More than 600 expatriate annuitants and ”brats” from 18 countries recently returned to Saudi Arabia to take part in the 3rd Saudi Aramco Expatriate Reunion. Held March 9-21, the event offered expatriate annuitants the chance to return to what is considered by many of them to be a second home. The organizing committee, led by chairman Ali Al-Baluchi, designed a schedule of events to give participants a walk down memory lane while also showing them the many changes that have occurred in the Kingdom over the years. Al-Baluchi, creator of the Annuitants Reunion concept, worked for Saudi Aramco for more than 40 years before retiring in 1990. After attending many Saudi Aramco reunions in the U.S., he learned how meaningful the connection to the Kingdom is for many expatriate annuitants and their families. Al-Baluchi realized his dream of helping these annuitants return to the Kingdom in 2000, when the first Expatriate Reunion was held, and again in 2009. The 2015 reunion was the best attended yet, and the demand for future reunions is high. “The reunion was very well received by the visitors, many of them consider the Kingdom their second home, so they returned with joy and interest and were grateful for the opportunity,” said Al-Baluchi. Al-Baluchi considers these reunions a direct outgrowth of Saudi Aramco’s focus on its employees’ well-being. “Saudi Aramco is very supportive and willing to go the extra mile for former employees. Everyone is excited to see these people return because they help us keep the heritage of our company and our country alive. These visitors are unofficial ambassadors for Saudi Arabia, and when they leave and travel the world they take away their love for this country and the Kingdom and the people of Saudi Arabia.” Reunion volunteer Michele Du Moulin, who grew up as brat and is now a Saudi Aramco employee, agreed with Al-Baluchi’s views. “Now, as an employee I see the ways in which Saudi Aramco takes care of its employees, this reunion is a great example of that, and I am grateful to be a part of it,” Du Moulin said. Kathleen Owen, chairperson of Programs and Events, has found that the volunteers take away as much from the reunion as do the annuitants. “Somewhere along the way, volunteers seem to get caught up in the ‘magic’ of seeing and helping people relive their memories of a very special time of growth during the company’s history. You end up vicariously living the experience through their wonderful stories,” Owen said. Cheri Saner, co-chairperson of Marketing, grew up as a brat and has now been an employee of the company for 15 years. Saner understands the importance of this reunion for visitors. “For them, it does feel like they are returning home,” she said. “To a lot of them it means that their dream has come true, that they get to have one last visit. The gap of time since some of them left is 50 years. It was the chance of a lifetime.” Visiting retiree Ahmed Syed echoed this feeling of returning home. “I feel like I have returned to the place of my origins, I have come home! I always felt like I was living in a sort of peaceful paradise here, and my return has recaptured that,” he said. “When we retired and returned home from Saudi Arabia, we felt like strangers in our own land. We were always wishing to come back, praying to return to our ‘homeland.’” A tremendous amount of work takes place to prepare for welcoming the annuitants back to their “second home,” but Al-Baluchi is quick to point out that it is a labor of love. “The organizers are volunteering to do this because they like it even more than the visitors do; we do this with a lot of pleasure because we love to see them enjoy themselves.” With more than 75 trips and activities planned, the Organizing Committee and volunteers provided something for everyone. There were excursions to Shaybah, Riyadh, Mada’in Saleh, and Abha; local tours to Saudi Aramco communities; and a memorable visit to the Governor of the Eastern Province. The organizers were keen to strike a balance between offering visitors the chance to tour historic sites and areas of cultural importance, while also giving them time to reconnect with old friends and favorite places. Some of the most popular activities were those that allowed visitors to reconnect with their former colleagues and revisit their old pastimes, such as department visits, a horse show, a baseball exhibition, heritage museum tours, a local music night, and a theater production.
Annuitants Riaz Ahmad and his wife, Farrukh Anjum Riaz, lived in Saudi Arabia from 1980 to 2012 and enjoyed the many activities offered. “Every event was impeccably planned and executed to perfection, so it is nearly impossible for me to pick a favorite,” said Ahmad. “Every single moment since I arrived has been memorable and priceless — from seeing old friends to visiting places that overwhelmed me with nostalgia.” Sebastian and Vasantha Justin lived in Saudi Arabia from 1975 to 2009 and were impressed by the development they have seen the country undergo over the years. “For me,” Sebastian shared, “visiting Shaybah was one of the best parts of this reunion. It was wonderful to be surrounded by the red sand desert and watch the sunset. I went to Shaybah in 1975, but there was nothing then, just one or two rigs. Now it’s a little town.” Reunion volunteer Fatima Kayal said the visits to Al-Hasa (five in total) were very popular. “I led two groups to Al-Hasa with 70 persons each trip. The first tour included the date packing factory managed by Al Hasa Irrigation and Drainage Authority, followed by a guided tour to Al Nada Dairy Farm. On the second trip, the group visited major landmarks, including Ibrahim Palace, Al Amiriyah (al-Hasa’s first school), Al Qaisariyah Market, Jabal Al Qara caves, traditional pottery makers, and a small local bakery famous for its date bread. The visitors were happy to return to the place they considered “home,” and many left with fond memories of the hospitality and generosity presented during the reunion. Many of them said that being able to return to Saudi Arabia was a dream come true, and that indeed was very gratifying” she said. Khalid I. Abubshait, who worked for Saudi Aramco from 1970 to 2012, played an integral role in organizing the al-Hasa trips. “These trips were greatly enjoyed by the visitors,” he said. “Tourism in the Eastern Province is very advanced; there are impressive educational tours with multilingual tour guides and many historic sites to visit. On one of the trips, there were three generations of the same family, and they had so much fun.” Abubshait added: “The annuitants have a strong sense of loyalty to Saudi Arabia. They appreciate the company, and the company appreciates them.” Owen noted that the Shaybah trip was very popular among the annuitants. “I think one of the favorite areas for people to visit is Shaybah, and this time we also added Manifa and Khurais. All three were very popular. I think — and to me personally — they represent what Saudi Aramco can achieve, whether it is building a city in the desert or developing an oil field in the Gulf. Each of these mega-projects comes with significant challenges that require the company to think and work outside the box to succeed. They are all great success stories. It was wonderful at Manifa to see the older annuitants tell about their work in developing Manifa and to see the current employees and management so proud of getting to meet their predecessors and understand the challenges they faced — very special moments.” Reunion visitors Fred and Laurie Swanson cited the desert dinner as one of the top experiences of the reunion but were hard pressed to pick a favorite. “This event is such a special thing for the annuitants, and we appreciate the incredible amount of work that goes into it, both from the company perspective and the volunteer organizers,” shared Fred. “The reunion brings back memories and also a feeling of pride at having worked here. Over the years, there has been a lot of change, and it will keep changing, but the spirit remains the same. Working for Saudi Aramco and living in Saudi Arabia was a wonderful adventure.” Thomas and Eileen Henderson lived in Saudi Arabia from 1979 to 2004 and considered this reunion a chance to return home. Thomas said that visiting the Qurayyah Sea Water Plant was a highlight of his visit. “I worked there for 21 years, so to come back and see how much it had grown and advanced was great to see. We were so grateful to be able to return and see all the changes, and to visit our friends.” The Hendersons have organized five annuitant reunions in the United Kingdom and agree that the bond between Aramcons is a special phenomenon. “The Aramco bond is something you can’t explain; it’s like a big family,” said Eileen. “It lasts even when you leave. Living in Saudi Arabia was an experience we wouldn’t trade for the world.” Argiri Papadopoulou (Iro) Smith lived with her family in Dhahran from 1982 until 2008, and was thrilled to return for the reunion. Iro, and her husband, Ron, retired to Bahrain. “I cannot imagine myself living far from Saudi Aramco,” Smith explained. “If I could live my life all over again, I would have lived it exactly the same way, the Saudi Aramco way. To be an Aramcon is to be a member of an extended family that no matter where one goes, one feels a sense of belonging and of being understood. An Aramcon is a link of the same chain that never breaks.” This bond that exists between annuitants and brats spans the globe and unites people from myriad backgrounds, ages, and experiences. “This bond also increases with age,” observed Al-Baluchi. “During this reunion, we had a few visitors who were 90 years old, and they said they are already hoping to come to the next one.”
Owen added, “There is a strong sense of home and belonging that our returning annuitants and brats feel that one would be hard pressed to find duplicated in other companies. It is what makes Saudi Aramco so unique and what continues to beckon former employees home.” Annuitants Don and JoAnn Cornell’s connection to the Kingdom is still very much alive as two of their children now work for Saudi Aramco. “To describe the experience of working for Saudi Aramco, I would say it was a life-changing experience. Not only for us personally but it literally changed the shape of our family, and the lives of our children and grandchildren, and it is still shaping them to this day.” This deep feeling of connection to the Kingdom is what inspired many of the volunteers to donate their time and expertise to organizing the reunion. One such volunteer, Laurie T. Kelsch, brought a wealth of experience to her position on the administrative team. Not only was she on the organizing committee during the 2000 and 2009 reunions, Kelsch also lived in Saudi Arabia for almost 40 years, first as a brat and then with her husband as they worked for Saudi Aramco and raised their children. Even after retiring 3½ years ago, Kelsch continues to assist the organizers and the participants with registration and financial issues. “All reunions have multiple challenges,” explained Kelsch. “It takes years of discussion, planning, and coordination to make it all come together. Putting on a reunion for 600 people is no small feat.” To Kelsch, the hard work is worth it. “There is an extreme amount of satisfaction in planning such a successful event. It is a huge endeavor, and a lot of behind the scenes planning and coordination has to come together to make the event successful. It is extremely satisfying to see how happy the participants are when they return ‘home.’ And just a simple ‘thank you’ is very gratifying for all the hard work involved. So many people who have such wonderful memories of Saudi Arabia are so glad to be able to see a place that meant so much to them and their families.” Abubshait urged anyone interested to volunteer for future reunions. “I would like to encourage people to volunteer, especially executive retirees. The annuitants really appreciated the volunteers and all of their hard work. These reunions are very important, and supporting them is a good cause,” he said. Alison Hooker, the co-chairperson of Hospitality along with Mandy Parker, volunteered to help with the reunion due to her interest in social history. “I’m especially fascinated by Saudi Aramco’s very unique history, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to hear firsthand some of the individual stories and perspectives of folks who contributed to the building of the company and its communities while using some of my own skills and experiences to the benefit of the Saudi Aramco community.” Hooker said she felt privileged to witness touching moments for the returning visitors, “It was especially moving when one lady gifted her husband’s hand-drawn 37 year service award, signed by 280 Aramcons, including five CEOs, and shared how close it made her feel to her late husband to return the document to its origins and experience personally the community he had lived and worked in for so long.” One of Hooker and Parker’s most important tasks was overseeing the Reunion House, what Hooker described as “the heartbeat of the reunion.” “Everyone comes to and from the house to catch buses, return from trips, get information or connect with people — and this movement creates its own daily positive energy and excitement. Add in those amazing volunteers at all hours of the day with their welcoming smiles, willingness to serve, and genuine interest in the lives of our visitors, and you have a very dynamic environment.” Parker also praised the efforts of the volunteers. “I think that our hardworking and dedicated team of volunteers made the house a home away from home for many who returned. For future reunions, I hope to maintain the Saudi tradition of generous and gracious hospitality.” Hooker shared this ambition. “I hope we continue to aspire to the generosity of spirit and welcome imbued and inspired by Ali Al-Baluchi on this and the previous KSA Reunions, while we move forward with a new vision and purpose under Saeed Al-Ghamdi.”
Al-Baluchi, who brought the idea of the Annuitant Reunion into the world and helped solidify its place as a much-loved regular event, has decided that after 15 years of dedication to this dream, he is now ready to hand over the reins to his successor, Al-Ghamdi. “We are very grateful to Saudi Aramco for the support; we could not do this without them,” said Al-Baluchi. “I am confident that these reunions will continue getting better and better and will be a happy event for all involved. For the next reunion, we would like to focus on bringing back to Saudi Arabia annuitants and their families who have not yet had a chance to return. The next reunion is scheduled for March 11-21, 2019, and we already have many excited people who are hoping to attend.” Courtesy of The Arabian Sun, April 8, 2015