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Volume 26, Number 1January/February 1975

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The Changing Coast

Written and photographed by Tor Eigeland

In Dhahran, headquarters of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) and a green, beautifully landscaped town of bungalows and office buildings, it might be possible to forget about oil. But not for long. Working as they do for the world's most productive oil company, most residents do feel, at one time or another, the excitement of being part of something very big and very important.

By now, through attention given by the public press to growing demands for energy, it is generally well known that eastern Saudi Arabia is the source of a great deal of petroleum. Because of the amplitude of this source the kingdom has become the number-one oil-exporting nation in the world. Aramco produces nearly all of the oil that comes out of Saudi Arabia. Within the company's concession area are the world's largest oil fields, Ghawar onshore and Safaniya offshore, and Aramco's oil port on the Arabian Gulf is the biggest and busiest anywhere.

The Arabian Gulf's rich blue waters are going to be churned by even more traffic soon. Petromin, the General Petroleum and Mineral Organization, a state-owned, semi-autonomous public corporation, in partnership with Marcona Corporation of San Francisco and two Japanese companies, is planning a $500-million steel mill. To the uninformed this might seem farfetched. However, eastern Saudi Arabia produces large quantities of natural gas in conjunction with oil, and present plans call for some of this gas to be supplied for the steel mill. Supertankers will carry iron ore in the form of slurry from South America, unload at the coastal steel mill, then pick up oil at Ras Tanura and return to South America. With these economic advantages it is estimated that furnaces will be able to pour a million tons of steel and two million tons of iron a year, all at a competitively low cost. Another Petromin project, announced recently, calls for a $3-billion petrochemical complex to be built in cooperation with Japanese interests.

Jubail, a tiny fishing village on the Gulf north of Dhahran, is the proposed site of these huge developments. With jovial Ahmed Yousuf al-Dossary, a friend from Aramco, I drove there last February to record the timeless waterfront before time caught up with it.

Jubail turned out to be a charming village, but with clear signs that its idyllic period will soon be over. A new port is under construction, as well as a new market, schools and an ice plant. Most of the whitewashed mud-brick buildings were being torn down to make room for bigger, more spacious houses—from a photographer's point of view, not always as attractive.

We first stopped at the beach near the old jetty to watch the fishermen mend their nets. With tremendous dexterity, utilizing both hands to mend, and the toes to hold the net, the fishermen stitched holes up faster than my eyes could follow and register the exact way they were doing it.

Ahmed Yousuf and I strolled a little further and came across a good-looking young man busily making a big wire-mesh fish trap. Selim Muhammad Sekatry was immaculately dressed in a long white thobe and the traditional ghutra, or headdress. He was all smiles, greeted us courteously and kept working. Next to him were eight or 10 finished traps—each about two yards in diameter and of roughly the same height. Again I was impressed with the dexterity and speed with which the work was done. I tried to detect unevenness in the workmanship but could find none.

Selim did not slow down till some young boys came out of a house next door with a tray of tea for all of us. The tea was followed by coffee. To me this was especially touching, since we had not actually entered anyone's home—Selim was working in the street. I have found that hospitality in Saudi Arabia is not just a law or a duty, but is often extended quite "unnecessarily," and seems to give as much pleasure to the host as to his guest.

The sights and smells of the waterfront had given us an appetite for fish. Ahmed Yousuf took me to a little coffeehouse/restaurant/hotel in the traditional local style. Except for the kitchen it is all in one room. People sit cross-legged on tall benches that are quite comfortable, since the broad seat is made of woven rope. In front of the benches are equally long-legged tables. Stacked in a corner was a large assortment of narghilas (hubble-bubble pipes) awaiting customers.

After lunch we drove south along the coast with the headland of Ras Tanura and its gleaming refinery towers in the distance. Then we passed through the oasis town of Qatif and across a narrow stone causeway to the little village of Darin on Tarut Island. Darin, like Jubail, used to be a center for pearling and trade. Now there are fishermen and date farmers. There are few shops in the village, which consisted mainly of the little white houses of the fishermen and the crumbling remains of a Turkish fort.

Back on the mainland later, while strolling through narrow alleys and covered passageways of old Qatif, a much larger town just across from the island, Ahmed Yousuf and I came across some old houses with massive, beautiful wooden doors. Many were ornately carved with words from the Koran. The neighborhood residents took a puzzled but friendly interest in my photographer's excitement over the lovely old doors, and the subsequent picture taking.

Darin and Qatif are both old towns. Dammam, in the same coastal area in the direction of Dhahran, is nearly all new.

Ahmed Yousuf and I reached Dammam just in time to see school buses unloading children on street corners in an area that looked like suburbia anywhere. With only slight differences. There were mosques, the women were veiled and in long dresses, most men wore thobes and ghutras. Other than that, apartment buildings and neat houses with gardens lined the broad boulevards. Big American and smaller European cars cruised along. Three little boys on tricycles darted around a corner, a screaming sister chasing behind them. Across the street three teen-age schoolgirls in long blue uniform dresses, lightly veiled, demurely discussed the day's events.

This was Ahmed Yousuf's neighborhood. The three girls across the street turned out to be his daughters and he called for them to come to supper. We stopped for a refreshing cup of tea in his spacious living room before hurrying on to see the Dammam port—the largest Saudi port on the Gulf coast for handling cargo other than oil products.

"There it is!" I had to look twice before I realized that way at the end of a causeway, stretching miles straight into the Arabian Gulf, were the hazy shapes of numerous ships. We drove seven miles into the Gulf, to be exact, passing many people fishing and picnicking by the water's edge along the way. Ahmed Yousuf told me that about halfway out to the piers a freshwater spring bubbles up from beneath the sea and that in former times people from Dammam used to boat out to fetch their drinking water. "But now," he added, "Saudi Arabia has four completed sea-water desalination plants—and there are more to come—so drinking water isn't a problem."

In the sprawling al-Hasa Oasis, 65 miles southwest of Dhahran, the lack of water has never been a problem. Ahmed Yousuf and I drove to al-Hasa the next day. This 50,000-acre oasis, which embraces numbers of villages and several major towns, is home to more than 160,000 people. Al-Hasa has grown dates for as long as anyone knows, with plentiful fresh water flowing from some 100 natural springs and artesian wells. To make maximum use of the water and overcome the perennial drainage problem, the Saudi Arabian Government has built some 900 miles of elevated concrete irrigation canals, another 900 of drainage channels, and a 1000-mile road network. I photographed and wrote about the giant project nearly five years ago (Aramco World, November-December 1970).

Driving through the streets of Hofuf and through the palm groves, villages and garden plots, I realized that the change since my last visit was phenomenal. Seemingly half of the old mud villages had been abandoned for new homes in nearby locations. Donkeys, then still a common means of transport, had practically disappeared. Japanese pickup trucks and motorcycles had taken their place. Tractors rather than animals were pulling the plows. As for Hofuf, it looked to me as if bulldozers had leveled whole blocks to make room for new buildings. There was a boom-town feeling in the dusty air. So much change. I remembered a man who I thought made the finest long-spouted traditional Arab coffeepots in the Eastern Province. "Yes, Ali Salem is still here," Ahmed Yousuf told me.

We went to see Ali Salem, a dignified old gentleman with a well-trimmed beard. The craftsman had just finished a set of three handsome brass coffeepots, big, medium, and small. Through Ahmed Yousuf I asked how much they cost. "They're already sold," Ali Salem replied, looking up from his work. "A Bedouin bought them."

Ahmed: "But how much were they, anyway?"

Ali Salem: "1,200 riyals (nearly $350) for the three."

Ahmed: "They are beautiful, but that's a lot of money."

Ali Salem, a little condescendingly: "Bedouins buy nothing but the best. These were made to order." Ahmed Yousuf nodded to me and explained, "It's true. The Bedouins don't need much or buy much, but when they do they want the best quality."

We bade the craftsman farewell and since Ahmed Yousuf and I both frankly love to eat, we went on to a bakery to see whether the flat, round Hofuf bread was as good as I remembered it. It was. We bought some and carried it hot from the oven to a nearby hotel to have with the tender, fresh juicy lamb meat that I also think is unmatched outside Hofuf.

A few days later I flew over Hofuf and the gardens of al-Hasa in a small plane. I was on my way to an experimental farm project in Haradh, about 80 miles further south. As we took off from Dhahran we spotted the new al-Khobar desalination plant on the Arabian Gulf coast and soon after, Bahrain Island in the distance. We headed south along the cream-colored desert shore and the translucent, intensely blue waters of the Gulf and then turned inland. From the air, seen through a winter day's mist, al-Hasa no longer looked like an oasis but more like a huge gray-green carpet that had been slashed in a crisscross fashion by a giant machete—the concrete canals and channels—with the reflecting water being the only feature that stood out. We flew on south.

Until fairly recently Haradh was little more than a water hole for passing Bedouins, a few general-store trading shacks and a whistle stop on the Dammam-Riyadh railroad line. Now Haradh may hold one of the keys to the future of Saudi Arabia. There on the once-empty plain a new experimental farm sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture and Water mass produces both sheep and the grain to feed them.

Abdul Mohsen al-Ajaji picked us up at the landing strip. The young Saudi sheep farmer had a very American look in his glasses, blue jeans, blue sweatshirt and red shirt. In fact, he was from a town on the Arabian Gulf coast, though he had studied agriculture in the U.S. He radiated healthy, youthful enthusiasm.

Driving with Abdul Mohsen from the strip into the farm, I asked how he liked living out here in the middle of nowhere. "Until recently," he answered, "foreign experts have managed most of this kind of experimental project in Saudi Arabia. I think it's time we got into them as well. As a matter of fact," he continued, "I've become very enthusiastic about life on this farm, though to be honest, mostly after I got here. You know, you really get to know people closely in a pioneering situation like this."

After a brief courtesy call on the project's busy director, Abdul Mohsen took us to see the sheep. The bleating and baaaaaahing of more than 20,000 animals filled the air—as did the rather sharp whiff of an equal number of live hides of wool. On closer inspection the flocks looked extremely healthy and well fed. These blackish brown sheep with white heads are of the native Saudi Najdi breed.

I asked Abdul Mohsen about the farm. "This is a pilot project," he replied, "and produces breeding stock as well as meat. Nobody has raised penned sheep in Saudi Arabia before. If we succeed we will set an example for others to start similar farms. We now have between 22,000 to 24,000 head, and within five years we'll produce 150,000 a year. That could satisfy about 20 percent of the country's projected demand. With only five or six projects on this scale, we could be self-sufficient in meat." He continued: "A second goal is to provide job opportunities for Bedouins. Some workers here now make the equivalent of more than, $1,000 a month. They get such extras as air-conditioned quarters. When you provide this sort of job opportunity for a man used to the very hard life of a desert wanderer, he is probably going to stay. So in a way we are changing the mentality of the nomads."

Tor Eigeland, a Norwegian-born American citizen now based in Spain, has photographed and written about countries from Australia to Mexico—the long way around—for such publications as National Geographic, Fortune, Time and Newsweek. He covered the Middle East from Beirut for five years and has been a frequent contributor to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the January/February 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1975 images.