• U.S.

SAUDI ARABIA: Alchemy in the Desert

7 minute read

Less than 50 years ago, Saudi Arabia was a desert kingdom whose prime source of income was a head tax imposed on Moslem pilgrims traveling to Mecca. Today the derricks and pipelines of a huge U.S. corporation tap rich pools of oil beneath the desert sands and turn them into streams of gold that pour into the royal coffers of Saudi Arabia at a rate of $200 million yearly. Last week TIME’s Middle East Correspondent Keith Wheeler cabled an account of the problems and promises engendered by this desert alchemy.

The desert sands stretch north, south and west as far as the eye can see outside the efficient, modern executive offices of the Arabian American Oil Co. in Dhahran. The headaches that keep Aramco’s bosses awake at night are largely conditioned by the sands, for Aramco, in bringing new riches to the desert, has brought new values as well. Last year all 14,000 of Aramco’s Saudi Arab workers walked off the job. “Do you know what the strike leaders were asking for?” one of the bosses asked me. “It wasn’t just raises. They wanted cost-of-living allowances like the Americans have. They wanted to ride to work like the Americans do. They were after all the things they see as distinctions between them and the Americans. That’s the guts of it.

“We can’t help it and they can’t help it. We come to the desert and we bring along radios and washing machines and cars and Lord knows what, and we give a shocking jolt to a culture that was sustained for centuries by dates and camels and faith in Allah. We didn’t come here to manufacture a nation of imitation Americans, but it happens whether you like it or not. The trouble is, the imitation is neither American nor Saudi.”

Aramco pays higher wages than anyone else in Saudi Arabia. In Dhahran, the company’s headquarters town, an employee draws his living quarters according to seniority and job, not nationality. Aramco’s Bedouin workers come off the desert and out of tents and go to live in air-conditioned houses. They have swimming pools hooded against the noonday sun and athletic fields floodlighted for night play. But as its Saudi employees learn to live more like Americans, Aramco itself becomes more Saudi. In its relations with the government and 53-year-old King Saud, Aramco maintains a policy so studiously circumspect that sometimes it seems to its younger workers to be downright spineless. Often it proves bitter as gall to the American workers.

Royal Suggestions. Aramco’s American employees in Saudi Arabia took it hard, when more than two years ago old King Ibn Saud imposed prohibition. They have, with some grumbling, accepted a ban on importing books, which apparently was intended to foil the entry of subversive literature. They haven’t even fought the decree that bans driving licenses for women outside the company compound— although deep underneath there is a seething feminine ferment about it.

Two years ago, at Royal “suggestion,” the company even agreed to move its main offices from New York to the desert, with the result that Aramco is no longer an American company with branches abroad; it is an American company with a branch in the U.S. To join Aramco today on a career basis means accepting a desert life, for an employee cannot hope to rotate from a job in a distant field to one in the home office; the home office is here. The turnover among American employees runs fairly high. Most join up in hopes of making a cushion: freedom from U.S. income tax, cost-of-living differentials and salaries about 25% above stateside rates for equivalent jobs are the lures. A surprising number intend to stay for a couple of contracts (two years each), save up enough to buy a motel back home. But the limited consolations of loneliness are a deterrent to savings accounts: some pretty rugged poker and crap games spring up in the bachelor camps. For men with families—there are now 3,400 wives and children with Aramco and its associated U.S. contractors—the air-conditioned houses, the tennis courts and swimming pools have made life increasingly livable.

Meanwhile, a huge bite of the company revenue goes to support a royal regime that is itself a fantastic blend of East and West, ancient and modern. The money pours in like a flash flood in a dry wadi but it flows out even faster. This year’s government budget estimates a deficit of close to $60 million. Little of the huge sums that are spent trickle past the palace gates into the hands of ordinary Saudis.

Royal Spending. Nobody knows for certain the size of Saudi Arabia’s royal family. The late King Ibn Saud had either 32, 37 or 40 princely sons. Young Prince Abdullah, an amiable lad, told me that the present King Saud likes to pretend sensitivity about the number of his own progeny. “Sometimes he says to us older boys, ‘You are fine lads, but you are enough’; so then we laugh at him and say. ‘The house is full of youngsters, and they’re all yours.’ Then he says, acting angry, ‘Oh, no, there can’t be that many; I’m not that old.’ ”

Reasonably dispassionate guessers figure the royal household plus retainers and courtiers in the neighborhood of 10,000 persons. Whenever the King’s own household makes one of its periodic moves from Riyadh to Jeddah or Medina, its central figures are airlifted by the Saudi Arabian government airline, which owns 27 aircraft. A royal move means not only that all scheduled operations are canceled but also that every available aircraft has to get out and lug.

Much of the King’s spending is an unavoidable legacy of tradition to which he is bound whether he enjoys it or not. Every night the royal board seats from 80 to 200 guests and retainers, where the King, a huge man, big of bone and body in his father’s mold, presides with courtly grace. In the first year of his reign, he has traveled more widely than old Ibn Saud ever did. One trip south, which took him over some 3,500 kilometers of flinty desert innocent of all roads, was an astonishing testimonial to the durability not only of the King himself but of his fleet of U.S. autos, including the trucks in which he carried heavy bags of silver coin for distribution along the way. “In our country,” says one of his loyal retainers, “it is necessary that the people see the King. In the old days it was the tradition that the people come to the King. Now the King comes to the people.”

Such generous junketing is inevitably expensive, but it would be both unfair and unwise to assess Saudi Arabia’s new King merely in terms of conspicuous consumption. His father carved out the land and lived to be astonished by a flow of gold that nothing in his training could have anticipated or prepared him to spend wisely. He left the land to his sons to make or break. In Saudi Arabia there are signs—new hospitals, new roads, new schools (though not enough of them), a bustle on all sides—that Saud will make it if he can, and if the oil holds out. It should: the country has the largest proved reserves in the world.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com