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Volume 23, Number 1January/February 1972

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Road Show

Written by Brainerd S. Bates
Photographed by Khalil Abou El Nasr

For the first couple of hours the 23 passengers aboard the Aramco DC-3 chatted, joked, drank coffee and wandered up and down the narrow aisle visiting friends and colleagues. But as the plane droned on, increasing numbers of the all-male manifest, wearing the thobe, ghutra and agal, crowded up to the windows, craning for a glimpse of the landscape below for the majority of the passengers on that flight recognition of some detail on the ground would come easily. They were going home to az-Zilfi.

What they saw first, however, as the DC-3 circled to land was a large tent in white, yellow and orange canvas standing off by itself beyond the village of Marakh. They knew it immediately: Aramco’s Mobile Oil Exhibit, the company "road show" which has been telling the story of oil to the people of Saudi Arabia for 14 years and was now, with their help, about to put on its final performance.

The men in the plane were all Saudi Arab employees of Aramco, every one of whom had gone east to work for the oil company from the agricultural region known as az-Zilfi, some 160 miles northwest of Riyadh. They were making up a delegation Aramco was flying to their home town for the ceremonial opening of the show in a pattern which has been repeated about 50 times as the exhibit has traveled into every part of the inhabited kingdom, telling the story of Saudi’s Arabia’s largest industry to some 1.5 million Saudis.

There was a difference this time: the stay at az-Zilfi, would mark the last time that the exhibit would be shown under canvas. From now on the show is to be one easily transportable unit, moving from one location to another in a large, specially-designed van able to get into places the more cumbersome "big-top" version could not.

No one on the scene that warm spring morning in az-Zilfi, however, was thinking in such terms yet. There were welcomes, introductions all around, effusive embraces and a formal group photograph of the company delegation. Then everybody piled into local conveyances and headed into Markh.

These conveynances, you notice are without exception of a strictly utilitarian order, as sure an indication as any of the area’s remote, rural character. They are almost universally in the form of pickup trucks, and are more apt than not to have four-wheel drives, with Japanese Toyotas and Datsuns highly favored. But the star attraction to us was a short, stubby 16-passenger bus with a Chevrolet chassis, a venerable bright-orange body fabricated long ago in Carbondale, Illinois, and a number of local refinements, including a large gilt-framed mirror inside the windshield which gave the driver a rear view of truly panoramic dimensions.

On the way into town the bus stopped at the recently founded Nadi Marakh. Nadi means simply "club" in Arabic, and there are organizations like the Marakh Club in just about every community in Saudi Arabia. Essentially they are sports clubs for the young men of the town, and they usually field a house soccer team which competes with other soccer teams in league play. These sports clubs double as social centers for their youthful members, and the Nadi Marakh is typical in that within its charming, white-washed old building, with its high palm-frond-matting and wooden-latticework ceilings, there is a combination meeting room/lounge, a small library and a space set aside for table tennis. It was untypical in that one wing was a museum whose contents one would more likely come across in, say, Sudbury, Massachusetts, than in the middle of Saudi Arabia, where there has been little time and less inclination to dwell on the recent past, not to say assemble artifacts.

The objects on display correspond roughly to the warming pans, bay-berry candle molds, cobblers' benches and handlooms typically found in preserved historical houses of New England. All carefully labeled, here in az-Zilfi were wooden bowls, fiber mats and sandals, a gigantic black copper pot for boiling rice, wooden wheels for drawing water out of wells with the aid of donkeys, a box-like contrivance in which a Bedouin woman could ride a camel completely out of view. They were everyday objects used by ordinary people of the area, a few of them admittedly right up until the present. But someone in the Marakh Club realized that, if they had not already become so, all of these objects would be obsolete in a matter of time, and possessed the vision to round up examples of each for the benefit of what he obviously assumed would be posterity.

Meanwhile, the Aramco delegation was assembling in front of the Amirate to begin the afternoon's festivities. As the visitors filed up to the main entrance of the local government building, a half-dozen boy scouts, dressed in neat, light-blue uniforms and peaked caps, snapped to attention, clicked their heels as one, and gave them a smart salute. The scouts were to do honor duty for the rest of the day.

Pre-luncheon refreshments on this particular occasion were of a kind always served in Arabia at such functions: trays of fruit juice, hot, very sweet tea in little glass tumblers with handles, and coffee heavily laced with cardamom. Then a scout entered carrying in front of him a kind of urn of burning sandalwood incense. He made a circuit of the room, solemnly pausing in front of each chair to permit its occupant to whiff the aromatic smoke, Finally, the amir, Shaikh Muhammad ibn Dulaym, took the urn in his own hand, added a fresh sliver of sandalwood, pronounced the Arabic equivalent of "Welcome," and holding the urn high led his guests to another section of the Amirate to dine before moving on to the exhibit grounds for the opening.

The procedure of formally opening the Mobile Oil Exhibit had not changed much over the years, but each village, town and city which the show visited correctly looked on the inaugural ceremony as a signal event meant to honor them, and the occasion never failed to put the host community into a holiday mood. By the time the visiting group had arrived on the scene from the Amirate most of the spectators' chairs, borrowed for the afternoon from a local secondary school, were occupied, and someone was running a test on the amplifying system.

Presiding on the rostrum on behalf of Aramco was Muhammad Talib, who for a long period of its existence traveled with the Mobile Oil Exhibit as its on-the-spot supervisor. Talib introduced Abdul Aziz Falih, a superintendent in the oil company's materials supply organization and a native son of az-Zilfi, who had been chosen to head the exhibit-opening delegation. This position gave Falih the honor of sitting on the Amir's right during the majlis gatherings and of delivering the welcoming speech at the ceremony itself. He then invited Shaikh Muhammad to preside over the inevitable ribbon-cutting function at the exhibit entrance. To Muhammad Talib fell the agreeable task of guiding the amir and his party of local dignitaries through the tent before the gates were opened to the general public.

The most recent exhibit tent used, which had been designed and executed in Italy, came in four sections, a large, high entrance area, round in shape, off of which ran three rectangular canvas pavilions, each with its own separate theme. The central rotunda was dominated by a soaring scale model of a drilling rig, which stood in the middle, portraits of H.M. King Faisal and H. R. H. Amir Khalid ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, color blowups of Aramco's Sea Island, an oil-loading facility off Ras Tanura, Aramco's Administration Building in Dhahran and the vast desert area of Saudi Arabia known as the Empty Quarter. The first of the three tent wings contained exhibits designed to explain how man derives and harnesses energy in all its forms—from the sun, the wind, water, coal, steam, atoms, and petroleum. In this section—in reality a miniature science museum—visitors could examine and wonder at a solar stove, an early water pump, and cutaway models of a coal mine, a kiln and a turbine plant. Here too were well-made models of a lateen-rigged sailing craft, an old-fashioned locomotive, the now moth-balled nuclear ship Savannah, a modern oil tanker, and the latest jet commercial aircraft being flown by Saudi Arabian Airlines.

Another wing was designed to depict the whole "Story of Oil." Beginning at the very beginning, at an artist's rendition of the Dinosaur Age, a visitor could follow the process of the discovery of oil by geological means, the production of oil from deep in the earth to the wellhead, oil shipments through pipelines to processing plants and then on to distribution points down to the retail level in Saudi Arabia and abroad. The petroleum wing contained a large map of Saudi Arabia showing Aramco's current concession area, color-photo murals and a detailed model of the company's Ras Tanura Refinery, bar charts comparing Aramco's oil production through recent years and views of motor hotel/service station complexes in Europe, where much of Aramco's oil eventually goes. At one end of the wing there was an outsized world globe able to revolve on its axis, on whose surface was delineated those areas of the earth where oil reservoirs are known to exist.

The ways in which the oil company's Saudi employees spend their leisure hours, Aramco's non-oil endeavors to benefit its surrounding communities, and the traditional and modern faces of Saudi Arabia were the main themes of the exhibit's third wing. Entering this section, the fair-goer could hardly miss at the far side of the pavilion a gigantic photo-mural of today's Jiddah, which dominated the tent. Set up on the floor of the wing were photo cases and models on the subjects of education, agriculture and new industry in the kingdom Perhaps the best-viewed feature of this section were the large color photos of the Islamic holy places in Mecca and Medina.

Even while Shaikh Muhammad and his aides were touring the inside of the Mobile Oil Exhibit some of the ordinary citizens of az-Zilfi were getting an unofficial view. These were some little boys in long white thobes with gufiyas on their heads who discovered that they could get a pretty good look at the show's wonders by peeking under the canvas sides. It was not long, however, before the main entrance was thrown open to everyone. Meanwhile, the amir was again out on the landing strip, this time to bid farewell to the Aramco delegation, which took off in the twilight for the evening flight back to Dhahran.

During the first half hour the exhibit was open to the public the crush was terrific; it seemed that everyone wanted to take in everything at once. This eagerness and intense curiosity showed themselves in an odd way. The people not only pressed up to look at and study the exhibits on display; many were trying to touch everything in sight, as if to make certain they were real. At one time the big globe, whose land features were shown in relief, seemed literally to be covered by hands. Exhibit attendants admitted that this tactile inquisitiveness, while demonstrating a healthy interest, was mighty hard on the displays themselves, and allowance for this visitors' trait had to be taken into account when the items on view were made and assembled.

For the rest of its 13-day stay in az-Zilfi the Mobile Oil Exhibit settled down to normal routine. Mornings were given over to special showings by invitation to the schools in the area. Ahmad Yousef, who had charge of the tent show during this period, and Abdul Ghafoor al-Muhsin, his deputy, gave lectures to groups of students touring the exhibit and answered questions on points not covered in their talks.

The Oil Exhibit was open to the public at large seven days a week, including holidays, from about four in the afternoon until the time of sunset prayer. At the end of the evening prayer period the tent entrance was again open for more viewing, and attendants were ready to present an additional offering out of doors, a feature which over the years proved to be even more popular than displays under canvas. In a country where there are no public cinema houses, the showing of movies could hardly miss.

Although television carried by a government network is now a regular staple in Saudi households from coast to coast, countless residents of the country have seen their first motion picture projected on a big screen at showings given in conjunction with the Oil Exhibit. The ground in front of the tent was always filled in quickly in the evenings, and the area immediately behind was invariably crowded with vehicles parked chock-ablock, facing inward. The women of Saudi Arabia still keep very much out of public view, but the menfolk early discovered that they could bring their wives to the movies in the family car with complete discretion. Aramco has not only introduced "live" movies to much of the kingdom, but the institution of the drive-in theater as well.

During each one-and-one-half-hour movie showing the Oil Exhibit presented two films. The fare consisted of titles dealing with some aspect of petroleum, features produced for the most part by Aramco, and health and hygiene, general science or sports—for instance, filmed highlights of a world championship soccer match. Undoubtedly, the all-time most popular film shown was one entitled "The Island of the Arabs," an imaginative survey of modern Saudi Arabia's heritage which contained graphic sequences of the 1902 capture from the House of Rashid of al-Masmak Fort in Riyadh by 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn Sa'ud. The victor that day was to make many more conquests, unify the desert land into one nation, and become the illustrious founder-king of present-day Saudi Arabia. The outcome of the fierce skirmish 70 years ago in Riyadh made all these subsequent events possible, and audiences at the exhibit thoroughly enjoyed booing the "villains," the men of Ibn Rashid, and cheering wildly the brave exploits of young 'Abd al-'Aziz.

The origins of Aramco's Mobile Oil Exhibit can be traced directly back to September 1954, when Damascus, Syria, played host to its First International Fair. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was one of many nations to participate in this big industrial and trade exposition, and its government asked Aramco to set up an exhibit within its pavilion. During the following three Septembers the oil company again joined forces with the Saudi Arabian Government at Damascus, displaying a model of its Ras Tanura Refinery, cutaways of internal combustion and jet engines, and several photo panels on petroleum and related subjects. Aramco teamed with the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line Company in sponsoring impressive pavilions of their own at international petroleum congresses held in Cairo in 1959 and 1965, and sent some petroleum-oriented displays to Lebanon in 1960 for an American University of Beirut Commerce Students Society exhibit.

The first time Aramco exhibit materials went on view in Saudi Arabia itself was in the late spring of 1955, when the company complied with a request for a contribution to a school exhibit being set up in Mecca. It was a modest beginning indeed—just a couple of photo cases on oil subjects arranged among examples of children's art and handicrafts. By the time it acquired its first tent, had put it up in Jiddah, Riyadh and Hofuf, and had watched almost 200,000 people troop through, Aramco realized it was in the petroleum exhibit business for good. The company set about making long-range plans to satisfy what it recognized as a genuine nationwide hunger for knowledge about the kingdom's largest source of revenue.

During the second half of 1960 Aramco had its tent—in those days a two-section green-and-white affair—installed in Riyadh and back again in Jiddah for stays of six weeks at each location. The following year the Mobile Oil Exhibit could be found in the east-coast port city of Dammam and in Buraidah, in north central Saudi Arabia, where it made its debut in the hinterlands. By 1962 the oil show had made two stops in southwestern 'Asir Province, at Jaizan and at Abha, places as far in the kingdom as it is possible to go from the scene of Aramco's oil operations.

The mere act of getting the Mobile Oil Exhibit to Jaizan, a port town near the lower end of the Red Sea, was quite a feat in itself. Except by water routes Jaizan was almost completely isolated from the rest of Arabia, so Aramco arranged to ship its exhibit materials down from Jiddah by coastal freighter. Because Jaizan lacked deep-water piers the crated tent and displays were lightered to the shore by sailing dhows. Finding no motor trucks on the scene, the exhibit managers hired donkey carts to move the materials from the water's edge to the tent-show site. In the equipment was a sound motion picture projector and screen. It was in Jaizan that the Mobile Oil Exhibit showed movies at night outside its tent for the first time.

The organization of the exhibit's many appearances throughout the kingdom has always been the smooth-running function of the Public Activities Division. Fahmi Basrawi, who has long headed this important arm of Aramco's Public Relations Department, would confer with his staff over a map of Saudi Arabia and mark in the route the tent show would follow during its upcoming season. After the exhibit itinerary had been drawn up, the oil company's representative in Riyadh contacted the central government's Interior Ministry for permission for the tent show to stop at the locations chosen. The ministry, having approved the itinerary, notified the amirs in the communities scheduled for appearances. Before the tent show was due to arrive, a Public Activities employee, acting as advance man, called on the amir of the locality it was headed for and between them a suitable spot was chosen where the exhibit tent would be put up.

The Mobile Oil Exhibit, in its tent-show format, always traveled heavy. Its displays and necessary equipment, including a power generator that was part of the baggage, weighed a total of 45 tons, distributed among 130 crates and boxes. In its earliest days, whenever the exhibit made an appearance outside the main urban centers, all of this had to be air-lifted in. More recently, with the construction of good roads over most of the country, land transportation could be employed. Then those 130 crates rode aboard 10 10-ton trucks.

Putting up the exhibit tent and installing displays inside require days on average. How long the tent show remained in a given locality depended, of course, on the size the community being visited. In hamlets and villages it would remain for two or three weeks. Good-sized cities played host to the Mobile Oil Exhibit for five or six weeks. Its itinerary schedule was always kept sufficiently flexible to allow for extended appearances if demand warranted them.

For the duration of the exhibit’s stays in the larger cities and towns the four or five Aramco employees assigned to the show as supervisors and guides were always able to find comfortable housing in apartment buildings or hotels in the locality When the tent show was set up in very small communities far off the beaten path, however, the problems of finding even a few rooms to rent was fairly formidable.

Attendants traveling with the tent show to the hinterlands had to learn to be quite self-sufficient. They purchased their food requirements in the local suqs and took turns at the various stages of its preparation and cleaning up afterward. A few seasons of touring with the exhibit turned some of the men who experienced it into pretty fair cooks.

A long chapter of the Mobile Oil Exhibit came to an end at az-Zilfi, but reminders of the "big-top" days will be around for some time to come. The entire contents of the Energy and the Petroleum wings, including the big world globe, went to the College of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran as a nucleus of a proposed oil-display center that institution plans to organize in eastern Saudi Arabia, exhibit tent itself has found a worthy cause in the other side of the kingdom Aramco gave it to the Red Crescent Society, the Arab-world equivalent of the Red Cross, for use as a clinic for health services offered to pilgrims during the hajj season in Mecca .

Brainerd S. Bates is Aramco's chief writer petroleum and a regular contributor to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 32-36 of the January/February 1972 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1972 images.