reveal the presence of a dome. There was little enough to go on, and they had as yet none of the gravity meter and seismographic and structure-drilling equipment that might have simplified the job. Steineke, looking off the roof of the Jubail compound his first day in Arabia, and seeing the Jabal al-Barri, made the same mistake Miller and Henry had made. The Jabal al-Barri looked very like the Jabal Dukhan on Bahrain and the Jabal Dhahran down by Dammam. It was a cinch; the way you did it in this country was to cruise around until you found jabals.

But it wasn't quite that easy, as Steineke quickly discovered. The cruising itself was nothing to take lightly, even in cars whose springs and front cross-members had been built up by Dreyfus, Carpenter and Nasser for off-road work, and whose wheels were now fitted with the new, effective 9:00 by 18 low-pressure tires that Miller had discovered and bought in London. They had not so many soldiers to hamper their movements—Lenahan after his conference with Miller in Cairo had persuaded the Government to reduce the guard for each party to 10—but they still had camels enough, and flies enough. The slow, camel-supplied camps settled, and mapped, and moved, and settled again, while other camel caravans went out to establish plane bases and gasoline dumps at Lina, far up on the edge of the Dahana near the Iraq border, and at al-Lisata, in the flint desert below the Iraq Neutral Zone. To this latter spot went Henry and Brown for a spell of isolated exploratory work, while Steineke and Koch worked west and south of Jubail and Burchfiel and Hoover started for Nuqair. They found plenty of jabals; what else they found was more ambiguous. This was obviously not a hit-and-run job.

September's heat gave way to the warm but pleasant weather of October, and by degrees to chilly fall. One November day in a big sabkha south of Jubail Steineke and Tom Koch snowballed each other with packed hailstones. They had a crisis when the plane, making an aerial traverse of the as-Sayyariyat region, broke its tail skid and was laid up at al-Lisata; without too much trouble they cobbled up a jury tail skid of automobile springs for it to come in on. On November 11, 1934, they got their 14th man, who arrived off Jubail by dhow and rode on a donkey the final shallow stretch to shore, dressed in Arab clothes and hanging on with both hands. He was a youngster with some business training and some experience as a field clerk with oil companies in Texas and California. Name: Bill Burleigh. He would relieve Allen White of much of the paper work.

At the end of November, Miller crossed over to Bahrain and brought back the first three members of the drilling crew scheduled for Dammam Dome, and three days after Christmas another contingent of the drilling crew came over in the care of Allen White. On that same launch, looking so terribly civilized that they didn't let him wade ashore like-the others, but had a crewman carry him piggyback through the shallows of al-Khobar, came Lloyd Hamilton, starting a "public relations" tour of the field.

They gave Hamilton a realistic view of the whole operation from Jubail to Hofuf, and though he did not conform to field practice by letting his beard grow, he did start a mustache and he did get into ghutra and agal, and on formal occasions into a bisht as well. He bore up under the osteopathic treatment of desert driving, but just barely made it through the ceremonial visits to Ibn Jiluwi. He counted nine cups of coffee and five glasses of tea that he drank while paying his respects to Ibn Jiluwi and immediately afterward to his son. As soon as he and Miller got to their quarters, his esophagus echoing of cardamom and his bones disconnected by the day's six hours of cross-country driving, he fell on his pallet bed and slept like a dead man until Miller called him at five. He particularly wanted to be up early: one of the few things Ibn Jiluwi had communicated to him was permission to take movies of Hofuf, something that no one had ever done. He also wanted to get off a telegram to Ibn Sa'ud asking if he might visit the King in Riyadh, and after that go on across Arabia to Jiddah.

He got his movies, and he got his reply from Ibn Sa'ud. The King not only wanted him to come to Riyadh, he wanted him to come on the first day of the Feast of the 'Id al-Fitr that ended Ramadhan's month of fasting and prayer.

It was January 5, 1935, the last day of Ramadhan, when Hamilton, Miller, Felix Dreyfus, three soldiers, a guide, a cook, and an interpreter left al-Khobar in three Fords to drive to Riyadh. It was, they said later, a trip rich in memories: the walls and mud forts of Hofuf, with a motionless jackal watching them; the Ford roaring recklessly over dunes hardened by rain into giant roller coasters; the overwhelming concern of the soldiers lest the royal guests come to harm.

This was Arabia as a romantic imagination might have created it: nights so mellow that they lay out under the scatter of dry bright stars, and heard the silence beyond their fire as if the whole desert hung listening. Physically, it might have been Arizona, or New Mexico, with its flat crestlines, its dry clarity of air, its silence. But it felt more mysterious than that; and the faces of soldiers and guide and interpreter, dark, bearded, gleaming in teeth and eye as they spoke or laughed, corroborated Hamilton's sense that this was authentic Arabia, hardly touched by the West. The water that he shaved with in the gray predawn light, and the coffee he drank before they started off again, corroborated Arabia further: they were so flavored with mutton tallow from the ghirba the water had been carried in that Hamilton felt he could smell sheep all morning.

The next day they got to Riyadh and moved into the Badia Summer Palace outside the walls. The place astonished them: a Spanish or Moorish-looking house surrounded by palm gardens and peach and fig trees. It might have been in California, except for the numbers of servants and the amplitude of the space assigned them. After the somewhat primitive hospitality of Hofuf, this was luxury, with brass-framed mirrors, brass washbowls and water ewers, drapes, cushions and Persian rugs. They had barely had time to decide to put all their cots together rather than scatter through a bedroom apiece, when the King sent to ask when he might see them; and they had barely cleaned up when Hafiz Wahba, whom Hamilton knew well as the Saudi Minister to London, came to escort them to the majlis.

The meeting was so friendly that its import could not possibly be mistaken, and it brought comfort to Bert Miller, harassed throughout his first season by the suspicions and prohibitions of local officials. At least at this level, suspicion and prohibition did not apply. Even Hamilton, sophisticated in negotiation, felt he was having one of the notable experiences of his life. Miller and Dreyfus, a geologist and a mechanic, could be excused for pinching themselves now and then to test if they really sat here in the council chamber among potentates and guards, in the remote capital of Ibn Sa'ud's Kingdom, making jovial conversation with the King and one of his sons and exchanging jokes through an interpreter.

They had taken the first- movies ever taken in Hofuf; on the morning after their arrival they took the first ones ever taken in Riyadh, and it is unlikely that any camera bug since has had richer opportunities. That morning, as part of the Lesser Festival, the 'Id al-Fitr, 5,000 soldiers paraded in a dance of war, long double lines of them brandishing rifles, pistols, and swords while they moved in a slow, hypnotic shuffle and barked out a hoarse antiphonal chant. The air was full of bullets fired at what the Americans thought were terribly flat angles, but they were not nervous for their safety. The King himself had authorized their movie camera, the Amir Sa'ud himself had placed them at their spot of observation, Yusuf Yasin himself was their companion, and four of the King's soldiers stood guard at the four fenders of their car.

At every stage of their visit they had impressed upon them the Government's friendship and desire to cooperate. In the afternoon, after the war dance, Miller and Hamilton went over with Fuad Hanna, Hafiz Wahba and Yusuf Yasin all the plans for the season's work as well as all the incidents of friction and cultural misunderstanding. It seemed, as they talked, that the difficulties had been fewer thanmight have been anticipated; considering the strangeness of the Americans to the Arabs, and the equal strangeness of the Arabs to the Americans, everyone had done pretty well. In Lenahan, the Company had a Jiddah representative whom the King liked and whom the ministers could deal with. And in the news that the Company planned to drill the Dammam structure the Government had the most welcome information it could have received. It was January, 1935. The world was still sunk in depression, the hajj would be light again, the Saudi need of money was acute in spite of the second loan, which the Company had made in advance of its due date. Needing income so badly, the Government from the King down waved aside the warnings of the Americans that there might be no oil down there. They wanted to believe, needed to believe, perhaps, that the result of drilling would be automatic riches.

After the bizarre yet rich experience at Riyadh, Hamilton and his party might have felt let down as they set out to complete their crossing to Jiddah, four days of driving and breakdowns away. But it was not to be a dull trip. The road led west across the Tuwaiq escarpment and 400 miles of broken desert and plateau and brought them at one point to the worn granite teeth of the ancient continental mass from which the sedimentaries had been washed. They moved fast, met H. St. John Philby and Abdullah Suleiman outside of Mecca two and a half days later, and were soon ensconced in the airy and elegant Bait Americani, three floors of spotless tile, Egyptian furniture, bathrooms with showers, a roof garden and, for atmosphere, two pet baboons named Mickey and Mona.

There was, as always, work to be done and so Hamilton and Lenahan made sure that they saw Abdullah Suleiman often enough to convince him that their problems were serious. But on the whole a holiday spirit prevailed. And in the glow of dinners and parties in the burgeoning European quarter, Lenahan convinced Hamilton that with drilling begin ning he needed help and Bert Miller conceded that without Lenahan in Jiddah he couldn't have worked in Jubail. They enjoyed it so much that when he and Hamilton set out for Cairo, while Felix Dreyfus took the cars back to the Gulf, they decided to cross to Port Sudan and Khartoum and float down the Nile.

They were entitled to their vacation, and anyway what they did at this moment was not extremely important. The really important events were beginning on the other side of Arabia, on the scabby, barren flanks of the jabals near al-Khobar.


This article appeared on pages 16-23 of the September/October 1968 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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