© Mark Lowey 2023. All rights reserved.

In this piece, Aramco’s legendary desert expert, Quriyan Al Hajri, describes the early stages of the Shaybah project and his experiences exploring deep into the Rub Al Khali to determine the best access route for what would become the Shaybah Mega-Project.

As told to author, Mark Lowey.

Early Days

“Shaybah,” the name given to the area of massive, red-hued sand dunes by the Bedouin herdsmen, means "old man" in Arabic.

“Back in 1995,” explains Quriyan Al Hajri, “the Shaybah Project was in the proposal stage and not yet approved by Aramco management. [1] In those days there were no asphalt roads in the area, and the existing skid road [2] and desert trails were rough and dangerous paths through the desert, around huge sand dunes and over sabkha flats. Oil wells were drilled at Shaybah starting in 1967 but, only recently, had drilling technologies advanced enough to make a major crude oil production facility in Shaybah economically feasible.”  

Shaybah is deep in the Empty Quarter. Navigating that area required skillful local knowledge of the terrain. “My first trip there was in March 1995,” said Quriyan, “when I escorted three Aramco managers who were eager to see the area and excited at the prospect of a new Mega Project at Shaybah. I drove a blue GMC Suburban 4x4 Saudi Aramco vehicle, number EW2184,” his keen memory recalling even the most mundane of details.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project

The Suburban. “Sometimes slept on a folding cot next to my vehicle.”

“The distance between Abqaiq and Shaybah was approximately 750 kilometers. Our route was southward through Hofuf and down to Al Batha, the checkpoint at the United Arab Emirates (UAE) border. From Al Batha we headed southeast roughly following the straight-line-through-the-desert Saudi-UAE border. The drive there took a day and a half. After two days of sightseeing the Aramco chiefs were satisfied, and we retraced our steps back to Abqaiq.”

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project
Green: Salwa route. Blue: Al Batha route.

Route Surveys

A few weeks later, in April, Quriyan was asked to return to Shaybah and lead an eight-man team to determine the best route for a haul road that would be required for Aramco to transport equipment and materials to the Shaybah construction jobsite. “In addition to selecting the route,” he said, “We needed to identify sources of water and marl (a mixture of clay and silt) that would be required for construction of the haul road.[3] The team was one guy from the Wellsites Inspection Unit, four from transportation, two bulldozer operators, and me. We were all Saudis.”

To caravan through the desert with sufficient provisions and equipment was a major undertaking. “Our fleet of vehicles included a massive Kenworth tractor that towed a large trailer and a white portable (modular unit on wheels) that was our kitchen,” said Quriyan. “The Kenworth’s trailer contained two dozers, supplies and equipment and four live sheep. Another vehicle stored our foodstuffs such as chicken, rice and fruit. We had two 10,000-gallon tanker trucks, one for sweet water and the other for diesel fuel. I drove one of two blue GMC pickup trucks and my Wellsites colleague had a red 4x4 Landcruiser.”

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project
Quriyan in front of the Kenworth tractor. The food storage vehicle at left.

The trek through the desert was arduous, and the team soon fell into a daily routine. “When each day of hard work was done, we enjoyed good food around a campfire and slept in sleeping bags under the stars. Every four days, or so, we would kill one of the sheep and have a delicious rice khabsa dinner. We often cooked Arab flat bread, Khubz, in the sand under the coals of the fire.”[4]

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project
Relaxing after a day’s work. Sweetwater tanker in background.

Before the trip, Quriyan had decided he should record moments of this journey from time to time. “I documented the survey with videos taken with a Panasonic video camera purchased in Al Khobar for SR 3,000 (USD $800) in 1992. Below are some clips from the videos.”

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project
The Kenworth with trailer and white kitchen portable in tow.
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project
“That’s my blue pickup,” says Quriyan.
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project
Quriyan’s Wellsites colleague, Ali, directs traffic as the Kenworth approaches.

Two Routes

The April 1995 survey began at Salwa, the small settlement at the Saudi-Qatar border. “For three weeks,” said Quriyan, “we methodically moved along two possible routes. One from Salwa, and the other from Al Batha. We marked the route with slender wooden posts driven into the sand. The route from Salwa was 500 kilometers and the one from Al Batha, 386 kilometers. Both routes shared the final 300-kilometer approach to Shaybah.”

“I returned to Abqaiq at the end of April to prepare my report and recommendations,” said Quriyan. “I identified several marl deposits and sabkha areas where groundwater could be found. Aramco management selected the shorter route from Al Batha and accepted my recommendations for sourcing water and marl.”

With the route and recommendations approved, Aramco management was eager for the work to begin. “Construction of the haul road commenced in November 1995,” said Quriyan. “Four construction companies worked simultaneously to complete the road in 18 months. One year later, drilling works and a processing facility were completed, as well as the pipeline to Abqaiq Plants. By July 1998 Shaybah oil production went online.”

Meet the Engineers

Back to 1995. By September of that year, a basic airstrip had been prepared with compacted marl on a large stretch of sabkha. “Back then,” recalled Quriyan, “Aramco used Fokker 27 aircraft for flights to remote desert locations because they could land almost anywhere. One of the first flights to Shaybah was to carry a team of engineers for a one-day survey of oil drilling operations. I was assigned to drive to Shaybah and receive the engineers who would be flying down from Dhahran.”

“Due to staff shortages and the assignment’s sudden urgency, I had to make this trip by myself,” said Quriyan. Keenly aware that traveling alone on a long desert journey is never advisable, Quriyan and his supervisors devised a careful travel plan. “I traveled well-stocked and well-equipped, and, importantly, I contacted my boss twice a day by radio to report my condition and location. Plus, I carried a satellite phone in case of emergency.” With these precautions solidly in place, he started the long drive to Shaybah.

“After 18 hours driving, I arrived in Shaybah on September 15th around 9 p.m.,” recalled Quriyan. “I was exhausted, and the area was deserted with no one in sight.” The plane was due to arrive the following morning.

“I took my sleeping mattress and climbed one of the now famous Shaybah dunes to its highest point in search of a cooler place to sleep and to avoid scorpions that normally reside in shrubs and vegetation at the foot of the dunes,” said Quriyan, sharing his survival knowledge of desert flora and fauna.

The Shaybah dunes can reach 250 meters high (820 feet) and are known as Al Ka’ad, (sitting or seated) which means they are largely stationary and do not travel like dunes in other desert areas. Only the very top portions of the dunes change shape when impacted by winds.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project
The Shaybah dunes, present day. (Photo by Mark Lowey.)

Surprise Neighbors

“I woke before dawn for the Fajr prayer,” said Quriyan. “Suddenly, upon completing my prayers, I was surprised to hear a human voice in the distance singing the call to prayer. Remember, I believed that no person was around. I pulled out my compact binoculars and scanned the area to the west. To my astonishment, I saw a group of men in a hollow below a dune finishing their prayers and gathering around a campfire. I hastened towards them, and they greeted me with enthusiasm.”

These unlikely neighbors in the vast desert were a group of six men from Saudi Aramco’s transportation department. They had been conducting a survey 300 km southeast of Shaybah in an area called Ardah, near the Omani border. Today, they would continue their return journey.

Quriyan welcomed this purely chance encounter and the unexpected comradery after his long solo trip. “They served me coffee and tea and invited me to join them for a lovely breakfast. They wanted to know what brought me to this area, and I shared with them the impending arrival of Aramco engineers. The transportation group bid farewell and departed on their journey back to Dhahran. Once again, I was alone in the desert waiting for the Fokker 27 to arrive.”

Engineers Delayed

“As God Almighty would choose, that morning was foggy with very poor visibility of not more than one kilometer,” recalled Quriyan about the weather conditions that day. “This was a terrible situation as the aircraft was unlikely to land under such conditions. I remained hopeful until around 8 a.m. when I received a communication from the pilot by VHF long-distance two-way radio. He was en route, halfway through the 90-minute flight from Dhahran to Shaybah, and inquired about the weather and wind direction. I told him everything I could about the conditions, trying to sound upbeat and optimistic about his ability to land safely. However, it was no surprise when he told me it was unsafe to land and promptly changed his course and headed back to Dhahran.”

There was nothing to do but bide his time. “So, I stayed another night on the dune. The next day the weather had cleared, and the wind was calm. The Fokker landed safely, I escorted the Aramco engineers to their worksite, they completed their work and were back in the Fokker for a 3 p.m. departure.” As far as the Aramco engineers were concerned, the trip to Shaybah was successful. Quriyan could now head back to Abqaiq.  

Back to Abqaiq – Bedouin No. 1

“My return journey to Abqaiq would prove to be far more difficult than the outbound trip two days earlier,” said Quriyan. “I further decreased the air pressure in my tires and felt confident in the trusted Suburban 4x4. 170 kilometers west of Shaybah, the sands became softer and more challenging to navigate. The soft sands are called rabathat.” Quriyan knew this rabathat could be dangerous and proceeded cautiously. He did not want to get trapped in the soft sand.  

“While driving, I encountered a lone Bedouin, an Emirati, whose vehicle, unfortunately, had become stuck in the soft sand, “said Quriyan. “He had been trying to round up his herd of some 100 camels who were now scattered about, some of them more than a kilometer away. I stopped to assist and freed his truck using a sling wire connected to my Suburban. His truck was very deep in the sand but, at last, I pulled it back on the surface. I shared some of my water and food with him – dates and leftover khabsa. He was anxious to gather his camels, and I was satisfied that he would be safe, so I resumed my journey.”

Bedouin No. 2

“After driving another fifty kilometers, I came across another Bedouin, also an Emirati, who had been stranded for two days. He was about one kilometer from the main track and, fortunately, I noticed him desperately waving to attract my attention. When I reached him, he was relieved but looked very tired and hungry. He had run out of food and water.” He had wisely followed another survival rule of the desert – when stuck, stay with your vehicle.

His vehicle would not start due to a dead battery. “I helped re-charge his battery with the jumper cables I carried with me. As his vehicle’s engine ran to charge the battery, I shared dates and water with him. I had very little rice left, so I built a fire, prepared dough with flour, salt and water, and cooked Arab flatbread, Khubz, right there in the sand.”[4]

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project
Quriyan demonstrates how to prepare Khubz.

“He was grateful and soon revived. He told me he was going to continue in the other direction to meet a friend who was encamped around fifty kilometers away. I insisted that he join me and not travel alone in the desert as he was likely to get stuck again with his faulty battery. At first, he refused but I told him it was too dangerous to proceed.”

 “Wallah (I swear)” I exclaimed, “I cannot leave you here,” said Quriyan firmly, for he knew that the recharged battery was not strong and would eventually falter again. “You must follow me to Salwa and get your truck fixed,” reasoned Quriyan. “Finally, he was convinced, and we carried on to a gas station in Salwa, approximately 300 kilometers from where I met him.” The tandem journey to Salwa took eight hours to complete.

Aramco Desert Safety

Aramco always sets the safety of its employees at the heart of anything it does. With the help of employees like Quriyan, whose specialized knowledge of the desert provided an integral part of the foundation for Aramco’s extensive knowledge base, the company was able to move safely and successfully to expand its operations into the unexplored regions of the Empty Quarter. 

As Quriyan contemplated those early days of Shaybah, he grew philosophical. “I learned a lot from that September trip. I am the son of the desert and learned much from my father and from growing up and living in this environment,” he said. “I learned many more lessons while working remotely for several companies early in my career. Survival depends on being constantly aware that there are many hazards that can be encountered in such a beautiful yet harsh environment.”

“During my career at Aramco, I was able to transfer some of my desert knowledge to the company and help develop procedures and policies to ensure safety in the desert. Below I have listed critical points for navigating the desert.

I conclude with this simple rule, “Think how to get out before going in.”

Desert Safety

Survival Requirements:

  • Never travel alone.
  • When stuck, always stay with your vehicle.
  • Ideally, you should travel with two appropriate vehicles fully equipped and loaded with all the necessary supplies including food and tools.
  • Drink plenty of water and electrolyte replacement fluids to avoid dehydration.
  • Carry at least twenty liters of water per person per day, and more if engaging in physical activity.
  • Know how to find water and food, if the need arises.
  • Purify water before drinking with tablets or boiling.
  • Know how to build a shelter from natural materials, if necessary.
  • Know your desert plants, animals and insects.
  • Use sunscreen with high SPF.


  • Light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.
  • Cover as much skin as possible.
  • Wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.

Weather Conditions:

  • Check weather reports and plan accordingly.
  • Desert temperatures fluctuate dramatically between day and night.
  • Flash floods.

Shelter (in an emergency):

  • Use natural materials such as rocks, branches, and sand.
  • Make sure the shelter is well ventilated and insulated.

Emergency Kit and Extra Supplies:

  • Basic first aid supplies.
  • Map and compass and know how to use them.
  • Whistle, multipurpose tool such as Swiss Army knife.
  • Signaling mirror.
  • Fire source, lighter or matches.
  • Enough food and water to last well beyond the planned trip.
  • Special medications in appropriate storage containers.


  • Stay connected with colleagues and family while working remotely in the desert.
  • Let someone know your planned route and schedule.
  • Carry communication devices such as satellite phones and/or two-way radio.
  • Carry GPS device.

Desert Driving: (Reference Aramco Loss Prevention Dept.)

  • Best to have at least two vehicles, always 4x4.
  • Preparation:
  • Check the vehicle’s mechanical condition, tires, fluids, windscreen wipers, etc.
  • Plan route and schedule.
  • Two-way radios for communication between vehicles.

What to Bring:

  • Medical supplies.
  • Water, at least 20 liters of water per day per person. (Minimum three-day supply in addition to your planned schedule.)
  • Food, canned or dried, don’t forget can opener.
  • Two spare tires per vehicle.
  • Additional petrol, according to the planned travel distance.
  • Map, compass, GPS, phone.
  • Tire pressure gauge, tire pump, hydraulic and mechanical jacks, lug wrench, fire extinguisher, shovel, jumper cables, extra car fluids and fuses, towing belt (sling wire), spare battery, toolbox, air compressor. (Flat piece of wood on which to place jack on sand.)

Sand mats to place under tires for traction when stuck.

2018 Saudi Aramco Excellence Awards

In 2018 Quriyan was awarded “Lifetime Ambassador for Saudi Aramco and the Kingdom.”

Quriyan Al-Hajri’s contribution to Saudi Aramco – and indeed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – go far beyond the 36 years of dedicated service he provided as upstream professional and former supervisor of the Wellsites Inspection Unit.

There is no denying the value of Al-Hajri’s expertise and knowledge on the job over the years with the company. His uncanny, in-depth knowledge of the desert terrain quickly became legendary – he was the first person to travel deep into the Rub’ al-Khali to determine the best routes for building roads that would be used to carry heavy equipment, construction materials, and supplies to build the Shaybah mega-project.

But the true depth of the indelible mark Al-Hajri has left on the company can only be seen of one looks at the contributions he made outside of his storied career. Al-Hajri – the great grandson of a Bedouin herdsman – is just as well-known for being an enthusiastic ambassador and communicator of Bedouin traditions and culture.

The number of visitors to his Ain Dar area farm over the years numbers in the thousands as he has served as a gracious host for people of all walks of life. Al-Hajri has been instrumental in assisting writers and professional photographers in articulating beautiful stories about the culture and traditions of Saudi Arabia.

And while his career with Saudi Aramco has come to an end, the door to Al-Hajri’s home remains open to any and all visitors, who are generously treated to both the Saudi delicacies of cuisine and history with storytelling adventure.

Indeed, Al-Hajri’s ability to connect on a human level with people from many different cultural and national backgrounds has made him a lifetime goodwill ambassador not just for the company, but for the entire Kingdom.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project
Aramco publication March 21, 2018
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project
Aramco managers visit Shaybah during the initial construction phase. Quriyan center, standing.


[1] Shaybah https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaybah

Oil was discovered with Shaybah Well No. 1 in 1967, and 30 vertical field delineation wells had been drilled by 1974. However, due to the very large number of wells required to achieve a minimum capacity of 250,000 bd of commercial production, the field was not developed at that time. Starting in 1993 with the advent of extended reach horizontal wells and geo-steering in Saudi Aramco, a detailed evaluation of the productivity of horizontal wells was carried out in Shaybah field. The program confirmed that average well productivities would be increased from 500 bd in vertical wells to over 5,000 bd in horizontal wells, without incurring gas or water coning.

The improvement in well productivities allowed a change in project scope from 500 oil wells to deliver 250,000 bd of capacity to 140 oil and associated gas injection wells to deliver 550,000 bd of capacity. This change reduced the budgeted capital cost (by half) allowing the Saudi Aramco management, in 1995, to approve the Shaybah field development ahead of other projects in Ghawar.

Shaybah oil production began in 1998 with 250,000 bd. Additional drilling and oil and gas processing capacity allowed the Shaybah field capacity to be increased in 2010 to 750,000 bd and to 1 million bd in 2016, including NGL recovery from the associated gas and a dedicated NGL pipeline to the Abqaiq plants.

A 386 km road had to be built across the dunes followed by a large landing strip to accommodate cargo jets. A central processing facility includes three gas oil separation plants, a gas compression plant, water desalination, housing facilities for 1,000 men, a library, swimming pool, and gymnasium. A 645-kilometer high-pressure pipeline connects the field with Abqaiq, and from there it connects into the network to the Ras Tanura and Juaymah export terminals.

[2] Skid Road. Compacted, single-lane desert tracks leading to remote oil-drilling locations. Used to transport drilling rigs and support equipment.

[3] Road construction using marl and water from Sabkha. (Source, Quriyan Al Hajri.)

Marl is a white powdery clay and silt mixture found in deposits around the Saudi desert. Sabkha, or salt flat, exists over shallow, salty groundwater table. This groundwater, when mixed with marl and left to dry results in a hard, durable surface suitable for a heavy equipment haul road.

[4] Arab Flatbread – Sand Bread. On the Flatbread Trail, Aramco World 1995 https://archive.aramcoworld.com/issue/199505/on.the.flatbread.trail.htm

A low-tech nomadic flatbread technique, probably of ancient origin, is used by Bedouin to bake unleavened flatbreads by burying them in the hot sand and embers beneath a fire. They mix flour, salt and water and need no utensils to make this ideal desert-travel food.

Even today, Quriyan is fond of making bread in the traditional way. Below are photos of Quriyan making sand bread.

Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project
Tales of the Bedouin – Part XXIX: Tracing the Path to Shaybah–Before the Mega-Project
Quriyan enjoys fresh Khubz.


Mark Lowey
Quriyan and the author.

About the Author: California-born and raised, Mark Lowey - known to many as Abu Jack - earned a degree in Construction Management and embarked on a career that started in Saudi Arabia and continued around the world. By luck or fate, his final project before retirement took him back to Saudi Arabia.

A self-taught amateur photographer, Mark documented his early days in Saudi while living in Abqaiq and working in the vast oil fields of the Kingdom’s Eastern Province.

Mark and his wife are now retired and have returned to California.

Email: moloworking1@gmail.com

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