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istory weighs down heavily on the first-time visitor to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. When a well dug in the nearby island of Bahrain in 1931 was found to yield not water but oil, it marked the turning point in neighbouring Saudi Arabia’s Depression-era economy. Since Bahrain’s geology was similar to that of Eastern Arabia, it was well reasoned that oil would be found in the surrounding areas, and in much greater quantities.
The wise King ‘Abd Al-’Aziz of Saudi Arabia, described as “a man for his century? decided to send one of his ablest ministers, ‘Abd Allah al-Sulayman, who, incidentally, had studied trade and book-keeping in Bombay before being named Finance Minister by the King, to California to try and persuade the Standard Oil of California (SOCAL) to provide, in return for the franchise to seek for oil, the immediate loan of $1,00,000 the King required to pay off the country’s debts.
Although al-Sulayman failed in securing the loan, he achieved something far more far- reaching after two years of negotiations ?a concession from SOCAL that Arabia would continue to receive a substantial percentage of future oil revenues. This concession included an initial loan of $35,000 in gold, a second loan of $20,000 after 18 months and a rental of $5,000 a year for the concession area, beginning in the second year. Then, if oil was discovered in commercial quantities, SOCAL would provide a $50,000 loan in gold, followed by a second loan of $50,000 a year later. The King told al-Sulayman on 8 May, 1933: “Put your trust in God and sign.?The groundwork was thus laid to establish, in 1988, the Kingdom’s most prized possession, the nationally-owned oil company of Saudi Aramco.
Today, Saudi Aramco leads the world in crude oil production, and is the top exporter of natural gas liquids as well as a major gas producer. India ranks among its top ten customers. After first finding crude oil in commercial quantities in the Eastern Province, the Company discovered about 90 gas and oil fields within the Kingdom and in its offshore waters. Its sustainable crude oil production capacity increased to 10 million barrels a day. The entire Kingdom, in general, recalls with pride the clear, courageous and patriotic vision of “the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques? as the King preferred to be called, which allowed the petroleum industry to grow from a mere oil exploration and production entity, functioning within a limited geological area, into a colossal integrated corporation in the petroleum industry both within and outside the Kingdom. It was this continuous support and direction particularly over the first 12 years that enabled Saudi Aramco to achieve a leading position in the petroleum industry. Aramco has today realised the truth of the King’s confidant in western affairs, Henry St. John Pilly’s words that the King and his Government seemed “like folk asleep on buried treasure? The Company dedicated about two million man hours in training and manpower development. And today, to Aramco’s considerable credit, almost 85% of its 58,000 employees are Saudis.
As further encouragement, 10,000 individual housing loans were given to Aramco employees. In 1979 there were 58 government schools accommodating 25,000 boys as well as girls. This is significant since education of women is the first step to their emancipation.
t was with some hesitation that my wife and I decided to accept the invitation of my daughter and her husband, who is employed by Aramco, to visit the Company’s headquarters at Dhahran. We were warned by well-meaning friends that we would be making a mistake, Saudi Arabia was a sandy wasteland, a fundamentalist-theocratic State, the climate would be furnace-hot, that the State’s policies were repressive, that women were segregated and the men unfriendly, if not hostile. To our considerable delight they were proved wrong on almost all counts. It was undoubtedly hot but, because of the lack of humidity, not unbearably so. As for being a sandy wasteland, there is more green not only in the Aramco enclave, but also in the city outside than is to be seen in, say, congested, overcrowded cities like Mumbai or Delhi. Yes, women are segregated, and have to wear the abaya when leaving the Company’s Dhahran enclave. But it was an amusing experience to see my wife and daughter don the abaya with apparent ease whenever we had to go out of Dhahran.
And, yes, sand does appear to overwhelm everything around it. The occasional sandstorms proclaim its superiority. There are date palms in such abundance that the dates are allowed to fall to the ground or are left to shrink and rot on the trees; black camels idling all around; and sandstones like hillocks around which, with luck, one discovers exotically-shaped “sand roses? But in man’s eternal battle against the elements, the green strives to survive the sand and very nearly succeeds. The roads are wide and smooth (no potholes) with aesthetically trimmed trees on either side. Private homes as well as shopping malls, which are as well equipped and as impressive as shopping centres in the West, have manicured lawns all around them. So have the many mosques dotting the city, with minarets in a thousand designs, ancient and modern, but with one common feature ?loudspeakers on all four sides summoning the faithful to prayer. Caf?Najjar, with its motto “A Connoisseur At Your Service?has, like Barista in India, branches in several cities, but in the variety of coffees it serves from all the world’s coffee-producing countries, it leaves Barista much to catch up with. Above everything else, the greatest luxury for visitors from Mumbai is the atmosphere ?totally unpolluted, the air absolutely fresh!
Like cities the world over, Dhahran has its dark side too. For the first time in our lives we were fingerprinted to obtain identity cards. The bureaucracy, as in India, looked forbidding, but it was extremely efficient and scrupulously honest. Nobody there would think of demanding or giving a bribe. The residential buildings have a feature I’ve seen in no other country ?they are surrounded by high walls to avoid inquisitive eyes chancing upon the household women. The segregation of women has to be seen to be believed. At a Lebanese restaurant where we dined, moveable partitions were shifted to surround the tables occupied by Saudi families. But this appears to be changing slowly but steadily. A National Dialogue has been instituted specifically to discuss women’s problems. The popular, well-edited daily, Arab News, often carries articles on the emancipation of women written by Saudi women themselves. Moderate in tone, the writers demand not equality with men, but a higher responsibility for themselves. Arab leaders and policies are allowed to be criticised, giving the semblance of a free Press.
The secrecy/security syndrome is excessive, almost obsessive. The five periods of prayer as ordained by Islam are rigidly adhered to. Offices, stores, restaurants, shops, everything (except, thank God, the traffic) comes to a halt. As the prayer times change daily, this causes considerable inconvenience. However, the slightest violation invites strict punishment from the religious police (mutawas), who are supposed to be more powerful than the ordinary police.
Saudi Arabia is a Kingdom and the King is an absolute, though benevolent, monarch. Just as in actual practice in India there is one law for the privileged and another for the common man, so also there are two laws here, or, more correctly, the Kingdom is a law unto itself, while the ordinary populace has a law which, by education and discipline, it is habituated to follow. There was a time when the monarchy distributed largesse to the people to meet their day-to-day needs and keep them happy ?and quiet. But this is now changing. In the early 1980s the population was approximately four million, today it has multiplied several times over. Similarly the royal family has expanded from 3,000 or 4,000 members to many more. The production of petroleum has, however, not kept pace with the growth in numbers, and the price of oil has remained the same at $23 or $24 a barrel. In the total population the number of adult males is far surpassed by that of children. In this situation, concerned citizens hear the ticking of a demographic bomb.
Another problem arises in that there is plenty of Saudi money invested abroad, but not in their own country. And to make matters worse, foreign companies who could invest in Saudi Arabia demand a higher rate of return because of the perceived risks of doing business there. The Saudi Government accuses them of being greedy. But negotiations continue, sometimes as a façade for reasons other than economic, as recently when the U.S. needed Saudi Arabia on its side during the war in Iraq.
Feudalism is believed to have outplayed its role in history. But feudalism survives not only in small pockets, but also in big democracies like ours. For feudalism is not so much a political as an economic issue. Wherever there are terrifying contrasts between the few powerful rich and the many helpless, insecure poor, and the poor tend to seek a false security in being servile to the rich, servility getting confused with loyalty, we have breeding-grounds of feudalism. Be that as it may, the men and women we encountered on the streets, in restaurants or shops, were docile, polite, and seemed contented with their lot, even happy. We had a wonderful four-week work-cum-holiday. We concluded ?as in most countries, so in Saudi Arabia, the good far outweighs the bad.
n outstanding example of the good, the superior, maybe even the unsurpassed, were two exhibits we had the good fortune to see. One was the Saudi Aramco Community Heritage Gallery, which claimed with good reason to be “a repository for the humble, the magnificent and the remarkable? On the left as we entered were the pioneer section, the conference room, the children’s audio-visual room, and on the right were the document room, the line area, the community and history displays and the audio-visual room. Dividing the two sections was a courtyard, typically Middle Eastern, where the visitor could relax while sitting beneath a canopy of sweet jasmine, listening to the gurgling of a refreshing fountain. An open window on the past about the people who shaped the Company and its communities, the Gallery also offers rotating exhibits on community history, self-directed group activities and educational programmes. There is also the Reception area, with a charming, well-informed and helpful receptionist in charge.
Far bigger, almost stupendous in its scope and truly spectacular in its design and presentation is the Saudi Aramco Exhibit, displaying the process of searching for, drilling and producing petroleum, refining and gas fractionation, and the transporting network. Two features of this Exhibition are striking ?one, the displays are not static but give the appearance of being constantly in motion and, two, devices are in place to induce audience participation. In one exhibit several huge glass cylinders confront you; you press a button and the liquid flows from one cylinder to the next to depict the various petroleum production processes; you press another button and from a speaker just above your head a quiet, assured voice gives a running commentary on what is happening. Also on display is the actual replica of a section of an oil tanker, which you can board. We could spare just a couple of hours, but to do justice to the Exhibition one would need two or three days. A popular icon in the Saudi Kingdom, this Exhibit has thousands of visitors including a high percentage of high-ranking students from all over the country.
What impressed me most was the Islamic Heritage Section. Here was evidence to support the hypothesis of al-Bruni dating back a thousand years that much of the Arabian peninsula was once awash in the sea. One of the earliest known engineering manuals was “The Knowledge of Mechanical Devices?written by al-Jarazi. You learn how Muslim chemists advanced techniques of distillation and laid down the principles of drilling and producing that are still used in modern oil refineries. There is also impressive evidence of the enormous contribution of Islam to geometry, mathematics and several technical and scientific discoveries.
How sad it is to think that this priceless legacy of one of the world’s great religions is being distorted and its tenets of what is right and beautiful betrayed by religious fanatics, calling themselves fundamentalists, and how in this process of perversion, thousands upon thousands of innocent men, women and children are being maimed and killed ?reminiscent of the Crusades that bloodied history centuries ago, also in the name of religion!