Tim Barger, son of former Aramco President & CEO, Thomas C. Barger, was invited, along with 30 other children of early Aramco employees who also grew up in the Kingdom, to help celebrate the company’s 75th Anniversary. On May 20th, at a dinner hosted by Saudi Aramco President and CEO Abdullah Jum’ah, Tim gave a speech about his experience growing up as an American youth in Saudi Arabia. He has given us permission to share his words on Aramco ExPats.
I’m very pleased to be back in Saudi Arabia and it is an honor to address such a distinguished group: President and CEO Mr. Abdullah Jum’ah, Saudi Aramco’s Corporate and Executive Management, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Today we celebrate Saudi Aramco’s 75th anniversary. It is a remarkable achievement and a success beyond the wildest dreams of the king and the men who set it in motion. It is well worth celebrating, but it is also good to remember that there was nothing easy about building this company. Starting from scratch in 1934 —less than a year after the oil concession agreement was signed—geologists Burt Miller and Krug Henry pitched a few tents in the shadow of Jabal Dhahran - and laid the foundations for this great company.
The oil didn’t flow right away. It took four more difficult years to drill the first producing well - at a depth never seen before in the Middle East. This discovery was immediately followed by the demands of a year-long scramble to build a terminal at Ras Tanura and a 40 mile-long pipeline to Dhahran.
At Ras Tanura, on May 1st, 1939, His Royal Highness King Abdul Aziz turned the valve to load the first tanker with Saudi crude – the kingdom was now an oil exporting country. Photographs from that day reveal a great man smiling, the look of a king, who with deserved satisfaction, knows that he has provided his people with a lasting legacy.
Just 13 weeks later, this legacy was endangered. The well at Dammam Number 12 burst into flames - tragically killing five oil men – four Saudis and one American. This raging inferno threatened the entire field, and the nearest professional firefighters were four weeks away. So the oil men decided to control this disaster themselves.
They reversed the oil pipeline to Al-Khobar and pumped seawater from the coast to quench the fire. Imagine that it is July in Dhahran, 120 degrees in the shade, and you are spraying saltwater on an uncontrollable blaze – for hours in the open sun. Occasionally the wind shifts and the unbearable heat drives you back from the flaring gas of the broken well head.
No one had to fight the fire - it was all volunteer, and what do we see in the pictures from that day? An American and a Saudi at the head of the fire hose. They fight side by side against a common enemy - without the slightest bit of protective clothing - maybe the American soaked his felt hat and the Saudi dipped his ghutra in water - before they charged back into the roaring heat. Their pride as oil men demands that they tame the fire – and failure would extinguish their livelihood and threaten their families. After 10 days of working around the clock the flames went silent.
Three months later Germany invaded Poland, and world war reduced Aramco to a skeleton crew of about 100 Americans and 1,600 Saudis. Throughout the conflict, despite shortages of food, materials, equipment and manpower, these men maintained a modest, but steady, flow of up to 15,000 barrels a day to the refinery in Bahrain, and the Allied war effort.
At the end of the war, the major refinery at Ras Tanura was built and finally in 1946, 13 years after the concession was signed, Saudi Arabia had its first full year of commercial production. The kingdom shipped 60 million barrels of oil that year. Today Saudi Aramco produces that much in a week.
In January of the following year, His Highness came to the Eastern Province and, despite his many official duties, he took the time to greet the children and wives of the Americans who had devoted their careers to Aramco.
He couldn’t thank all of these men personally, but there is an old saying that, “If you respect a man, honor his family,” and 61 years ago, King Abdul Aziz did exactly that.
I was a very small child at the time, but my sister Annie was six years old and she was thrilled to meet the king. She also met Prince Faisal that day and she is very proud of that photograph. She is in her best outfit with a small blue hat as the prince holds her arm.
When the king greeted the children and mothers of Aramco – he made each one of them feel like the most important person in the world. He could never really have known how much his recognition meant to every American he met that day. Nor could he have known how many American employees would spend their entire working lives in Dhahran or Abqaiq, Ras Tanura or Udhailiyah. He could not have known that so many of the children he greeted that day would grow up in Arabia. That so many Americans would know his country as our home.
It was the King’s kind regards and the hospitality of the Saudi people that welcomed us to this land, and, like any Saudi, we cherish it. Millions of stars in the night sky above the desert - like jewels in the still blackness, the shimmering turquoise hues of the gulf. Who among us hasn’t experienced a shamaal at night – the dust suspended in the air, waiting to blow wildly the next day, or perhaps the fresh smell of a recently passed winter rain.
Because we come from different cultures, we do have differences, but like friends, we focus on what we have in common, and the similarities are so much larger than our differences.
I am just one of the many Americans who have lived in your country for years. There are more than a thousand Americans working for Saudi Aramco right now, and there are tens of thousands who have worked for the company over the past 75 years. There are many thousands of us who were born and raised in the Eastern Province. We are not Saudi-Americans nor are we American-Saudis, maybe we are Saudi Aramcon-Americans.
Regardless of the name, thank all of you Saudi-Arabians, for your friendship and generously accepting us within your society, for teaching us about another way of life, for sharing with us the beauty of your country - but most especially, thank you, and your parents, for respecting the achievements of our fathers. They did their very best to help make Saudi Aramco the success that it is today, and we are very proud of them and their contribution – as we are of this great company. On behalf of these Americans - past and present, I’d like to say, “Nashkurkam jazeleen.” (Thank all of you very much.)
Publisher, Selwa Press