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Volume 35, Number 3May/June 1984

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Birth of a Dream

Written by Thomas C. Barger

I arrived in Saudi Arabia on December 13th 1937. I was hired in San Francisco allegedly to be a surveyor for a seismograph crew. They were very short of surveyors and needed me badly so I was rushed out to Saudi Arabia in 13 days, which was a record for the time. But when I met Max Steineke [the chief geologist] he said : Hello, sure glad to meet you, glad to have you here. I don’t know what I’ll do with you yet but I’m sure glad to have you here.’ He didn’t say anything about surveying for a seismic crew. He didn’t need one very badly, and he made me a junior geologist.

When I got there, there was a cloud of gloom hanging over the place. That was because they had drilled 10 wells; that is, they had drilled on Jabal Dhahran, which later became the Dammam field, and they had drilled a wildcat at al-Alat, which was absolutely dry. The holes in Dhahran had produced some oil and a little gas, but nothing in commercial quantities, and they were deepening No. 7 because it was in the best shape to be deepened, to see if there was something deeper than the zone which was producing oil in Bahrain. If there had not been, it's quite likely that Standard of California might have left Arabia.

Max Steineke didn’t seem to share this pessimism. He’d been across the peninsula in the spring of 1937 and spent three weeks getting back from Jiddah with Floyd Meeker who was the chief Mechanic. They roamed around from Jiddah to the Dahnaan area of desert sands 100 miles from Dhahram – with Max observing rocks and dips, and when he came back he wrote a paper on the geology of Saudi Arabia. That was the framework for all subsequent efforts by the geologists. It was a most remarkable accomplishment. Max had visions of all these rocks, limestone, sandstones, all kinds of good rocks that are associated with oil, and if they didn't find oil in this hole, then undoubtedly there would be other places you could find oil. Built was said that within the board of Standard of California there was great infighting between those who wanted to continue in Arabia and those who weren't going to throw any more of their money down a hole half a world away from San Francisco. Then No. 7 came in, in March of 1938, and I stayed 32 years instead of just that one year before getting sent to the Dutch East Indies.

I was a geologist. Max had two others: Jerry Harriss and Walt Hoag, operating as a field party. All the others, the first wave of geologists which had done the premier work, had gone home. They'd been three years in Arabia, and the only ones left were Max Steineke and 'Krug' Henry, and Krug left shortly after that. Max had these two geologists, and they weren't speaking to one another, and they hadn't spoken to one another for months during the previous field season. I think Max knew perfectly well what he was going to do with me. If I looked like I could do anything at all, he would replace one of these men with me and we'd have a new team together. So he sent Walt Hoag to Jiddah and put me out in the desert with Jerry Harriss.

[After a brief stint in the area around Salwa, Barger and Harriss were sent to the Rub' al-Khali].

We spent four months in the desert and never came into Dhahran. We were to explore the southeastern Rub' al-Khali at a time when nobody knew what was there. As we went further the sand dunes got thicker and thicker, and higher and higher, and we learned more about sand than anybody had known before - especially when you had to run in front of the cars to find some solid sand you could operate on. Finally we got as far as we could get with tine equipment we had, and Max came down with two more pickups. We had established some watering holes and we had run the assault on the southeastern Rub' al-Khali, but we didn't make it. We had arrived at a point where we could see that we could go down the slopes, but we'd never get back up them. And of course although we did have low-pressure tires on the sedans and the pickups, they didn't compare with what people use in the Rub' al-Khali these days. I learned a lot of Arabic in those four months.

The great thing about field work was that much of the time you were away from your established camp, so you carried a tent with you, but you never pitched it unless it rained or something, and so at nightfall you didn't have anything to do except sit around the campfire. We didn't carry any lamps with us. This gave me a great opportunity to listen to people talking Arabic. One thing about the Arabs, at least the ones I knew, is that they'd help you learn Arabic. They would put me down like they were training a hawk. You train a hawk by putting him on a pedestal and yelling his name at him day and night, hour after hour. They'd get me down with such words as mahfuz; I couldn't pronounce mahfuz at all. And that was fun. I told them about Custer's Last Stand and the Wooden Horse of Troy and such matters.

We had three exceptionally good guides. One of them was Khamis ibn Rim than. He had been assigned to the first field party that went out from Jubail in 1933 because he was known as a good guide; in fact, Khamis was the guide of all guides. When you got a new guide, you gave him to Khamis and Khamis decided whether he was trustworthy. And then we had two other guides, both of whom looked like figures from Biblical times. Salim Aba Rus had been sent down by Sa'ud ibn Jiluwi - governor of al-Hasa - to join us when we were at Salwa. He was an 'Amiri tribesman, while the other, 'Abd al-Hadi Jithina, was from the Al Murrah tribe.

But none of them compared with Khamis ibn Rimthan, although I must say 'Abd al-Hadi ibn Jithina and Salim Aba Rus were tremendous.

Khamis had a form of simplified Arabic, a whole vocabulary he knew Americans like Steineke and Jerry Harriss could comprehend. He simplified everything. You can get along very well with circumlocution in a language if you're imaginative. Tom Koch had this gift. Max Steineke said he knew a lot more Arabic than Tom did, but he couldn't talk it as well as Tom could. Tom had mastered the art of using his vocabulary in such a way that he got his message across. Khamis would make it simple for you. For Max, everything was in the second person singular. He didn't know the difference, and Khamis knew he didn't know the difference, so it was all right. They worked out the vagaries of Arabic grammar with no problem. As long as you had a verb of some kind and either the singular or the plural of the noun, why he made allowance for that too, automatically.

One time we were looking for a place called Wanan on the map. We drove all around, knowing it had to be within three or four miles of where we were. The guides said, 'No, there is no such place.' We were exasperated. How could we be so stupid? Finally it dawned on me that the guy who had written down this place name might not have doubled the 'n'. So I said, 'Surely this place has to be here. It says Wannan is right here.' 'Oh,Wannan,Wannan,' said the guide, 'Why didn't you say so?' The difference between Wanan and Wannan. A black ace is not the same as a black case.

[Barger and Harriss' four months in the Rub' al-Khali eventually resulted in a detailed report on the area: Geology of the Rub' al-Khali and Adjacent Portions of Southern Arabia. It dealt with the physiography, stratigraphy, structure, historical and economic geology of an area covering almost 40,000 square miles. The two geologists only learned of the discovery of oil in commercial quantities when Max Steineke drove down in March, 1938 and told them that Dammam No. 7 had come in.]

When we came in from the field in April, the place was alive with men laying out storehouses and roads and stabilizer sites, determining where to lay the pipelines, and so forth. Although they were still very cautious, part of the ground work was done on the assumption that No. 2 well would come in as an oil producer - which it did.

[Barger now realized that it was unlikely that he would ever be sent to the Dutch East Indies. Until America's entry into the war, he continued his exploration and mapping activities in the north around Ma'qala, Abu Hadriya and the Khurma Karim domes, whose structure had "bothered" Steineke, and which were subsequently found to be non-oil bearing surface features. Barger - to the considerable amusement of Khamis ibn Rimthan - also prepared an appendix to the geologic report on the Rub' al-Khali, on the Arabic names of plants and animals and a list of geographical names. By then, Barger was one of the few "veterans" left.]

In 1939 I was sent to Ma'qala with Ernie Berg. Max Steineke visited Ma'qala on his way back from Jiddah, but he didn't have time to really look at it. I was the only one of the old-timers left. Jerry Harriss was out of the picture because he had had an operation for hemorrhoids and fallen in love with the nurse. It took him forever to finish the report on the Rub' al-Khali. I had done the maps and all my part of it, but he hadn't done the geology. Years later, running across Max's weekly letters to Nomland in San Francisco, I read: 'Harriss is working on the Rub' al-Khali report.' Next week: 'Harriss is making significant progress on the Rub' al-Khali report.' He wasn't in any hurry to finish. And that left me taking a new team of geologists out into the hinterland.

I'd been up north helping with the triangulation station. Max called me in and said, 'I want you to go up to Ma'qala and see what's happening there. I didn't have time to look at it, but there's something funny there. You go and find out what it is.'

Those were my instructions for five months of work. I said, 'Well, where the hell is it, Max?' 'We'll get you a guide,' he said, 'we'll get you a guide and he can find it.' So we went out and found what was happening at Ma'qala.

Dick Bramkamp was chief paleontologist and later chief geologist; he succeeded Max when Max died in 1952. He was a great guy and a very good scientist. He was very helpful to all of us. I had no paleontology at all, except what I had learned from books. We eventually mapped a structure at Ma'qala. Bramkamp was of inestimable value to us, because we were dealing with Eocene limestone and there weren't any very clear markers in the limestone we could see. Dick came out from time to time and spent two, three or four days with us, examining rocks and looking at small fossils. This enabled us to identify a couple of marker beds. Otherwise we would not have been able to delineate a structure.

Sinkholes were very useful, because you had an opportunity to look at rocks you couldn't have looked at otherwise. I'd climb down, crawl around, knock off samples and then locate them on the map. Bramkamp would come and look at the fossils. He found a tiny one we called the nutmeg stone. It looked for all the world like a miniature nutmeg. It was yellowish brown. The nutmeg zone was very useful to us; you could map it and roughly tell the underlying structure. Ma'qala was also great for my Arabic because I didn't have Khamis and none of the soldiers spoke any English and had had no prior association with Americans. If you were going to speak Arabic, by God, you spoke Arabic. You sank or swam.

I think it was at Ma'qala that I first met the king. We didn't have much to show him except a radio that didn't work very well and a gravity meter. The gravity meter was an impressive looking thing. It was in a trailer and had lots of dials and knobs. The king and the crown prince arrived and we were going to show this to them. The king said to the crown prince, 'You get in first.' 'No,' the crown prince replied, I don't get in first. You're the majesty, you get in first. Besides that,' he said, I don't understand these things.' I don't understand them either,' said the king. But they went in and looked around.

In 1941 the geology program was shut down because of the war, particularly the fighting in North Africa and the troubles in Iraq. All the field geologists had gone home. I was the only one who came back from leave in 1941. I left San Francisco in February and arrived in Saudi Arabia in May. The only ones there were Dick Bramkamp, a paleontologist, and Max, who was chief geologist, and two seismic people. Just after my arrival, Max - to the horror of Dick Bramkamp - embarked upon a report on the geology of the region lying between the Rann of Kutch to the east, Cyprus to the west and the Ural mountains to the north. Bramkamp was utterly appalled. 'We haven't got any literature, Max!'

All we had was a little geological laboratory and a library you could fit in a small bookcase. Max, undaunted, kept on the project. This perfectly illustrates the difference between these two men. Both were tremendously competent geologists. Dick was never willing to commit himself until he had nailed down every last shingle. He went to his grave having never written down all he knew, because there was always one more piece of information that he had to get. Max, on the other hand, periodically wrote down everything he knew. If his successors found that he was utterly wrong, that was fine with him.

I learned more geology in that six- or eight-week period than I learned in the two or three years I'd been in Arabia, because Bramkamp and Steineke got into the most awful shouting matches about geology and I was the referee. Besides, I could read Max's handwriting, which was execrable, and I read his drafts and helped out the typist.

I first met Sa'ud ibn Jiluwi, the governor of al-Hasa, on my second field trip in the fall of 1938. He was famed for his taciturnity. One time we went to his majlis in Hofuf. It was a long room on the second floor. He sat on a chair at the far end with chairs all along both sides occupied by his khuwiya or guards. I said, 'as-salam 'alaikum' (peace be upon you), and he said, 'wa 'alaikum as-salam' (and upon you be peace). We went through all the ritualized Arabic greetings, 'Evenings of light', 'How is your health?', 'Praise be to God!', 'And how is your health?,' 'al-hamdu li-llah!' Then he stopped. We sat and we sat. I said, 'Well, we're going down to the south there. As you know, we're a party of geologists and we came to pay our respects.'

He just replied quietly, 'al-hamdu li-llah.' Then a guard down at the far end of the room hollered at the top of his voice, 'qahwa!’ They had been watching Ibn Jiluwi's lips, and he had said 'coffee' under his breath. It caught us by surprise, this man with a rifle, bandoliers and daggers, suddenly shouting out like that. Then you could hear the call for coffee going down the stairs and clear out into the recesses of the kitchen, 'qahwa! qahwa!' Then they. brought coffee. We chatted some more. Then he whispered 'qahwa!'. We had more qahwa and then left.

The development of the oil fields created a new political center in al-Hasa, Dammam. For a time the amir went back and forth between Hofuf and Dammam, but eventually he moved to Dammam. At one time I used to go every morning to Dammam to see him, to pay my respects. This was of course after I had moved to government relations from geology. We would go through the ritual, 'I'm all right; how are you? It's a nice day. Praise be to God!' Then we'd have coffee in our usual way and I'd take my leave. I'd do business next door with the secretary. 'Abd al-'Aziz Mubarak came along as interpreter. He loved the qahwa ritual. One time he said to me, 'Anytime Sa'ud ibn Jiluwi is in a good mood, you'll win a riyal and anytime he's in a bad mood I'll win a riyal.'

I said, 'Abd al-'Aziz, how in hell can you tell when he's in a good mood?' He said, 'If he talks about anything between the time we get there and say hello to him and the time we take our leave, besides talking about coffee, tea and the weather, he's in a good mood.' 'No way,' I said, 'no way'

But the amir gradually changed. Eventually, he would invite me in for long chats. He was insatiably curious. Onetime, about 8.00 in the evening, I got a message saying he wanted to see me. I rushed to Dammam to see what the emergency was. I went right into his majlis. We sat there and sat there and finally I said to him, 'What was it you wanted to see me about?' 'Oh,' he said, I didn't want to see you about anything. I just wanted to talk.' By about 1948, he talked with me about practically everything.

[Barger was first approached by government relations while he was stationed at the Yabrin oasis, his base camp for the Rub' al-Khali expedition. Max Steineke drove down to tell him the news, leaving the decision up to him, although he was anxious to have Barger as his second-in-command].

Yabrin was abandoned because of malaria. The palms there were owned by the Al Murrah tribe. They came in the springtime and fertilized the dates, went away and came back in the fall to gather the harvest.

We could see these damned wigglers in the wells. We knew the fish ate them, but we didn't know how we could get fish there without great difficulty. Frogs were a different matter. There were a lot of frogs in the Qatif oasis. One time when one of our trucks was going there, we gave Salih, our cook, 10 riyals and said we wanted 100 frogs. He was to put the frogs in a box - a layer of frogs, then some wet alfalfa on top and then more frogs and more alfalfa. Salih said, 'Well no, don't do that; they'll all die. Just put them in an empty five-gallon drum and put the water in and...' 'Do what we tell you to do, we told him, 'Frogs do not live in water, they live on land.' To Salih: astonishment, I think all but two of the frogs survived the journey from Hofuf to Yabrin. We found out later they didn't have much effect on the mosquitoes, but they survived there. I went back several years later and there were still frogs around. It was an attempt to ameliorate the malaria.

[Government relations brought Barger ink contact with a number of key figures in the Saudi government, among them the minister of finance, Abdullah Sulaiman].

Abdullah Sulaiman was a Najdi, from Qasim, and he was with the king from very early times. He went through all those hard years of the Depression, when the king would write chits out to people and say, 'Go to Abdullah Sulaiman and get them deemed.' If he didn't have anything to redeem them with, he made himself scarce. He was a man of great patience. He tried to develop agriculture. He was the grinding horse on the al-Kharj agricultural project. When we had things to discuss, they were discussed in a way designed to solve the problem, not make it worse.

Salah Islam was the assistant local government representative. He represented the minister of finance, who was the man charged with the responsibility for relations with the company relative to the concession. He lived in al-Hasa, but he didn't have the same jurisdiction as Sa'ud ibn Jiluwi. His was limited to the company and company affairs.

When he first came, we discovered that Salah spoke German. So Floyd Ohliger communicated with Salah by way of Bill Eltiste, who spoke German as well. The local government representative would tell Salah, his assistant, something in Arabic. Then Salah would tell Bill Eltiste in German and Bill would tell this to Floyd in English, and then it would go back again. You can imagine how many nuances got lost in this way, but as long as people were willing to go half way and try to understand each other, it worked. In fact, it worked very well. Salah was also a man of great vision. Soon after the discovery of oil, he said, 'You know, one day al-Khobar and Dammam will be the same town. There will be a great city here.'

He taught himself English. He said, 'I started reading the dictionary. But I only got to the letter "c".' I said, 'There has to be some easier way than this to learn English.' So he got some people to help him and during the war I gave him a book a month to read - paperbacks, everything from Popular Science to Damon Runyon's Emerald Inn. The result of this unorthodox education was that Salah became one of the best interpreters from English to Arabic.

I was placed in government relations presumably because I knew quite a lot of Arabic for the time. We didn't have any working hours. We worked fairly hard, but we also had leisure time. We didn't have any whistles blowing. For example, I had time to help Salah Islam plant the first palms in al-Khobar. Al-Khobar was nearly barren. We'd had an agriculturalist by the name of Hamilton, who came with the U. S. Agricultural Mission of 1942 to advise us. He suggested that we install flaps - check valves. When the tide came in, these flaps would shut so that the full salinity of the Gulf wasn't brought onto the land. Then when the tide went out, fresher water from springs came in behind. We built the traps, and they worked. I did the surveying, Salah Islam supplied the enthusiasm and we got palms growing where they'd never been before.

If a guy had to work 24 hours to get the job done, it was expected he'd work 24 hours. On the other hand, no one would begrudge him knocking off for a gazelle hunt for a couple of days.

Everybody had close contact with the local people. This gave us time to develop a small cadre of people who knew something about the country that they might not have learned if they had been under forced draft. People like Paul Arnot, a petroleum engineer, or like Bill Palmer, who was a jack of all trades. There were enough of us to foresee problems and take action to temper them.

Bill Eltiste was remarkable. I think his education was limited to high school. But he was a born mechanic. He had a great deal of experience abroad, in South America and other places. He had great good sense and was very modest, and he had a sharp, inquisitive mind. His idea of a good weekend was to go to bed with an electrical engineer's handbook.

When it became apparent that needs were developing which we were either going to have to fill ourselves or get someone else to fill, Floyd Ohliger put Bill Eltiste in charge of a new outfit, which was to see what we could do about developing the local community. We knew it would be a good thing for them and a good thing for us.

We had very large purchasing power, if we could use it. But we couldn't use it if people didn't know how to conduct purchasing or if they didn't have a big enough market to get things which we could use in a fair quantity, but that the local people didn't use - such as Kleenex, for example. Bill's job was to see what he could do about developing these things. He was a man of complete probity. He was soft spoken and engaging and people trusted him and he knew his business.

He had considerable expertise in a large number of fields, mainly mechanical, and he could tell you how to run a diesel engine if you wanted power plants. He could help you drill a water well if you wanted to drill water wells. He knew a lot of things.

We instituted a plan whereby Saudi employees could leave the company for a year and see if they could establish themselves as entrepreneurs. If they were unsuccessful, they could come back to the company with no loss in status or benefits. If they wanted to be independent, then all to the good, because that was what both we and al-Hasa needed - to build the economy.

Sulaiman Olayan was one of these. He started in the storehouse and eventually we got him into government relations, where he served as an interpreter. Then he started hauling pipe for the Trans-Arabian Pipeline on contract.

There were others too, and it took a lot of courage to do this kind of thing. There were the Hazza brothers, for instance, and 'Ali Tamimi and Bin Laden.

Bin Laden was a natural entrepreneur. He took enormous risks and got great rewards. Then of course there were a great many people who went into business simply because Aramco had decided that its business was producing oil and not running paint shops and welding shops or making nitrogen gas and oxygen gas for welding. The idea was to inject money into the local economy if at all possible.

It is an enormous satisfaction to grow up with a society which is in rapid change and to do what you can to help.

Khamis: “The guide of guides”
Written by William Tracy

"Khamis ibn Rintham," recalls Tom Barger, "was the guide of guides."

"If you asked Khamis, 'How far is it from here to the top of the jahal over there?' he'd say, 'You mean straight across or by the road?' and... if he was familiar with that neighborhood... give it to you within a few meters. Khamis was one of the few who knew numbers, in the sense of knowing them exactly. One time...down...in Wadi Sulayyil, we were guessing how far it was to Dhahran, and Khamis guessed 500 miles (800 kilometers). As far as our map was concerned, it was about 530 (850). And the only reason he was off, I'm sure, was because the direction of the prevailing wind had changed a lot by the time we got down there. He came to me when we were there and said, Is the North Star always in the same place in the sky?' And I said, 'Yes. As far as you can tell with the human eye, it's in the same place.' He said, I thought that was so, but you know down here I look up to the North Star and I'm a little bit off. It looks over here instead of over there.' He was serious. When he looked up to find the North Star, it wasn't where he expected it to be. And I'm sure that the problem was that there had been a shift in the general wind direction, and the direction of the dunes and the sand build-ups behind the bushes had changed.

"I used to ask Khamis how he could find his way from one place to another in the kingdom. If I told him that I wanted to go to, let's say, Wadi Ranya, in the Hijaz, what would he have to do to find his way there? He said he'd have to have two good men and time to interrogate them. If they were good men he could find it. But they had to be good.

"Khamis was always full of jokes. Once when Les Snyder and I were going to al-Kharj, the local government representative asked us if we would take along Yusuf, a young Saudi who'd been schooled in India and was trying to get to Jiddah. We said sure. So we started out for al-Kharj... and Khamis found... that this young man didn't know anything about Arabia. And so then they started discussing the Bedouin - how they acted and so forth, and what about game? Well, said Khamis, the place was full of ostriches, and advised him to keep a sharp lookout for ostriches, because you're likely to see one at any time. Khamis was having a wonderful time. For example, Yusuf said, 'What do the Bedouin eat? Do they eat foxes?' 'Oh, they love foxes,' said Khamis. Of course the Bedouin wouldn't touch fox with a 10-foot pole. It would be like eating a dog.

"We went by the southern road to Hofuf and crossed the Dahna. There were just two tracks... and when we came to the Dahna sands the road disappeared. So we drove along, and every once in a while we'd stop and Khamis and I would get out and climb a high dune and look around... and we debated as to when we should turn south, because when we turned south we... got into Wadi Sahba and then we went right into al-Kharj.

"But we were in an area that neither Khamis nor I were familiar with. So we decided we would go on further west. We cut off, and when we came to where the cliffs of the escarpment go clear down to al-Kharj... [we]... couldn't find any way to get down... We decided... to... head further east, and then we could cut down the escarpment. This was about sunset.

"[When] we started to make camp... Yusuf came to me. He was weeping... 'We're lost, we're lost, we'll all die of thirst in this trackless desert.' And I said, 'What makes you think we're lost?' He said, 'I asked Khamis. I asked him if he knew where we were and he said he didn't know.'

"Of course this was true, he didn't know where we were in a very strict sense, but not in the sense that Yusuf took it. When we got to al-Kharj, he was very grateful.

"Yusuf went on to Jiddah, and we unloaded. We used to carry our stuff in green-painted boxes ... big enough to take two five-gallon kerosene cans... So we took a couple of these out and put them alongside the wall...and then we came back and I decided I'd look at the sextant. I lifted the green box up and there was this big snake. I had a .22 pistol so I shot the snake. And Khamis, hearing the shot, came back running to see what it was about. And I said, 'Well, I shot this snake.'...And he walked away with the snake on a stick. When he got about 20 or 25 feet away, he stopped. He said, 'I wish Yusuf were here.' I said, 'Why? What would you want Yusuf here for?' He said, 'I'd tell him I'm gonna take this away and make soup out of it.'"

This article appeared on pages 34-41 of the May/June 1984 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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