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Abqaiq: A Look Back – The Mystery of the Bedouins of Fazran

1 October 2014 | comments (0) | Saudi Arabia | by

By Mark Lowey
Photographs by Keith Belcher, Ann Lowey and Mark Lowey

In this personal look back, Abqaiq resident Mark Lowey reminisces about the lasting impressions of his desert encounters over 35 years ago at a remote GOSP site, the Bedouin family who had befriended him and his first taste of authentic Saudi hospitality. Thanks to a chance encounter, Mark recently reconnected with the family and found that remarkable changes have taken place.

I first came to Abqaiq in 1978. Fresh out of university in California, I was deployed to Saudi Arabia for a two-year assignment on a project team constructing Gas Oil Separation Plants (GOSP) in the Ain Dar and Shedgum areas. Our most remote site was a small GOSP known as Fazran-1.

Mark Lowey

Back then, travelling 90 minutes each way and working in Fazran were eye-opening experiences. We were a team of Americans, Canadians, British, Filipinos and Thais. When we finished our communal lunch, the remaining food, usually rice, was quickly loaded into the back of a small Toyota pickup truck that disappeared into the desert. I later learned that several Bedouin families lived nearby, attracted to our permanent water supply and leftover food that they used for their livestock of goats and camels.


Eventually, we and the Bedouins became friendly with each other and enjoyed long discussions through translators. The Bedouin family patriarch, Faleh, would often sit with me in my tiny site office trailer, and we would drink tea and coffee and try to communicate. Depending on the season Faleh would be waiting at the door when I arrived at 6 a.m. – and wait for me to crank up either the heater or the air conditioner. Over the months, I came to learn about the healthful benefits of camel’s milk as well as many interesting aspects of the Bedouin culture. Faleh had a raspy voice, powerful build and huge hands. Rumor had it that when it was time to brand the camels, he could bring one down with one hand by grasping the tail and tugging sideways.

An invitation

In the cool winter months, the invitation came for a meal at Faleh’s place. His tent camp was set up about an hour’s drive north of Fazran, over straight, rolling drillers’ roads of compacted marl. We were to arrive at midday on Friday. A fellow expat and I set off after an early breakfast in Abqaiq. Once clear of Fazran, the desert changed rapidly and became very green from recent rains. This was prime grazing land.

Meet the family

Upon arrival we were greeted by Faleh and shown to the main section of his family tent. Abdulhadi, Faleh’s elder brother, prepared demitasses of traditional Arabic coffee, dates were served, and we met their children and cousins. The tent section next to us housed the goats, and at the end was the makeshift kitchen. Faleh proudly held his tightly-swaddled infant son for a photograph. The others were eager to have their pictures taken, especially after we handed out instant Polaroid photos.

Finally, after the last minute arrival of several Bedouin neighbors, the meal was served, a large platter of chicken and lamb on a bed of flavored rice. Slightly curdled camel’s milk was poured over the mix. We sat on weathered carpets and ate in the traditional Arab style with our right hand scooping up the rice and meat. It was delicious. The grandmother and grandfather joined us, and the children watched and laughed with delight as we shared this unexpected bounty in the desert.

Mark Lowey

1978: A lucky photograph – in one take
The group photo with me seated between Abdulhadi and his two sons was taken with an Olympus OM-2 set on a mini-tripod. I balanced it on a barrel, focused, started the timer and quickly ran around behind them to sit down. As the shutter opened, Abdulhadi turned towards me, wondering what’s going on. No time for a second take. The two young boys in the photo are brothers, Suhaim and Saleh; more on that later.

Soon after the photos were taken, I left Saudi Arabia, not to return again for another 30 years. Over the years since 1978, I‘ve treasured the photos taken during those visits. I have shared them with friends and family and often wondered what became of the Bedouins of Fazran. It was not until 2010 when I joined Saudi Aramco that I found myself back in Abqaiq, exactly where my engineering career had begun.

Fast-forward to 2013

One day in October 2013 in the Abqaiq Mall I met Geraiyan Al-Hajri, the legendary Saudi Aramco explorer and road surveyor. My photos were part of an exhibition organized by the Abqaiq Art, Craft and Hobby Group, a self-directed group sponsored by the Abqaiq Recreation Services Unit. Al-Hajri pointed to Faleh in the photo and said, “I know that man. That’s my cousin!” I was awestruck — finally, a connection. From Geraiyan I learned that Faleh and Abdulhadi had passed away and that the small boy dressed in white, Suhaim, had grown up, attended university, and now holds a prestigious job in Qatar. His brother, Saleh remained in Saudi Arabia and resides in Ain Dar.

Dune bashing

Days later I received a phone call from Suhaim inviting my wife and I to a party in the desert. With another expat couple from Abqaiq, we met Suhaim and his large family at a rendezvous point near the Salasil Bridge on the Dammam-Riyadh highway, greeting each other warmly after such a long time. After a quick glance at my four-wheel drive Tahoe, he beckoned me to follow his Toyota Land Cruiser as we turned off the highway onto the Fazran Road. Suhaim was happy to play tour guide along the route – his boyhood territory. Stopping at the wreckage of an ancient blue Dodge pick-up truck, he explained that this truck appears in one of my photos from 1978, and he knew the owner. He pointed out the now mothballed GOSP where my site office once stood. Nearby were the Saudi Aramco-built concrete water troughs for camels and goats that had attracted Bedouins around the time I was there. He was proud to show me a Qibla locator and prayer area made of large stones and rubber tires still visible in the desert sand after all these years.

Then Suhaim smiled and announced “no more information,” and we were off-road and heading northward across sun drenched dunes and hard packed sabka. It was difficult to keep pace with him and, from time to time, he had to stop and wait for us to catch up. Brother Saleh, in another Land Cruiser, suddenly appeared, joining us around halfway there. As I wondered how they could possibly navigate the featureless expanses – and actually rendezvous in the middle of nowhere – I watched my three-quarters full gas gauge visibly sinking towards empty as the car trudged through the desert terrain.

We found our way to the desert encampment several kilometers from the village of Airj. There we were warmly greeted by his extended family, around 50 people in all, and escorted to our respective sections: the women in a carpeted mobile home trailer and the men in a traditional goat hair tent, not unlike the one we had sat in 35 years ago.

Party in the desert

A low wood burning camp fire was heating brass pots of Arabic coffee as the group crowded around us for a good look. I was congratulated for having preserved the photographs since 1978, and many family members tearfully expressed their joy at seeing the first photographic images of their relatives, some of whom have long since passed away. As a gift, I had brought handsomely framed enlargements and copies of the photos for the immediate family members.

We were shown to the seats of honor on colorful carpets at the back of the main tent facing out and every one was introduced, including their honorific nicknames. I told them my nickname is “Abu Jack” (father of Jack) and there was lots of laughter. One man suggested that he would accept my daughter as his second wife, but hesitated, whispering that his first wife’s son was listening nearby. More laughter.

Lunch is served

A traditional Saudi meal on a huge platter was set down, and there was space for around ten of us to eat at once. I watched and tried to imitate my hosts as they mixed the delicious flavored rice and tender, warm morsels of lamb with labneh into large balls in the palms of their right hand. When someone finished and stood up, another would jump into the space and begin eating. Afterward, we removed small twigs from a special shrub to use as toothpicks; I was shown that in the absence of water, digging one’s hands in the sand will remove the food and grease effectively. In the end, I was grateful for the water being poured over my hands along with the offer of powdered soap.

Everyone was happy to pose for photographs and many mobile phone cameras were used. One memorable image that day shows Suhaim, Saleh and I, reunited after three decades, holding the framed photograph of us from so many years ago.

A spontaneous poem and dance

Suhaim’s brother, Mohammed, is a poet and announced that he would compose a song for me in my honor. He sat down with a pen and a scrap of paper and was lost in thought – gazing into the distance, mouthing words and counting cadences on his fingers. Soon he was ready. He arranged two rows of six men each facing each other. Arms linked and moving rhythmically in step, he led his row as they sang the first verse, and the opposite group would then repeat it. I could make out the words “Marhaba, Mark” (Hello, Mark) and not much else, but I sensed the power of the words and felt great honor. Then the real folkloric dancing ensued, led by the two pre-adolescent sons of Saleh who swayed back and forth with one hand held high and the other placed behind their back. One by one we took turns dancing this way between the two rows.

Curious to see what was going on, the women had quietly crept nearby behind several vehicles to watch. Being Westerners, our two wives were hailed to join us.

All too soon, after the mid-afternoon prayer time, it was time to depart, and we were bid farewell, but not before our tires were carefully inspected, gas gauges checked and stern road safety advice given by our hosts. The return trip was far less bumpy on the paved road from Airj. We enjoyed a short rest stop in Ain Dar, where Suhaim invited us to his family majlis for a final cup of tea before heading back to Abqaiq.

After all these years, the mystery of the Bedouins of Fazran had been solved. Reunited, I was pleased to see that this remarkable family has grown and flourished over the past three decades. It was evident that the region’s prosperity had touched their lives and provided education and modern comforts for their families. Balancing their Bedouin roots with the demands of a modern world, it was good to see that the boys have become men, strong and wise in ways that their father would be proud.

A photo taken 35 years ago had bridged past and present and brought me full circle to a place deep in the desert, where I found the Saudi traditions of hospitality, family and friendship not only endure but continue to thrive. It is a place where I will always feel welcome.

GCC Board Directors Institute Held Second Chairman Summit

25 September 2014 | comments (0) | Saudi Aramco News | by

The GCC Board Directors Institute (BDI) recently held its 2nd Chairman Summit. Co-sponsored by Saudi Aramco and SABIC, the event attracted over 60 chairmen and senior Board directors from leading organizations across the Gulf.

The Summit’s prime objective is to stimulate dialogue on matters of particular interest to chairmen and their contribution in achieving and enhancing Board effectiveness and corporate governance standards within their respective organizations.

“We are pleased with the continuing success and increasing momentum of the GCC Board Directors Institute. This young not-for-profit organization, which was established in 2007 based on a visionary seed planted by Saudi Aramco aiming to make a positive impact on the GCC economies and societies by raising the level of Board effectiveness, is now in full gear,” said Mr. Abdallah Al-Saadan, Senior Vice President- Finance, Strategy & Development of Saudi Aramco.

Mr. Al-Saadan added: “The various workshops, Board members’ development tools and techniques, world-class faculty who lead focused interactive sessions to address relevant Board issues, and the flagship program “Chairman’s Summit” are making tremendous strides towards achieving the original vision. The attendance of a large number of leading chairmen, Board members, CEOs, CFOs, regulators and consultants is a great testimony to the success of BDI, and a confirmation that it is filling a critical gap in the region. Saudi Aramco continues to believe that the positive impact BDI has been making in promoting and strengthening effective directorship will continue to expand over time. Based on that, our company will continue to lend its full support to BDI for the benefit of our region.”

“Again, Saudi Aramco, and I am sure the other founding members and partners of BDI, are pleased with BDI’s continued success, growing role, positive reputation, and increasing contribution towards sustainable prosperity within the GCC region,” further said Mr. Al-Saadan.

Key discussions were launched among the panelists, 8 prominent business industry leaders from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, including Ms. Sabah Al Moayyed, CEO of Ebdaa Bank, Mr. Taha Al Kuwaiz, Chairman of Bank Al Jazira, Mr. Mohamed Hamad Al Shehi, Board Member at Emirates NBD, Dr. Hasan Al Zahrani, President and Chief Executive Officer of Luberef, Ms. Afshan Akhtar, General Counsel of ALBA, Mr. Abdullah Al-Suwailem, President & Chief Executive Officer of Petro Rabigh, Mr. Abdulmohsen Alissa, Chairman & Managing Director of Abdullatif Alissa Group Holding Company, and Mr. Beshr Bakheet, Managing Director of Osool & Bakheet Investment Company.

“SABIC is honored to co-sponsor with Saudi Aramco this prestigious event. We are extremely delighted with the outcome of the Summit and its success in raising awareness in regards to the Chairman’s unique role in ensuring Boards achieve and maintain higher levels of corporate governance practices,” said Mr. Mutlaq H. Al-Morished, CFO of SABIC and Chairman of BDI.

Inauguration of Aramco Research Center-Houston

21 September 2014 | comments (0) | Saudi Aramco News | by

Saudi Aramco News

Remarks by Khalid A. Al-Falih, President & CEO of Saudi Aramco

Your Excellency, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen: good afternoon. It is great to be back in Houston among so many good friends. It’s great to see the Honorable Bill White here: I will never forget your warm reception back in 2009, when you declared that May 1st was “Khalid Al-Falih Day” in Houston. I also met Mayor Parker a few weeks ago in Norway, and she told me that she would have liked to join us as well, had she been in town. I would also like to welcome Council Member Brenda Stardig to this inauguration, and extend my appreciation for the support we have received from the City in establishing this important center.

It is great to be back in Texas any time of the year, but September has always been special because of the great football rivalries in this state. When I went to school at A&M, the Southwest Conference was thriving and I enjoyed seeing the Aggies rampaging over Houston-area teams. Once we were in the SEC, I thought we had lost that joy forever—but this year we had both Rice and Lamar up in College Station!

My friends, when it came to selecting a location for this new R&D Center, where else could we go but Houston? Here you find great universities, great research institutions and great oil and gas firms alike; petroleum runs through Houston’s veins; and the city is synonymous with energy. Spindletop blew in just up the road back in 1901, and two years later the Port Arthur Refinery—now this country’s largest refinery and the flagship of our Motiva joint venture—began operations.

Of course, Houston has been a familiar stomping ground for many of us Aramcons over the years, and our roots in the city run deep. In fact, this year we are marking the fortieth anniversary of the transfer of the Aramco Services Company headquarters from New York to Houston. As a result of that move, ASC is ideally placed to work with the best of the best in the oil and gas industry, including leading engineering and services companies. We are able to recruit top notch energy professionals. And we can guide our company-sponsored students enrolled at some of the world’s finest universities found all across this great state. Simply put, when it comes to energy, Houston is the place to be and we are proud to be a part of it.

Together, the city and the industry have weathered booms and busts, riding high with the advent of substantial Gulf of Mexico production in the 1980s, and a generation later booming again with the shale oil and gas revolution we are experiencing today. But Houston was no mere passenger on the industry’s roller coaster—if I can use that metaphor. Instead, Houston was the engine with its unique mix of inventiveness, entrepreneurship, grit, and can-do attitude. And whether it was the original oil boom or the successive offshore step outs that have kept Houston in the forefront of our industry, technology has always been the key.

Consider the latest game changer. A number of facilitating factors, both below the surface and above the ground, have encouraged the growth of this country’s unconventional hydrocarbon production, and again at the heart of that growth lies technology. Actually, it is the story of an innovative combination of two existing technologies—horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—and it is a story where Houston plays a starring role. Once George Mitchell—a native of Galveston and, I might add, a fellow Aggie—joined those two technologies together, vast hydrocarbon resources became economically viable. The net result has been the production of billions of barrels of crude oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. Those contributions are welcome, because they expand the world’s total reserves of oil and gas, both of which are essential to the continued economic development and prosperity of a planet that by 2050 will be home to an additional two billion people aspiring for prosperity.

Of course, when we talk about the State of Texas, we know it has always been on the frontier: whether the literal frontier in the 19th century, the frontier of the oil industry and the space race in the 20th, or the frontier of advanced science, information technology, and corporate innovation in the 21st. That capacity to continually grow and reinvent oneself which we see in Texas is shared by Saudi Aramco, which grew from a speculative search for oil in the 1930s to the world’s leading petroleum enterprise.

Furthermore, Houston is not only a renowned center of innovation in the energy sector alone; it is a place that generates step changes and game-changing technologies far beyond the realm of petroleum—notably in space and the health sciences. That may seem beyond the scope of our work and unrelated to our areas of interest as an energy enterprise—but being in the midst of an ecosystem of multifaceted research and innovation is extremely important to us. Not only does it set the stage for our own technological endeavors, but there could also be tremendous synergies and opportunities for cross-fertilization among these sectors.

In fact, when I listened to Mayor Parker’s speech in Norway, I was intrigued by the “Pumps and Pipes” conference which brings together this city’s healthcare, aerospace, and petroleum sectors to exchange ideas and best practices. For example, we have seen medical CT scanners being re-purposed to map the tiniest pores and the flow of fluids in reservoir rocks. We have also witnessed the remote sensing technologies originally developed for the space program helping engineers and scientists measure previously unmeasurable properties.

Company Plays its Part in Kingdom’s Investment Drive

18 September 2014 | comments (0) | Saudi Aramco News | by

Saudi Aramco proved to be a major draw at “Invest Saudi,” an investment forum hosted by the Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority (SAGIA) in Paris.

The forum immediately followed the Saudi-French Council’s 34th annual meeting, which was marked by the attendance of HRH Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. The Prince addressed an auditorium consisting of more than 300 leaders from France’s business community, including oil and gas companies.

Prince Salman, who was on an official visit to the French capital, was joined by other notable speakers, including: Abdulrahman Al-Zamil, chairman of the Council of Saudi Chambers; HE Tawfiq Fawzan Al-Rabiah, Minister of Commerce and Industry; and HE Abdullatif Al-Othman, Governor of SAGIA.

French involvement in discussions came chiefly from Thomas Thevenoud, Minister of State for Foreign Trade, and Thierry Courtaigne, CEO of MEDEF (Movement of the Enterprises of France), France’s largest union of employers, who moderated the sessions.

Meanwhile, Saudi Aramco was represented by Nasser Al-Yami, manager of the Industrial Development Department, who spoke during a session on energy opportunities highlighting Saudi’s impending growth and the challenges that come along with it. “We at Saudi Aramco realize that the only way to meet these challenges is to partner with our strategic suppliers, industry leaders and technology providers. We are very proud of the collaboration that has already materialized between the Saudi business community and France,” he said.

Indeed, off the back of a successful initiation of Saudi Aramco Total Refining and Petrochemical Company (SATORP) — a partnership between Saudi Aramco and France’s Total, which was mentioned on several occasions — there was a strong sense that Saudi-French commercial ties could be extended even further, even beyond oil and gas, to areas such as transportation and health care.

At the subsequent exhibition, visitors had the chance to liaise with counterparts from across the Kingdom’s business landscape, including Saudi Aramco. Delegates visiting the company included many of the aforementioned, including Al-Othman, who during the morning conference underlined the Kingdom’s credentials.

Paris is the second stop this year for SAGIA and its drive for foreign investment, following a similar event it hosted during spring in Central London, where Saudi Aramco also showed its support.

Inauguration of Saudi Arabia’s First All-Female Business Process Services Center

15 September 2014 | comments (0) | Saudi Aramco News | by

Saudi Aramco News

Saudi Aramco, GE (NYSE: GE), and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) today inaugurated the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s first all-female business process service center. The Riyadh-based center, which is supported by the Human Resources Development Fund Programs, complements Saudi Arabia’s localization targets, and strengthens local job creation and economic diversification.

Announced in September 2013, the all-female employee business process service center will offer customers specialized Finance & Accounting, HR, Materials Supply and Office services to improve their operational efficiency. The 3,200 square meter facility will create up to 3,000 local jobs for Saudi women within the next three years.

The official opening ceremony was attended by HE Dr. Tawfiq bin Fawzan Al Rabiah, minister of commerce and industry, HRH Prince Saud bin Khalid Al Faisal, deputy governor of Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA), Khalid Al Falih, Saudi Aramco president and CEO, John Rice, GE’s Vice Chairman, Natarajan Chandrasekaran, CEO and MD of TCS and more than 100 dignitaries from Saudi Arabian government entities and business executives.

Saudi Aramco president and CEO Khalid Al Falih, said: “The first all-female business process service center in Saudi Arabia brings significant value to the Saudi economy and society. It helps address the challenge of creating jobs for talented and skilled Saudi female graduates, establishes a more diverse workforce, and boosts the competitiveness of Saudi Arabia.”

John Rice, GE’s Vice Chairman, said: “Today’s inauguration is proof of our commitment to support the Kingdom’s priorities around human capital development and the creation of employment opportunities for talented Saudi women. We are proud to be partnering with the Government entities in the Kingdom, and our two partners Saudi Aramco and Tata Consulting Services on creating this sustainable Saudi based entity that will serve customers across the globe.”

Natarajan Chandrasekaran, CEO and MD of TCS, said: “Skills, talent and technology converge at the Kingdom’s first all-female business process service center, which marks a new era for the IT and business process services industry in the Kingdom. The center draws on the experience of TCS in providing shared services across global markets and clients in the Kingdom can now focus on their core competencies while partnering with this venture. We thank our partners Saudi Aramco and GE and look forward to their continued support to scale up operations at the center.”

Saudi Aramco and GE are the initial clients of the center that will provide specialized business services supporting the companies’ operations. Both organizations have already surpassed their targets of hiring over 100 women each and also transferred business services to the center.

In the center’s first phases, around 300 employees have been recruited. The employees received over 80,000 hours of intensive training in various disciplines. Nearly 90 of the Saudi recruits are fresh graduates, while the rest have two to four years of experience.

The business process service center has already achieved over 70 per cent Saudization rate. The Saudi fresh graduates, who form part of the workforce, were chosen from King Saud University, Princess Noura University, Imam University and others. Over 1,200 candidates were interviewed for the jobs.
All the recruits were also provided extensive training on subjects such as communications, presentation skills, corporate etiquette, global culture, MS Excel skills and domain training to ensure the highest levels of service efficiency.

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