Aramco ExPats celebrated its twelfth anniversary in 2014, a year marked by continued growth in all areas. By year’s end, our website will have logged over 4 million page visits and the number of subscribers to our weekly newsletter will pass the 8,000 mark. These numbers are dramatic evidence of global interest in Saudi Aramco and life in the Kingdom.
Here are some of the highlights of the past year:
January: Saudi Aramco Ex-Employees Association (SAEEA) celebrated its ninth annual reunion at Lavish Dine Restaurant in Karachi, Pakistan. Eighty-eight people attended the function.
February: Travel stories are a regular feature of our Newsletter. In February, for instance, subscribers were treated to a colorful account of a meandering journey across France that began in Paris and stopped in the Médoc. Further episodes of that saga are promised for future editions.
March: Abdulateef Al-Mulhim is a regular contributor to our Newsletter. In March, we featured fascinating articles by him on the holy city of Madinah, Amelia Earhart and pearl diving in Bahrain.
March: We regularly highlight the literary accomplishments of past and present Aramcons. In March, for instance, we wrote about a new book by Natasha Burge titled “Expats of Arabia.”
April: One of our most prolific contributors is Tim Barger, an Aramco brat and son of a legendary former Aramco executive. In April his article “Wajid Zain” recounted a humorous tale told to him by a former expat housewife of her encounter in Abqaiq with a door-to-door vendor of “natural” fertilizer generated by goats. She thought at first they might be pearls!
May: News of current events in the Kingdom make up an important part of the content of our Newsletter and website. In early May we reported on a major wind storm in Dhahran with 90-mile-an-hour winds that downed hundreds of trees and damaged dozens of cars.
June: As we all know, most Aramcons suffer from serious cases of Wanderlust. Catering to their needs, our Newsletter frequently features announcements related to trips being offered by the Aramco ExPats Travel Club. Witness our June 4 issue in which we carried notices about safaris in Kenya and Tanzania, tours of China and Istanbul and discovery tours in Nepal and Tibet.
July: For many years, the Aramco newspaper “Arabian Sun and Flare” brought news of the Kingdom and the world to eager readers. In July we announced that four new archived issues dating back to 1945 would be released each week and provided a link.
August: Often we provide information on publications on interest to annuitants, and August was no exception. In our 13 August issue we provided links to “Alaela” (“Family”), Saudi Aramco’s twice-yearly magazine produced for annuitants, families and friends of Saudi Aramco and Aramco Overseas Company, and to another of their publications, “Al-Ayyam Al-Jamilah.”
September: The big event of September was the Asheville Hafla Reunion held at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina. Nearly 400 annuitants took part in a weekend crammed full of exciting activities.
October: We like to publish accounts of the special memories of our readers. In October, the article “Play Ball! Memories of Udhailiyah Revisited” appeared, recounting the excitement and fellowship that surrounded softball games in the oil patch camps.
November: Aramcons are famous for their generosity and big hearts, and Tricia Franck is no exception. In November an article appeared relating a unique program Beta Sigma Phi in Dhahran put together offering Saudi-themed gifts, with the proceeds going to the support of international charities.
December: We try to offer practical, useful advice from trusted sources. To wit, in December we featured an article from Bernd & Brooke Schumacher identifying the complex set of expenses associated with retiring in the U.S. after years of living in the Kingdom.
We look forward to continuing to serve you and keep you informed in 2015.
Happy New Year!
Photo by David Hills 1975
At the end of Part Two, I have struck a deal for the Volvo jeep.
Hamud finished his pitch, and I was about to take the jeep for a spin when the call to evening prayer sounded and the din of the arena began to settle. I pulled out a thousand riyals deposit and said I’d return tomorrow with a friend to check out the mechanicals and close the deal. He pushed the money away and shook my hand, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Mr. Khamis.”
I returned the next afternoon with Phil, a friend of mine who was a biomedical engineer at the hospital and an enthusiastic car guy from Tennessee. When we arrived, the car suq was in its full chaotic splendor. We waded into the swirling confusion for a half dozen paces until Phil froze and slowly swiveled his head a full 180 degrees, absolutely amazed by this tableau of grinding gears, shouting auctioneers, clouds of burnt rubber and diesel exhaust, popped clutches and screeching brakes.
After I introduced Hamud to Phil, he inspected the Volvo’s suspension and brakes, checked the engine’s oil and water, and we test-drove the Volvo around the city streets with the Yemeni kid as navigator. It seemed good to me, and Phil agreed, so we drove back to the suq. For some reason, Phil had to leave and before I could start the price negotiations, Hamud led me off to one of the nearby coffee houses thatched with palm fronds. There were about 30 men talking, drinking tea, smoking the narghile, who studiously ignored us – though they saw everything. We sat at a rickety table on equally rickety painted, wooden chairs joined by woven jute, drank sweet tea and talked about everything except the price of the Volvo.
The price was a bit of a problem because I only had 13,000 riyals to spend. In a month I would have much more, but in Riyadh, whether you’re selling camels or cars, it’s strictly cash. My only hope of closing this deal was to employ my primitive bargaining techniques learned buying firecrackers in Khobar. I was more forlorn because I knew that even at 15,000 riyals the Laplander was an absolute steal.
Hamud was from Anaizah, a city several hundred miles north of Riyadh. If you were born in Dhahran, are you a Saudi? No, I’m a son of Aramco. How is it that you speak Arabic? (as pathetically mangled as it is.) He had three sons, and I had a daughter.
Photo by David Hills 1975
He wanted to know about the hospital. Was it only for royalty and rich people? No, it’s a specialist hospital. It’s not for the richest, but the sickest. They will be sent from all over the kingdom. Is it open now? No, it’s still being built, maybe in six months it will open. Doctors and nurses and technicians are just now arriving to make it ready. Six months? Yes, six months. He nodded to himself and said, “Why aren’t you a doctor?”
I laughed, “I’m not smart enough to be a doctor. I make cinema of famous doctors performing operations to be shown to Saudi medical students. Sometimes, I shoot films that demonstrate to nurses how to care for a patient – how to move him carefully, and sometimes I make videos to explain to the janitors about germs and how to use the cleansers and machines to eliminate them. You need all these things in a hospital.”
Hamud nodded and offered to get us a hubbly-bubbly, but I declined. At the time I didn’t realize that I was sort of a trophy American in that coffee house, nor did I realize that I was probably the only American Hamud had ever talked with. I wasn’t sure how I was going to bring up the price of the Laplander, but I didn’t have to.
He looked me in the eye and rocked his jaw into not quite a smile, but a benign tilt, “The Swedish is 12,000 riyals.”
“Yes, 12,000 riyals.”
“But I thought you said…”
“Yes, 12,000 riyals.”
I wanted to hug him. My hand shot out, “Mr. Hamud, it’s a deal.”
“Yes, Mr. Khamis, it’s done, khalaas.” He shook my hand, put his other hand over mine and broke that wide jaw into a grin.
I paid him, he made out a bill of sale and handed me the keys. Hamud told me to return to this coffee house in three days at eight o’clock with 900 riyals to pay for the plates and registration papers – tax and license as they say in America.
I asked him, “Who should I ask for?” He thought that was really funny.
“Mr. Khamis, you take a seat, and I’m sure the agent will find you.” I said good night to Hamud and drove off into Riyadh as the twilight faded into night.
Riyal for riyal, the Volvo jeep was an incredible price for the perfect desert vehicle. Built on the design of a workhorse Swedish farm vehicle, it was armored and powered by a golden gear box. It was too good to be true. I had seen plenty of Saudi National Guard Volvos driving around town with soldiers in the back, so of course the obvious question was how did my jeep end up in the open market?
Perhaps it was surplused because it required more maintenance than it was worth. Except my jeep’s tires were much better than theirs, and it had fewer miles too. Most likely this jeep had fallen through various friendly bureaucratic cracks into the private sector. It was more than a little suspicious that I was picking up the plates in a coffee house, but it wasn’t for me to judge, I just wanted some sort of quasi-legal ownership.
In the evening, three days later, I pulled up in my new rig, parked on the street and headed into to the suq. It was subdued, the field was empty and the molehills deserted, but the cafes were busy. I checked out Hamud’s lot but he wasn’t around, so I went to the coffee house, found a table against the thatched wall, ordered tea and pretended to blend in, without any hope of that ever happening.
Eventually, I did hang around long enough that I became less of a novelty and the customers went back to their business. It was a low-ceilinged, dark room punctuated with bare, low-watt bulbs dangling here and there. The plaintive voice of Mohammed Abdu on the radio floated over a dozen conversations from clusters of men drinking tea and smoking cigarettes, bantering back and forth in a low rumble. There was an open kitchen at the back manned by a couple of Yemeni cooks and ten-year-old waiters conveying tea and morsels to the house and out into the night.
With my back to the wall, I was vacantly watching all of this unfold when Adnan dropped into the chair across from me. A plump thirty-something with a terrific barber – his thick hair swept back, his mustache and goatee manicured to precision, and a great tailor. His high thobe collar was precisely stitched to fit. He placed a large manila envelope on the table.
“I am Adnan.”
“Glad to meet you, Mr. Adnan. Would you like some tea?”
“Thank you, but I can only stay a minute.”
I put the envelope with 900 riyals on the table. He pushed his envelope to me.
“Look inside. Two plates and the registration book.”
I peeked at the plates and removed the flimsy, cardboard registration book. It had a stamp or two, the description of the jeep and some indecipherable signatures. Adnan plucked the book from my hands and said, “This is license. Mr. Khamis. You must, lazeem, always have this with you.” And gave me a deep, eye-piercing stare for emphasis.
So pleased to take ownership, I was sort of giddy, I grinned at Adnan and replied, “Lazeem, I understand. Thank you.”
Adnan shook my hand and departed. Who knows how many more license plates he had to deliver that night?
I’ve lived in Dhahran, Jeddah and Riyadh, and if you really love to drive in the desert, Riyadh is your only choice. Within an hour, you can visit stony plains as far as the eye can see, traverse pristine, golden sand dunes, tour the craggy cliffs of the Tuwaiq Escarpement or the quiet canyons of Wadi Hanifa, the pools of Al Kharj or head north to Buraidah. You can drive for hundreds of miles in any direction without a fence or obstruction of any kind. At any time you can stop, turn off your engine and step out into a silence that has always been there.
Some weeknights, my wife Janet, daughter Khamisah, and I would drive the Laplander into the empty desert a few miles north, on the rising ground above the hospital, and have a picnic watching the city below us. Nowadays, we would have been parked in the middle of some dense neighborhood that extended for miles all around. Then, it was nothing but rocky desert – calm and peaceful. Framed by a tar-black sky riddled with stars. On the weekends, my friends and I would caravan to a specific place or just drive in some arbitrary direction. No matter what we found, every trip was a great trip. I won’t go on about our various adventures except for two.
Some miles southeast of Riyadh, I was driving along with my friend Ben Michaels riding shotgun over a faint dirt track through a rolling desert covered with clumps of bushes and gentle drifts feathered with dead grasses. We intersected a well-worn trail, so I turned left and carried on. We weren’t exactly lost, but we were a little sketchy about our exact location. At the time, I was growing a beard and wearing a khaki work shirt with a ghuttra around my neck. Ben’s ghuttra was around his brow like a sweat band. The road dipped, and when we came up to the rise… there was a Saudi National Guard encampment a hundred yards in front of us.
I slowed down. There was a long, steel-pipe gate counterbalanced with a drum of concrete and three armed soldiers who were now staring at me. This really wasn’t the time to pull a U-ee and streak away, so I sped up just a bit. About 20 yards away the barrier started to lift; by time I was at the entrance, the gate was up, and the soldiers saluted me as I drove into the camp. I wasn’t about to push my luck, so I nodded to a few curious watchers, quickly turned around the Volvo and saluted the soldiers as I drove away on important Saudi National Guard business.
Photo by David Hills 1976
Sometime later, somewhere south of the Wadi Hanifa, I was driving the Laplander with Ben in his Toyota Land Cruiser, when we saw a range of very small dunes maybe only six or eight feet tall. It seemed that if we crossed these dunes we’d be at the mouth of the wadi and be able to drive north. I put the Swedish into 4-wheel drive, low-low and tapped on the gas. With no effort at all the jeep crawled up slip faces and down into the lows before another steep climb. Up and down I drove, over a dozen dunes when I began to believe that I was boldly going forth over terrain never before touched by humanity. A true desert explorer.
I crested the ridge of yet another dune and nearly ran over a single, gnarled flip-flop burnt into an amber crust by the sun. So much for that delusion of grandeur. I pressed on, over the dunes that started getting smaller and then dissolved into the wide mouth of a wadi paved with cobble-stone rocks leading up into a canyon.
We stopped to consider the next step in an entirely vague plan from the start. With the trucks turned off, in the quiet of a cool wind billowing from the wadi, we decided to drive over the stones and up the ravine until we could find a shoulder above the stream bed that we could follow back to town.
I took the lead, and the rocks soon turned into smooth, misshapen volleyball-sized stones and then boulders and bigger boulders. It was great fun navigating through this stone maze, up and around granite rocks the size of bales of hay. I had just maneuvered between two boulders and over a third one when it occurred to me that for sure no one had ever been here before. I was passing over untainted ground. Only my off-road driving savvy and a superb desert vehicle had now made it possible for me to be the King of the Wadi. And I began to like the sound of that as it echoed in my head.
There was a bend in the canyon, I rolled 20 yards forward and turned up the dry gulch. To the right was a steep slope that fell directly to the dry riverbed, to the left there was a shelf, a shoulder above a yard high bank. I drove a little farther forward until I could see all the way around the bend – and there it was.
The pride and joy of 1970s Detroit parked beneath an acacia tree on the river bank. Four thousand pounds of American steel packaged in a sleek, slab-like, sheet metal body, trimmed in chrome, with white walled tires and power steering. It was an emerald green, four-door Buick sedan with the trunk open. Surrounded by several small children, a husky man a bare head of hair and a prominent mustache was tending a coffee pot next to a small fire. A woman, probably his wife, ducked behind the sedan. He slowly stood up. He was wearing a sarong at his waist and an undershirt. He seemed to be very happy and cheerfully smiled at me as I drove by. The kids hopped around and waved; his wife peeked from behind the Buick.
Humbled once again, I ruefully waved back and rumbled up the canyon thinking about this man who had adroitly maneuvered that heavy, soft-springed, low-riding, two-wheel drive behemoth all the way down this perilous wadi without even scratching his white walls. No wonder that he was practically laughing at me. I started laughing too. I had just met the real King of the Wadi – an enthusiastic Saudi dad determined to throw a terrific picnic for his family in a magical desert canyon.
At King Faisal Hospital I worked with two of my closest childhood friends from Dhahran, Mike Benjamin and David Hills. We had a fine time driving around in the desert and each of us had a son in the same year. We posed with them in front of our trucks.
Left to right: Mike and Jeff, Tim and Luke, David and Liston
The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) has commended the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on its success in issuing the Saudi Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standard (Saudi CAFE) for light-duty vehicles.
The ICCT indicated that this standard is a pioneering model of government achievement considering that it has been developed in an accelerated and efficient manner compared to similar standards that the ICCT has witnessed globally.
“This is a landmark achievement,” said Drew Kodjak, executive director of the ICCT, who noted that this is the first standard of its kind in the Middle East. “It is an excellent example of international alignment.”
The Saudi energy efficiency program has been committed to a comprehensive, thorough and flexible standard, which can be used as a reference by other national governments and opens the door to wider adoption of similar standards across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Also, it shows a purposeful commitment to setting long-term standards and is uniquely innovative in incorporating used imported vehicles – as well as new – something no other country has managed to accomplish.
“The regulatory team clearly did their homework,” said ICCT program director Anup Bandivadekar, who participated in the May 2014 Saudi Energy Efficiency Forum. He also indicated that the standard was developed in a short period of time — less than two years through a small team of experts compared to similar standards observed in other markets, which typically have required five to 10 years of development.
The ICCT team expressed its delight to have cooperated with the technical team addressing the transportation sector in the Saudi Energy Efficiency Program and shared its admiration to the level of ambition, professionalism, comprehensive analysis and thorough outreach in responding to automakers.
Earlier, the Saudi Standards, Meteorology and Quality Organization (SASO) signed memorandums of understanding on Nov. 16 with 78 automakers representing more than 99.95 percent of the light-duty vehicle sales in the Saudi market.
The transportation sector accounts for about 23 percent of the total energy consumption in the Kingdom. The recently-announced standard for light-duty vehicles targets improving the fuel economy in the Kingdom on average by 4 percent annually. This would elevate the Kingdom’s fuel economy for light-duty vehicles from its current level of 12 km per liter to more than 19 km per liter by 2025.
To ensure the effective enforcement of the standard, a working group of four government agencies has been formed to monitor implementation of the standard and the global automotive manufacturers’ commitment to it, while also tracking the improvement of the fuel economy in the Kingdom.
The working group is comprised of: the Ministry of Commerce and Industry; SASO; Saudi Customs; and the Saudi Energy Efficiency Center.
Saudi Aramco’s Materials Supply has signed a corporate procurement agreement (CPA) with Honeywell International for process automation systems and instrumentation, equipment and services.
The CPA is part of Saudi Aramco’s efforts to identify long-term strategic partners with whom we can work together over the long term, developing fit-for-purpose specialized equipment and services that meet Saudi Aramco’s plans.
By signing this agreement, Saudi Aramco and Honeywell move beyond a transactional relationship to one in which both partners can work together to develop new technologies in the Kingdom, manufacturing industries and service providers. All of this streams into the diversification of the Kingdom’s economy and the creation of jobs for Saudi citizens.
Nabeel Al-Mansour, executive director of Materials Supply, said that the CPA will help Saudi Aramco achieve key components of the Accelerated Transformation Program.
“We have high expectations at the corporate level of companies such as Honeywell to do more locally, both in services, employment and materials,” said Nabeel Al-Mansour, executive director of Materials Supply, in his opening remarks. “This agreement hopefully will be a platform to enhance that effort. So, while we are celebrating this agreement, we are also looking forward to results and hope that in a few years to come it will prove the value of that agreement.”
“Our strategic objective is to partner with strategic suppliers and partner with those technology leaders who add strategic value to the company and the country,” Abdullah Al-Warthan, manager of Projects and Strategic Purchases Department, said. “I am happy to tell you that Honeywell is one of those strategic partners we look forward to working with in the future.”
Vimal Kapur, president of Honeywell Process Solutions, said his company takes the responsibility of CPA seriously.
“We know you have very few partners with whom you are identifying, and you are obviously doing that with a purpose,” Kapur said. The CPA is “not just a structure to make things simpler, but creating a platform where we can think more long-term. Your long-term requirements are well understood, to create more material manufacturing here, more training of local people and creating more skills.”
Norm Gilsdorf, president of Honeywell High Growth Regions, commented: “The CPA is a benchmark to take us to the next level. We are very much committed to localization of resources and content, bringing manufacturing, developing factories here. We are going to bring more technology here and we are going to develop more talent.”
Historically, the relationship between Saudi Aramco and Honeywell goes back to the early days of Saudi Aramco’s founding. In 1948, Saudi Aramco purchased its first Honeywell product (thermostats), and in the early 1980s, Honeywell installed its first distributed control systems at Saudi Aramco facility in Safaniyah, and that system continues to function, along with other equipment and services, such as industrial and commercial automation, process technologies, catalysts, and safety and security systems.