Skip to content

Dhahran, First Impressions

February 20, 2012

Saudi Aramco, Dhahran

January 12, 2012

It may be a truism of travel that at base one place looks much like another.  When I first landed in Kona, Hawaii years ago, I was disappointed to find the topography so similar to my native California.  Shouldn’t it have been utterly different?  Afterall, it was over 2000 miles away.  That epiphany lead to others.  The cloud soaked hills of Marin are like wandering similar hills in Scotland. Mexico City has the flavor of an ancient, future Los Angeles, Los Angeles a decayed Tokyo.  The Farasan Banks of the Red Sea froth white with waves like those that crash on the Great Barrier Reef.  Carl Sagan exclaimed at his first view of a new land, “This was not an alien world, I thought, I knew places like it in Colorado and Arizona and Nevada.”  He was referring to Mars.*  So I should have known.

Still, there was some surprise at finding that my sister’s neighborhood inside Dhahran’s mostly expat compound could have been in the suburbs of Phoenix or San Diego.  Streets were regularly laid out, tree-lined, sidewalks wide and free of cracks.  Every several blocks was a small park for the children or a duck pond and fountain.  The neatly manicured golf course was ringed by a paved walking track.  There was a heritage museum dedicated to Aramco history, a large library, two fine restaurants, a commissary jammed with western goods, a gymnasium with an olympic sized-pool, even a bowling alley.  Two on-camp radio stations played American pop and American country music, respectively.  Here, and nowhere else in Saudi, women of any nationality could drive.  Western dress was the norm. 

It was comfortable.  It was like being at home.  It was designed that way. 

Green Oasis of Dhahran Camp from a Nearby Hill

Charming Houses of Dhahran

My Sister's Corner

At the Party


An Afternoon Farmer's Market

Gas is less than $1 a gallon

Bruce and Lavonna out for a Harley Ride of the Hood

Prosperity Well

Prosperity Well--where it all began for Saudi, circa 1933

But Sagan must admit that a closer inspection of Mars showed it to be very different from Nevada, and so it was here.
Beyond the last house, the last lawn, the desert began at once and rose up in a jumble of rock or slid off in smooth, utterly barren dunes and between these ran large steel pipes that moved crude oil from one station to another.
And there were other clues to one’s actual location, some subtle, some startling.  Slowly I came to realize that the camp was laid out like a fort.  Along the outer ring were the large office complexes where Aramco business was conducted; inside of this and at the protected center were the living quarters. Each of these layers was defined by a wall or high fence such that to find my sister’s house required passing through two tightly guarded iron gates, one allowing access to the business district, the other to the neighborhoods.  Hidden in the bushes beyond the outer gate was a camaflouged pickup with a machine gun mounted high above the cab inside of which a uniformed private pulled on a cigarette and glowered.  Entrance to either area required an Aramco-issued identification, and even movement within was restricted.  Office buildings, the post office complex, the campus that contained the library, restaurants and bowling alley, the gymnasium and pool were all guarded, the proper pass must be shown. 

My First Day--identification freshly pressed


Passing the Main Gate

Muslim women often wore their black abayas on afternoon walks, even jogging, and contrasted sharply with others in their running shorts and tank tops.  Groups of groundsmen from the sub-continent, all in yellow jump suits, roamed freely and napped in the shade for long periods after frenzied bursts of grass cutting or weed pulling.  Their approach might flush a Hoopoe digging for insects in the lawn or a Bulbul or a Myna.  Small mosques dotted the compound, following the age-old rule that all who wished should be within easy walk of a place to pray.  The call rang out frequently, and then the groundsmen would wash hands and feet at the closest spigot, lay out their headscarves on the lawn and kneel, facing Mecca.

Saudi fighter jets roared low overhead any day except Friday, banking left and flashing the green ensign–a single simitar below the famous remark in Arabic script, “There is no god but God, and Mohamed is his messenger”.   “The air base just beyond that fence is in high gear now,” said a neighbor pointing to a long runway obscured only by haze.  “They’ve been at it constantly for weeks, but they bank left, always left.  I hope that turns out to be the correct maneuver when the time comes.”

Saudi Fighter Jet

That these essential differences were folded into such a familiar framework made my head spin.


“Oh, you are so lucky!” was often repeated at my sister’s lavish dinner party.

Her social circle of expats included nurses, dental hygenists, accountants, grade school teachers, administrators, airplane mechanics, auditors, geologists, and engineers.  A more diverse group under one roof I had never met, and all were handy at conversation, quick to laugh, and utterly welcoming.  All went out of their way to  congratulate me on the next trip.  “You are going to dive the Farasan Banks?  Almost no one goes there–you lucky man!


*Cosmos, Carl Sagan, Random House, 1980, Location 2178.

One Comment
  1. Waldo permalink
    May 13, 2013 1:57 am

    Hi, was there an Olive Garden restaurant in Dhahran?

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: