U.S. oil workers, families fleeing the Saudi good life because of war War in the Gulf

February 07, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

DHAHRAN, SAUDIA ARABIA — DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- They called themselves "Aramco families," taking the name of the company that pumps and refines Saudi Arabia's oil, and before the war led what they fondly described as a country-club life.

"It was a fantasy land where Mother Aramco took care of everything," said a woman who with her husband and two children has lived in the main Saudi Aramco compound for more than a decade. "We have Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts. We have Little League, tennis, squash, a garden club, a women's group, almost everything."

For the American families of Saudi Aramco, the war is changing the good life into a life of isolation. Aramco has canceled community social events and warned residents against allowing guests in their homes. The compound has taken on the appearance of a village under siege, with guards barring strangers out of fear that the area is a potential target for guerrilla attacks.

Families have responded by sending wives and children back to the United States while husbands remain at their jobs. In some cases, husbands have broken their work contracts and left with their families, adding to the exodus that began in August when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

For Saudi Arabia, events at the company are of almost the same importance as events on the battlefield. Aramco families have been the most privileged foreigners in the kingdom. They were the explorers and producers of oil, the sole source of the country's wealth.

Staffing problems at Aramco eventually can lead to problems in oil production. The company's strategy so far has been to insist to disbelieving employees that problems do not exist. Company spokesmen declined last week to answer questions from a reporter.

"The crisis has alienated every employee against the management," said an American supervisor. "I believe a pat on the shoulder would go a long way, but the reaction from the top has been to say nothing. Their handling of things has been very mean."

One result is that solidarity is breaking down in what used to be a company town. In its last annual report, the company said the number of American households was just under 2,500, but the number has clearly dropped. At the American junior high school, enrollment has fallen to 125 from 400.

On blocks where every house was occupied in November, half the houses appear vacant.

At the Saudi Aramco hospital, administrators worry that the nursing staff, most of it from the Philippines, will leave if commercial airlines resume service to Dhahran. "If they opened up flights to the Philippines, I don't think you'd have a nurse anywhere," said an Aramco manager.

Instead of choosing events from a community calendar, families spend their nights at home, while many families have been separated for months. "A lot of the wives are frantic and have stayed out since August and won't come back," an American woman said.

"We're seeing a lot of stress in the men staying alone."

In the good years, Saudi Aramco nurtured a subculture mimicking life in an upper-class American suburb. It was American down to the architecture of the houses and the company-supplied furnishings, in order to attract and keep Western oil specialists needed to run the industry and, later, to train Saudis to take their place.

It was the United States of the early 1960s but then frozen in time -- largely because Saudi Arabia generally restricts the oil industry to men and encourages wives of foreigners to remain at home.

At its worst, the compound offered enforced conformism. Managers at each level continue to assign a certain color of carpet to their homes and no other.

"We call it 'Aramco robot time,' " an American woman said. "They want us all to be the same."

There were many attractions for Americans: Six weeks of vacation and generous education allowances for children. Most important is that take-home pay averages roughly double what people would earn in the United States.

Many of the restrictive Saudi practices used to stop at the compound gates. The Islamic ban on alcohol? Aramco provided stills for producing home brews. Pork -- proscribed by Islam -- was sold openly. On the compound's roads, women defied the kingdom's ban on their driving, and at its swimming pools they ignored rules on modest dress.

"It's been a very cozy existence," said another woman living there. "I don't worry about my children being outside. I didn't worry about my own safety."

People worry now about a resumption of Scud missile attacks or the danger that ground fighting will reach closer. Nights are spent at home, so that children won't be alone. Conversations revolve around the war -- the need for louder air raid sirens, about phone calls to worried relatives in the United States, about anger at the company for not acknowledging people's fear.

A woman cataloged recent changes on her block: In house No. 1, the wife and children left at Christmas "after going off the wall." House No. 2, the wife left on her own for the United States. House No. 3, wife and children left and husband later resigned from his job. House No. 4, a manager who went abroad at Christmas has been unable to get a flight back.

The woman intends to stay here with her husband. "I can't take Saddam Hussein seriously as someone who would overrun all those soldiers and get to me," she said. "If they can't take care of this, I'm not safe anywhere.

"It's still a comfortable life. This is my home. This is where I want to be."

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