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Volume 50, Number 6November/December 1999

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Aramco World Turns 50

Written by William Tracy

This November, the company dedicated to trade in "black gold" from Saudi Arabia marks the golden anniversary of its own issue-by-issue storehouse of information, Aramco World. During the last 50 years, Aramco World has become a kind of informational magazine of our intercultural world, both in the traditional publishing sense and in the information-age sense of its Arabic root makhzan (right).

When Aramco World published its first issue in November 1949, it was an unnamed, four-page newsletter issued by the New York office of Aramco to help the company's roughly 1000 employees "get better acquainted." Aramco's global reach was, at the time, a matter of enormous effort and pride, and the nameplate artwork adopted within a year showed graphically what "World" meant in the company: A crescent slice of the globe arced, rainbow-like, across the top of the page; on the left appeared the United States and a drawing of the company's Park Avenue skyscraper headquarters, while on the right were Saudi Arabia and a drawing of an oil-processing plant. The two symbols were less than 20 centimeters (8") apart in print, but they represented what were then two very different worlds that knew little about each other's differences—or similarities.

In the postwar years the company's activities in Saudi Arabia were booming: Production was 40 times its wartime low. Aramco's management recognized that if it were to continue to develop the Saudi concession, which was proving to be priceless in economic and strategic terms, it would have to work to bridge the natural but enormous cultural gaps between its expatriate, largely American, workers and their Saudi counterparts and hosts. In doing so, the company's new vice-president of public relations, Harold Thompson, was fortunate to be able to work with James Terry Duce and Thomas Barger, two executives who, although the term was not yet coined, were men of great cultural sensitivity. Their preference for cooperation and their deep respect for Saudi Arabia's heritage marked Aramco's philosophical break with an era of one-sided resource exploitation in the Middle East.

Duce came to his job with first-hand experience of US oil businesses in South America. He rose to become Aramco's vice president for government relations, an extremely sensitive liaison post between the business of the company and the government of the country. Barger was a geologist who had learned Arabic from Bedouins during long field surveys in the 1930's. He became Aramco's president, CEO and board chairman before he retired in 1969. Both men impressed upon others in the company the significance of cross-cultural education for Arabia-bound American employees and their families.

But there were few ready sources of information with which to carry out this task, and so the company developed its own. They included a series of handbooks, and to supplement them there was the new company magazine.

Soon after its launch, Aramco World began to carry brief news items from Saudi Arabia on a page called "Reports from the Field." The reporter was a young Harvard graduate named Joe Alex Morris, Jr., who in 1968 would appear on the cover of the magazine as Middle East bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. (He would be killed 11 years later while covering the Iranian revolution.)

In 1952 Aramco moved its corporate headquarters to Dhahran, and in December the newsletter took on the look and feel of a real magazine. For the first time, the editor, Thomas J. Gartland, was listed on the masthead; over the decade, the names of Howard Biers, Leonard Turk and Brainerd S. Bates would appear there, too, and the latter two had life-long associations with the magazine.

Though much of Aramco World's material remained internal to the New York office—new faces, service awards, bowling and Softball leagues, blood drives—the reports from Saudi Arabia were exciting as the company prospered and expanded rapidly, and the expatriate work force grew. Employees read about the construction of the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line (Tapline) from the Eastern Province to the Mediterranean Sea, and the enormous project to build the port of Dammam and the railroad between Dammam and Riyadh. To the Americans of Aramco, it was as if a new frontier were opening: Seemingly unlimited resources were being discovered in an unknown land. Following so closely the horror of two World Wars, the boom was exhilarating, easily understood as a sign of a brighter future. At Aramco's Long Island training center, throughout the 1950's, wave after wave of new hires undertook a six-week course in Arabic and local customs and then boarded one of the company's DC-4's—later DC-6B's—dubbed The Flying Camel and The Flying Gazelle.

Yet nobody at the time was thinking in terms of "cultural diversity." The Cold War dominated US foreign affairs, and even the term "Third World" was new, as dozens of independent nation-states emerged from crumbling colonial empires. In retrospect, it is remarkable that the foundation of Aramco World's intercultural approach was so soundly laid so early on. Then, as today, the magazine's message was that people are not all the same, but that their differences are of mutual interest; their societies and cultures are often historically interdependent in surprising ways; and that seeking to understand one another is an intrinsically enlightening process whose fruits are material, political and cultural.

As Aramco World turned increasingly toward intercultural bridge-building, it was not long before the editors began to hear from others in the Americas and Europe who were likewise eager to cross those spans to the Middle East. They included businessmen as well as journalists, clergy, teachers and students, all eager to explore far-away lands, now newly newsworthy, that most knew only from museums, Bibles or schoolbook histories. Among articles about the company and its oil-related activities, the magazine published features on the origins of the alphabet and Arabic numerals; the history of stars, navigation and sailing ships; pearl diving, coffee growing and brocade weaving; dates, figs, sherbets and honey-flavored sweets; salukis, cats and camels; medicine and desert flowers; lamps, toys, soap-making and the arts of calligraphy and ceramic tiles.

Many of these articles were illustrated with photos and drawings obtained from New York agencies. But with the help of company photographers such as Robert Yarnell Ritchie, Thomas F. Walters, Khalil Abou El-Nasr and V. K. Antony, the drama of oil exploration and the search for cultural links began to come back to readers in the form of striking black-and-white images made on location for Aramco World. Design was by Graham Associates in New York; Ray and Roy Graham had known James Terry Duce from his service in Washington, D.C. with the Petroleum Administration for War. The Grahams also produced other publications and films for Aramco, and in 1952 they opened the Middle East Export Press, Inc. (MEEPI) in Beirut, Lebanon, to serve American businesses in the region.

It was around this time I first encountered Aramco World. I had just graduated from university, and my father worked for Aramco in Ras Tanura, a refinery town and port that was already one of the world's largest crude-exporting terminals. Like most of his colleagues, he was a product of the oilfields of his native downstate Illinois, and he and my mother saw themselves as 20th-century pioneers. (See Aramco World, July/August 1968.)

One day an Aramco World writer—I do not remember his name—came to our home on the Arabian Gulf to interview my mother for an article called "A Day in the Life of an Aramco Housewife," which was published in February 1958. To me, our visitor represented something new and exciting: the all-American, down-home, idealistic integrity of the Saturday Evening Post and the drama of Life combined with subject matter that spoke to my world. I decided then and there that I would aspire to someday write for Aramco World, that I would have something to say there. It was seven years before my first article appeared —and 35 years until this present one, with dozens in between.

In the 1960's, at the urging of Jack Butler, general manager of public relations in Dhahran, Aramco decided to move Aramco World's editorial offices closer to the areas covered in the magazine. Beirut seemed ideal: Two Aramco subsidiaries, Tapline and Aramco Overseas Company (AOC), maintained offices there, and the city was emerging as a hub, a headquarters city for American corporations doing business in the Middle East. It hosted a lively overseas press corps, and the company had had good experiences with the Grahams' MEEPI, where Aramco World would be printed.

The move required a new editor. At New York's Columbia University, Aramco found Paul F. Hoye as he was completing a Ford Foundation Fellowship in advanced international reporting, with a focus on Middle East studies. Hoye had begun his career as a reporter on the Providence [Rhode Island] Journal, and Aramco thought that his popular, newsman's style, regional knowledge and exceptional personal energy would give Aramco World the new direction the company sought. Hoye and his family set up house in Beirut in January 1964, and he would edit the magazine until his death in 1986. The magazine's days as a house organ were over, and Aramco World became largely what it is today: an educational magazine aimed at a general readership. It was probably the most significant editorial decision the company made.

It was also a decision with an important invisible addendum—one that proved essential to the magazine's future success. If Aramco World was to be sponsored by the company yet aimed at readers outside the company, then the company's public reputation would, to some degree, be riding on the magazine. If the magazine demonstrated poor production quality, if it focused too exclusively on company matters, if it were unprofessionally run, those flaws would reflect on Aramco. Above all, if it were anything less than accurate about the region and the cultures that it covered, it might be seen as pandering or propagandistic. So it was decided that all of Aramco World's articles would be reviewed in Saudi Arabia by Aramco's Saudi experts, some of great reputation, before publication. That requirement grated on Paul Hoye's newspaperman's instincts, but he eventually recognized that the magazine and the company each benefited from the vetting. Today, knowledgeable readers in Dhahran still review the magazine's texts, and their background and expertise lend the magazine an authority that is an important part of its value to its readers.

The first Beirut issue, July/August 1964, arrived with a splash: It was the first to be printed in two colors, and was designed by Donald Thompson of MEEPI, who later joined Aramco's public relations staff. It demonstrated Hoye's bright, enthusiastic style and Beirut's sophistication. From this first issue, a frequent visitor to Aramco World's office, located in the same building as the two Aramco subsidiaries, was Shafiq Kombargi of AOC's management. He provided connections, guidance and administrative support then and for the following 35 years, until his retirement last January.

Lebanon provided the magazine a host of contributors—journalists, academics, established authors and bright green freelancers—all eager to make a living and to have a chance to write from a point of view that was unique for an English-language publication: Aramco World took the Middle East, Arab culture and Islam as its points of departure, as distinct from the "outsider" viewpoint that characterizes foreign news and feature writing.

I was teaching English at Beirut's International College when the magazine came to the city, and after contributing an article and photographs to the second "Lebanon issue," I began to mingle and work more with the members of Hoye's loose stable of "regulars." In 1967, when assistant editor Jan van Os returned to practice journalism in his native Holland, Hoye asked if I would like to replace him. It was 10 years since the writer had come to our Ras Tanura home, and I was ecstatic.

Other "regular contributors" from 1964 to 1975 included Daniel da Cruz, a former Marine whose no-nonsense prose delighted ex-newsman Hoye; Burnett Moody, Aramco's globetrotting chief photographer; and United Press International correspondent John Lawton, who later authored several of the magazine's most peripatetic issues, on the Silk Roads and on Muslim communities in China and the USSR. Historian Paul Lunde had, like me, grown up in Saudi Arabia, and was so brimming with ideas that he irritated Hoye by writing at two and three times his assigned length, but his skill at ferreting out little-known aspects of Islamic heritage endeared him no less. Brainerd Bates, who had moved to Dhahran, sent short, pithy pieces, often with a personal flavor. Associated Press writer Elias Antar, today still with the agency in London, was there, as was Joseph Fitchett, now political correspondent of the International Herald Tribune in Paris; so was Rami Khouri, who is today an internationally respected commentator in Amman.

Another young writer, Robert Arndt, was the third generation of his family to live and work in Turkey. He submitted his first article from there in 1973, and became a regular. I remember Hoye's frustration editing him, because his articles were so tightly written that changing a phrase on one page could cause paragraphs two pages on to totter. He soon joined Aramco's public-relations staff in Dhahran, and in 1977 traded seats with me to serve for three years as assistant editor. Martin Love succeeded him in that post.

There were photographers, too: Norwegian-born, Mexico-educated Tor Eigeland, who also shot for National Geographic and other major magazines; Nik Wheeler, a dashing Englishman now based in Hollywood; and Lebanese-American Robert Azzi, who began every out-of-country assignment with a last-minute, the-taxi's-honking search for his passport, which he never put in the same place twice. John Feeney was a New Zealand-born Canadian filmmaker based in Cairo, where he still resides. New Yorker Katrina Thomas excelled at photographing people, especially women and children, who were more elusive for male photographers. Shaikh Muhammad Amin, a Pakistan-born member of Aramco's public-relations staff in Dhahran, was the one the magazine relied on to photograph in Makkah and Madinah, in company facilities and many other places besides.

For articles that could not be photographed, the magazine turned to artists: Penny Williams-Yaqub sketched and painted light-heartedly, yet with a keen eye for gesture and detail. From his studio near London, Michael Grimsdale rendered historical paintings, and Netherlands-based Norman MacDonald washed watercolors over confident field sketches as a "location artist."

The first four-color cover of Aramco World appeared in November/ December 1964; I was proud to be assigned to photograph its first four-color feature, on Arab East Jerusalem, in March/April 1965—after which Don Thompson, the designer, told me crisply to buy a new camera: "You need to sharpen your focus!" The first all-color issue was September/October 1965, "Arabia the Beautiful," devoted almost entirely to a journey by Hoye and Moody to the spectacular landscapes and rock-cut Nabataean tombs of Madain Salih in northwestern Saudi Arabia. From then on, black-and-white photography grew increasingly rare in the magazine.

Hoye's style was as bold and ebullient as the boom-times themselves. He liked to draw readers' attentions to single topics, to which he would devote entire issues of Aramco World, mixing reportage, interviews and historical perspectives with photographs, illustrations, maps, archival prints and paintings. It was as though he were editor of the news, features, commentary, business, sports, food and entertainment sections of a newspaper all rolled into one bimonthly magazine, and the changes afoot in the Arab world were big enough to warrant such treatment. He surveyed industrial development by sending more than a dozen photographers to as many countries, yet also published "Scenic Arabia," entirely written and photographed by Eigeland. "Arabs in America" was the first of three special issues focusing on the contributions of Arab immigrants to the United States, and for it he produced sketches and photos of Arab-Americans in each of the 50 states. Aramco World's special issue on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah, had photographs by Amin and articles by Lunde and Ismail Nawwab, a Makkan scholar who had studied at the University of Edinburgh and taught at Kuala Lumpur, along with a personal account by American Muslim Michael Jansen, who made the Hajj with her husband and small daughter. Hoye's enthusiasm came out again in 1971's "The Arab Woman" and 1972's "Sports in the Arab World," Life-sized issues that looked spectacular but stymied the growing number of readers who bound their Aramco World issues for their personal libraries.

But not long after that Lebanon's civil war began, and that changed everything in "the Paris of the Middle East." By the end of 1975, it became clear that Aramco World could no longer be published and distributed from there. In the fall of that year, Hoye went to the Netherlands to set up operations in The Hague, where AOC's European offices were located. The network of writers and artists established in Beirut served the magazine well, thanks in part to improvements in international communications, and over the next few years Aramco World was designed and printed by a number of firms in both Holland and across the Channel in England.

Hoye continued to love single-topic issues and special sections: John Sabini, an Aramco writer who had retired to England, helped prepare an issue on London's 1976 "World of Islam Festival"; Tor Eigeland, then living in Spain, wrote and photographed "Islam in Al-Andalus" and, with Lawton, covered the long-haul trucking trade between Europe and the Arab world in an issue titled "Truckers East." "Muslims in Europe" portrayed the trials and triumphs of Turkish and North African immigrants in France, Holland and Germany; "Arab Aid" showed how the oil-producing nations of the Arabian Gulf region were devoting large percentages of their national incomes to development projects throughout Asia and Africa. From Cairo, a young journalist on a fellowship at the American University, Arthur Clark, began sending in material in 1977, and kept doing so as he moved on to Iowa and Ireland. Aramco hired him to write in Dhahran, where he produced much of a special section on solar energy. He has continued ever since to turn in charming, carefully crafted articles on a remarkably wide range of topics.

Although the company received its share of attention in the magazine's pages, it was by then a well-established tradition that Aramco World wrote about the oil industry or Aramco itself only when the story was of interest to its general readership—as in the early 1980's when Aramco completed the Master Gas System, the nationwide effort that allowed Saudi Arabia to finally exploit its vast natural gas resources. The 50th anniversary of the search for Saudi Arabian oil also earned a special issue in May/June 1984 because, as Hoye explained, "We are also celebrating another story: how the sons and grandsons of a developing society came to operate and manage the largest oil producing company in history."

Saudi Arabia and the Arab world were changing, and so was the rest of the world. China opened its doors, and a special issue, "Muslims in China," appeared in March/ April 1985, the result of a trip of more than 5000 kilometers (3000 mi) inside China by Lawton, his Turkish-speaking wife and Wheeler.

I last met with my friend Paul Hoye in the spring of 1986. I was freelancing and teaching in Santa Barbara, California when he dropped in for a night. He talked enthusiastically about a printing press he had just visited in Los Angeles, and asked me to fly to Vancouver in May to cover the Saudi and other Middle Eastern pavilions at Expo '86. It was a great assignment—I worked with my Beirut friend Wheeler and photographed Princess Diana when she visited the Saudi pavilion—but before the article ran in the July/August issue I learned that Hoye had multiple melanoma and only weeks to live.

He spent most of that time at his desk in the Netherlands, editing the last of his sweeping special issues, "The Arab Immigrants," pegged to the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. As it went to press, Hoye died at age 59. Ismail Nawwab, by then Aramco's general manager of public affairs, wrote of Hoye that he had brought to the magazine "a deep and heartfelt determination to light a candle of understanding that would help to illumine the world of the Arabs and Islam for the eyes of the English-speaking West." Nawwab's tribute, printed on the last page of Hoye's last issue, concluded, "Paul Hoye's life is now extinguished. The beautiful candle that he lit still burns."

Old-timers Lawton, Lunde and others kept the magazine going for a few months until Aramco tapped Robert Arndt to succeed Hoye. But the magazine's days in the Netherlands were numbered: The advent of the fax machine made it possible to send layouts across the ocean. Transatlantic shipping costs had increased while Aramco World's  US circulation had grown, and Aramco decided to return the magazine to the United States and base it with another subsidiary, Aramco Services Company, in Houston, Texas. There, old Beirut hand Shafiq Kombargi was director of public affairs.

The January/February 1987 issue was the first with Arndt's name on the masthead as editor. By May/June, the magazine was being printed in the United States, although it continued to be designed until 1994 by Peter Keenan in London. Arndt's experience in Turkey was reflected in a spring cover story on the book collections of Istanbul's Topkapı Palace. More special issues appeared on cultural subjects, reflecting Arndt's orientation: Saudi Arabian traditional arts; "Flavors of the Middle East," devoted to cuisine; and, continuing the magazine's far-flung coverage, "Traveling the Silk Roads" in July/ August 1988, which drew on extensive contributions from Lawton, Lunde, Eigeland and Wheeler. The cover was another production milestone: It showed a bus driving across the Asian steppe atop a highway that had been electronically "paved" with a bolt of shimmering yellow silk.

In 1988, a royal decree established the Saudi Arabian Oil Company to take over the responsibilities of Aramco, whose assets the Saudi government had gradually purchased from the company's shareholders. The acronym Aramco no longer fit, of course, but it was too familiar—and embodied too good a reputation—to drop, so the new company was given the parenthetical.

At the same time, interest in the countries of the Middle East had increased in the West. In the United States this was evidenced by the flourishing of language, culture and history courses and degrees at universities throughout the country. As an intercultural resource, Aramco World was no longer alone. Yet its point of view was still unique, neither American nor Arab, and there was still ample work to be done as Saudi Aramco's operations became increasingly global, and the degree of public understanding that would constitute a favorable business climate, although greater than in the past, was still lacking in many respects.

The early 1990's brought several one-subject issues of note: "Muslims in the USSR," (January/February 1990), took advantage of glasnost' to look at the six Islamic republics of the southern USSR shortly before the latter's breakup the next year. "Islam's Path East" (November/December 1991) traced the spread of Islam from its Arabian heartland to the East Indies and the Orient; "The Middle East and the Age of Discovery" (May/June 1992) was written entirely by Paul Lunde, pegged to the quincentenary of Columbus's landfall in today's Dominican Republic. That issue explored the "intellectual spark ...kindled in the East" that underpinned the voyages of Portugal's and Spain's westbound adventurers.

In Houston, several assistant editors moved through between 1988 and 1994: George Smalley's stint ended with his move to public relations for a new Saudi Aramco-Texaco joint venture, while David Kaiser and Robert Lebling both left the masthead to join Saudi Aramco's public relations staff in Dhahran. Even I held the post for a few months, for the second time in my life—a brief reprise of my days in Beirut and Hague.

Dick Doughty's byline first appeared in the magazine over his coverage of a thundering off-road rally across the Egyptian desert in 1989. He was based in Cairo, ironically on a six-month internship named for the late Joe Alex Morris, Jr., who had served Aramco, and later the Los Angeles Times, from Beirut. Four years later, his master's degree in hand, Doughty headed back to the Middle East, where he and a Palestinian social worker wrote and photographed Gaza: Legacy of Occupation, a book on daily life in the Gaza Strip. In 1994, he brought a fresh and professional photographic eye to the assistant editor's post.

That same year, Aramco World brought its design and printing services to Houston, where it is now produced by Herring Design and Wetmore and Company. It is perhaps a final irony that although the magazine was a more apparently international operation in the 1960's and 1970's, it is today really more global than ever, as its list of contributors is ever more far-flung, thanks to e-mail, fax and courier services that allow material to be sent easily to Houston from almost anywhere.

Throughout the past decade, Arndt has recognized that Aramco World is frequently used by researchers and educators, and so annual indexes of contents and contributors, compiled cumulatively every five years, have become standard. "Events & Exhibitions," the magazine's only regular "department," offers a list of such presentations and displays at museums around the world. "Suggestions for Reading" is also annual, featuring brief reviews of noteworthy books of interest to Aramco World readers. For the future, construction is under way on a website, at www.aramcoworld.com, that promises to open to more readers than ever before what Aramco World has presented for the past 50 years—a makhzan, a storehouse of knowledge, ever fuller.

On its golden anniversary, Aramco World's still shares its stores, and stories, with its 180,000 subscribers around the world every two months—and I'm happy that you have picked up this issue to share them too.

In 1967 William Tracy was Aramco World's assistant editor in Beirut. He has written 48 articles for Aramco World since 1964, almost half of them illustrated with his own photographs. He now edits Al-Ayyam Al-Jamilah, or Pleasant Days, a magazine for Aramco'sand Saudi Aramco's retired employees—a group he plans to join next summer.

This article appeared on pages 8-29 of the November/December 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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