Miller-Henry Dhahran campsite. Photo by Felix Dreyfus 1933
It all began in September 28th, 1933. The geologists Bert Miller and Krug Henry pitched their tents on the edge of what was then known as the Dammam Dome and established the site called Dhahran.
They probably sat around the campfire, excited because they knew there was oil beneath their feet, trying to decide drilling locations well into the night. Beginning from scratch in the middle of an empty desert, by 1939 the California Arabian Standard Oil Company had built a fully operating oil camp producing eleven thousand barrels of oil a day when Ted Lenzen shot this priceless film of Dhahran. Its magnificent panning shot taken from high in the jabal begins at what is today KFPM and sweeps over the camp’s roads and buildings, the shops, the warehouses and the break out yards. In the background the derricks stand like miniature Eiffel Towers. The pan continues to spin towards the ridges of the jabal, finally coming to rest in what is today the residential district of Al Rabia.
There is so much to see and consider in this clip. The town is surrounded by a great emptiness. Vast open spaces that are inconceivable in today’s urban sprawl of high-rises and freeways. Every man-made thing that you see: every window, every nail, screw, bolt, every piece of lumber or steel and every bag of cement, had to be imported from outside the kingdom. And then it had to be assembled into a camp by about four hundred Americans and two thousand Saudis working in a harsh environment. These men really accomplished a lot in a very short time. They were proud enough of their achievements but not a single one of them could have possibly imagined that they had just built the foundation for the headquarters of the most successful oil company in the world.
Ted Lenzen shows us a bustling, expanding oil camp. Later that week on May 1st, 1939 Saudi Arabia shipped its first tanker-load of oil at Ras Tanura and the Saudi oil venture was well on its way. Four months later the Germans rolled into Poland and World War II depleted the camp, the company contracted and the place looked the same in 1944 as it does in Ted’s film.
To all the people who lived in Dhahran and around it for many years, the place is almost family and Ted Lenzen’s landscapes are a sort of home movie. Dhahran at age six. The kind of movie you would show at the party for Dhahran when it turns eighty this September 28th, 2013. Happy Eightieth!