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A New Oil-Field in Saudi Arabia


Several months ago a cable message flashed out of the Near East, sped halfway around the world to offices of Standard Oil Company of California, in San Francisco. Oil was flowing from a well drilled by the California Arabian Standard Oil Company, a subsidiary organization formed by the parent company to "explore and search for and drill and extract and manufacture and transport" petroleum and kindred bituminous matter in an oil concession including most of the eastern part of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

It had been proceeded by three years of interesting activity, first by geologists who had ridden cars and aircraft over the immense terrain, then by engineers and production men who set up their drilling rigs on Dammam Dome, where the geologists said "Oil may be here." They were right. Oil is there, but in what quantity remains to be seen. An enormous territory in Saudi Arabia is still to be tested.

The discovery well was really the second to be drilled. The first, Dammam No. 1, struck gas and drilling was continued through this upper oil zone to a deeper horizon. Meanwhile, Dammam No. 2 was started, and in June of this year was brought in - 53o gravity oil at a depth of 2152 feet. Thus Dammam Dome, on which the principal topographic feature is the mountain called Jebel Umm er Rus, was definitely proved to be oil-bearing. It had been recognized that this structure was geologically, remarkably like the structure at Jebel Dukhan on Bahrain Island, about 45 miles distant in the Persian Gulf, where the Company's other subsidiary in the eastern hemisphere, the Bahrain Petroleum Company, Ltd., has been producing oil for about four years. In fact, evidence points to the conclusion that the Dammam structure was once on an island like Bahrain, and that wind-blown sand probably filled in the strait that separated it from the mainland.

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The two successful wells in Arabia are so located that they earned the field enough to warrant an extensive drilling program in this area. Work has likewise been started on another structure at El 'Alat, about 25 miles northwest of the Dammam structure and it is entirely possible that before these words appear in type reports will have been made of other producing wells. Already plans are being made to deliver the crude oil to tidewater. At Al Khobar, the port of entry for these producing activities, the Company constructed a stone wharf for the landing of freight transshipped from Bahrain; from here the road was built into the field.

Dammam Camp, which is about sixty miles by road from Jubail and about six miles inland from Al Khobar, became producing headquarters in October, 1935, after facilities for workers, water lines, roads, were installed. The geologists still use Jubail as their headquarters.

Any announcement of successful drilling carries little hint of the preliminary work that is necessary before oil might be found. The concession in Saudi Arabia was obtained on July 14, 1933. First on the ground thereafter, of course, were the geologists, those scientific gentlemen who pioneer all oil production in all the far parts of the earth. Temperamentally, they are explorers; they're used to packing their kits on short notice and catching the next train or ship or plane to survey some territory and report on its possibilities as oil land. In the present case, however, Company geologists had not far to go - only about forty miles, in fact. For they were already established on Bahrain Island; the new concession was just across the strait. It might as well have been thousands of miles away, so far as knowledge of it was concerned; Saudi Arabia was almost wholly unknown; it was one of the few places which, until three years ago, had not been surveyed by oil geologists.

Not only was it a virgin field for the geologist but it was almost unknown in every other respect, for very few non-Mohammedans had penetrated its vast desert peninsula more than a short distance from the coast. An idea of its extreme isolation may be seen in this fact: In 1934 a Company geologist was the fourth American or European ever to cross Saudi Arabia from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea, and a year later three other Company geologists were the fifth, sixth and seventh non-Mohammedans to make the trip. It was only natural, then, that they found the Bedouins living as their forefathers must have lived two thousand years ago.

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The first party of geologists landed at Jubail, a small Persian Gulf port of the Province of Hasa, on September 23, 1933, and received a cordial reception. The Arabs encountered everywhere were found to be very charitable when the visitors made mistakes, and their friendly feeling was evident at all times.

In order to be less conspicuous, it was found advisable to adopt the Arabian gutra, or headdress, when in the field, and to wear both the headdress and aba or outer garment in the towns and villages. As a courtesy to the people, practically the complete Arabian costume was worn when making social calls. The first geologists in the country also found it advantageous to wear full beards, although clean-shaven Arabs are sometimes seen.

Although the casual visitor to Saudi Arabia may find that the Arabs have not kept pace with Western Europe in the use of machinery and other forms of western "progress," he soon becomes aware that the Arabs possess an old and cultured civilization of their own. The Westerner will often realize that he is in a land where personal relationships, hospitality and courtesy to visitors compare more than favorably with less graceful manners of his own country.

Saudi Arabia is a country with an area of approximately one million square miles and a population estimated to be about 4,500,000. It has a centralized or paternalistic form of government under the absolute ruler of His Majesty Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal al Sa'ud - a real king, both in appearance and in thought. He stands about six feet four inches in height, and is built in proportion. Having always held the authority of life and death over his followers, his demeanor is that of one born to rule.

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The modern history of Saudi Arabia may be said to start from December 17, 1901, when with then companions, including the redoubtable Abdulla ibn Jelewie, afterward made Governor of the Province of Hasa, His Majesty captured his ancestral home at Riyadh. He became more of a power to be considered when on April 13, 1913, he drove the Turks from the district of Hufuf and seized all of the Province of Hasa. At the present time he is a master of the major part of the entire Arabian Peninsula. It was his decision that gave the Company the right for sixty years to develop the petroleum resources in a region somewhat larger than the state of California, which extends westward from the Persian Gulf.

The greater part of Saudi Arabia is barren, almost without vegetation, without roads of any consequence. Along its western boarder on the Red Sea, and in the southeastern part along the Indian Ocean, the country is mountainous, with some peaks rising to an elevation of 8000 or 9000 feet. The land slopes gradually from the heights near the Red Sea to sea-level on the Persian Gulf. Aside from a few low escarpments, this vast eastern slope is a comparatively flat desert. The shamal, or north wind, is a welcome alleviation of the heat in summer, but it intensifies the cold in winter. Dust storms are frequent both in summer and winter; the dust travels for great distances - probably coming from the Syrian desert and being carried as far as the Indian Ocean. Such storms have been known to hold up shipping on the Persian Gulf, the dust being so thick it resembles fog.

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This is the country the new California Arabian Standard Oil Company is at present developing for oil. In general it is a land of little rain, of sand dunes, of rocky wastes, but around the various oasis and water wells, as at Riyadh, there are beautiful green shady gardens of date palms and other fruits which are always a glad sight to the traveler. Reconnaissance work was carried on to the west of Jubail the first few weeks, then the geologists made a trip northwest from Hofuf. As a result of these trips it was determined that Jubail should be the main headquarters for the geological parties. Cars and camels were used; camels were not ridden by the geologists, but were used extensively for carrying supplies. Usually, about twenty cargo camels were attached to each field party, with many more used at times in transporting supplies, chiefly of gasoline, to the camps.

By far the greater part of Saudi is rocky but there are also great sand areas to be crossed, and much thought had been given to the subject of transportation. Light cars and small trucks fitted with large balloon tires were fairly satisfactory, but finally a huge "doughnut" tire was adopted. This was very efficient, and, inflated about 13 pounds, is showed remarkably little wear in the sand dunes. Wide pieces of belting were carried to put under the wheels for traction in loose sand.

Traveling with an escort through the Province of Hasa was found to be perfectly safe, a condition that was not true during the rule of the Turks. The geologists had the pleasure of meeting the famous Governor, His Excellency Abdulla ibn Jelewie, who cleared the province of raiders and robbers that formerly made any trip hazardous. Now, foreigners traveling with authority from His Majesty can go safely anywhere with only a small escort.

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The geological exploration and evaluation of so vast a territory called for the use of every available tool, so aerial geological reconnaissance and photography were included. A specially equipped Fairchild mapping airplane was ordered. It had a full panel of navigating instruments, auxiliary gasoline tanks, camera mounts, and enormous low-pressure tires. While work on the airplane was being rushed with all possible speed, photographic and flying equipment were selected, packed and sent to San Pedro. Here the Standard Oil tanker El Segundo, which has done such valiant service in connection with developing the Bahrain Island oilfield, received this gear, along with thousands of gallons of gasoline and motor oils, a spare Wasp engine, and many supplies. For the Company's men were entering a country as unlike their own as it is possible to find on the globe: an essentially desert country, with practically no means of communication, a limited source of supply for foodstuffs of the kind to which Americans are accustomed, and far out of read of replacements of parts for airplane, motor-cars or trucks. The tanker steamed out of the California port on December 30, 1933, bound for the Persian Gulf.

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Across the Atlantic, down the Mediterranean, the plane was carried by a freighter. At Alexandria a few days were spent testing the craft and adjusting the instruments. Then the plane spread its wings, flew to Cairo, to Gaza in Palestine, to Baghdad, down the Tigris River to Basra on the Persian Gulf, and on southeast to Jubail - from snows and ice-blocked harbors, to the desert sun and glare of Saudi Arabia; to a wholly new country, new language and customs, new physical conditions.

By using a plane, field parties could be directed into interesting country. The use of the plane for two field seasons gave an understanding of the geological conditions that would require many years to acquire with ordinary methods. The pilot and navigator were accompanied on each daily flight by two geologists. Copious notes were made by all hands - geology, physiography, settlements, waterholes, camel trails, etc. After each flight a traverse map was compiled, showing the route of the plane. Interesting geological features were noted and located, and if they were considered of sufficient importance they were later photographed and incorporated into mosaic maps.

Contact was maintained with ground field parties, and periodic trips were made to their camps to deliver mail, drinking water, supplies equipment, fresh vegetables, eggs, and so on. Landing fields were established in the interior and thousands of gallons of gasoline and oil and many boxes of film were shipped in by camel-train. At Jubail a marvelous flying field was laid out, ten miles long and one mile wide.

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At times geological parties established field camps at great distances from headquarters. One camp, at Lina, near the great Dahana Red Sands, was over 300 miles from Jubail, and the cargo camels required thirty days to make the trip. The plane made this hop in four hours. The plane was equipped with a radio transmitting and receiving set, and since all the geologists had learned the Morse code, it was possible for them to keep in touch with the plane throughout its flights. During the last season of flying activity, a transmitting set using voice was found to be of great value in keeping in contact with headquarters. With the use of radio receiving sets, the field men received accurate time signals. Using ship chronometers, they were able to make good stellar observations. Speedometer and Brunton traverses were tied into the fairly accurately located camps. Combining all the available data, a map of astonishing accuracy has been made.

From the air the country often appears to be as flat as the sea. Peculiarly enough, the few landmarks used by the flyers were generally sinks or basins or wind-scrapped bellows. These were given names, since notes appeared on existing maps - The Big Scar, Old Dishpan, Dahana, Crescent Basin, the Black Sink, and many others. Only along the coast were conspicuous landmarks found.

Eventually, the aerial work was finished, although the surface geology program is being continued. About thirty-five thousand miles of reconnaissance flights were completed. Several thousand aerial photographs were taken. The concession had been "viewed" from the air, its unusual formations picked out and photographed, its vast area mapped and classified geologically.