The World

My Aramco Childhood

How the Khashoggi affair made one American reconsider her upbringing in Saudi Arabia.

A ban in front of an oil tank with the Aramco logo on it.
An Aramco employee walks near an oil tank at its Ras Tanura oil refinery and oil terminal in Saudi Arabia. Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

In the early 1970s, my father was a leftist beatnik finishing his doctoral degree in international relations at the University of Southern California. For a year in 1973–74, he and my mother lived in a tumbledown unheated villa outside Beirut, where he mostly smoked unfiltered cigarettes and tried to keep warm, and occasionally took Arabic classes at the American University of Beirut. My parents would have preferred to stay longer in Beirut, which still possessed its famous louche glamour, but the drumbeat of impending civil war had begun, and so they looked around for another Middle Eastern locale to call home. My mother had grown up in Saudi Arabia, and that country’s flagship Western-style university, the University of Petroleum and Minerals, was hiring. My dad began teaching social sciences classes to eager Saudi undergraduates, fulfilling work that suited him.

Then, in 1979, after the shah was deposed in Iran and Saudi religious militants took over the Great Mosque in Mecca, threatening the Saudi royal family with the same fate as punishment for their Western ways, the university, acting on orders from the government, quietly advised my father and his Western colleagues on faculty to find other work, and quickly. That is how my father the beatnik wound up working as a suit for the world’s largest oil company, Aramco (the Arabian American Oil Co.).

It was a good life for a family man, which my father had just become: excellent schools, abundant vacation time, and free housing on a large and lushly landscaped compound where his kids could walk to and from school every day, including jaunts home for a hot lunch with Mom and Dad. Aramco provided us with an excellent quality of life, and I, like many children, was fiercely loyal to the place I called home.

Perhaps because of this loyalty, I never questioned my family’s presence on the compound until the events of 9/11, which prompted my quest to better understand the Saudi-American relationship. My first novel, The Ruins of Us, grew out of that quest, as did a question: How did my father square his idealism and political liberalism with his employment at a large fossil fuel–driven corporation that served an autocratic regime?

After the disappearance of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October—the CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered his killing—the question gained urgency.

Though Aramco was a privately held company directed by four American corporate shareholders, everyone knew the king called the shots and had since the days when Saudi Arabia’s first monarch, Ibn Saud, granted the concession to the American company SoCal. It wasn’t the CEO or chairman or board of directors. It wasn’t even the oil minister. Aramco was, and always has been, answerable to the king, the company serving at his pleasure, often under the threat that the concession could be snatched back and handed to a more solicitous corporate body.

During my father’s tenure at Aramco, the king was Fahd bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who violently suppressed reform movements, committed human rights abuses, and out of fear of going the way of the recently toppled shah, gave immense power to the Saudi religious establishment in the realm of education and more, a move that contributed to the rise to al-Qaida. As far as Saudi royal corruption goes, Fahd was known to be one of the worst offenders; in 1988, six years into his reign, and seven years into my father’s time at Aramco, Fortune magazine determined him to be the second-richest person in the world, with a net worth of $18 billion.

Aramco has been the royal family’s chief source of income throughout its near centurylong reign. Especially in the early days, the company’s executives frequently found themselves pressed by Ibn Saud to pour more gold into the royal coffers as he outspent his portion of the company profits. It’s often said that without oil, the House of Saud would be nothing, but I might tweak that to say that without Aramco—without the corporate machinery put into place by American geologists and engineers nearly a century ago, and without the dogged work of thousands of American workers that fueled Aramco’s rise—the family’s reign might not have seen the dawn of the 21st century.

It is not just natural resources that determine a country’s power; it’s the efficiency of the means put in place to extract them. In Aramco, those American executives engineered an energy titan, a company beloved by its employees and respected in the industry that quickly became indispensable to the development of the Saudi state. To the chagrin of the U.S.
government, for years the company unofficially assumed diplomatic duties, its government relations men possessing far more influence than anyone from the U.S. Embassy—which anyway didn’t exist in the kingdom until 1944, 12 years after Saudi Arabia was recognized as a country and six years after the first tanker of oil set off from Saudi shores.

Aramco leadership often found itself serving as an intermediary between the Saudi regime and the U.S. president. This happened most notably during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and subsequent oil embargo, when Aramco executives tried without success to convince President Richard Nixon not to enter the fray in support of Israel at the risk of alienating the Saudis. Once Nixon approved the airlifting of supplies to Israel, Aramco tried to appease an irate King Faisal, who ultimately felt forced to wield the oil weapon against his onetime ally. The Aramco men did succeed in convincing Faisal to allow oil to continue to be delivered to the U.S. Navy, a well-kept secret that would have compromised the king’s reputation as a champion of the Arab cause.

It can certainly be argued that, despite the compromises, Aramcons were performing a patriotic duty by keeping the United States well-supplied in cheap oil, especially during World War II as submarines and ships moved from coal to oil, though climate change has exposed the fallacy that cheap oil would be America’s salvation; instead it has proved to be catastrophic, and sooner than expected.

American Perspectives of Aramco, a fascinating oral history of the company published by Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, reveals the early Aramco executives to be a salty, savvy and devoted group, who were well aware of Saudi royal corruption. Though they had contempt for it, the truth is that Aramco needed the royal family to remain in place at any cost because if Saudi Arabia became a republic, the company would likely have quickly been nationalized as Iran’s nationalist government had attempted to do in the 1950s before it was overthrown with U.S. assistance. The country’s new leaders were likely to be religious hard-liners less inclined to look favorably on the American presence on the peninsula, as the Saudi royals frequently reminded Aramco. As it happened, the company did eventually become fully nationalized, but not until 1988, several years after national takeovers in other Middle Eastern countries like Iran and Libya.

So Aramco looked the other way as the Saudi government maintained its debilitating gender apartheid policies; it looked the other way as the Saudi government jailed and tortured human rights lawyers and other activists like Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam through electronic means”; and according to Manal al-Sharif’s memoir Daring to Drive, the company allowed government police onto the Dhahran compound to arrest her for driving with her brother.

I don’t mean to suggest that Aramco’s American employees should have taken to the streets in protest over these policies; that would have only resulted in a quick expulsion from the company and the country, if not jail time. What I wonder is why more Americans, who on the whole found the draconian government practices to be abhorrent, and who, by virtue of their talent and means, had the luxury of choice when it came to careers, didn’t simply pack their bags and take their talents elsewhere.

After Khashoggi’s murder, I reached out to a few retired Aramcons, including my father, and asked them if they’d ever had qualms about working for the company. They each wrote back and said, essentially, that they never thought of themselves as working for the king but for the company. Technically this is true, but it also struck me as a convenient way to manage what must have at times felt like extreme cognitive dissonance.

Some people might simply ascribe this willful blindness to money, but there’s something more subtle at work when it comes to Americans’ loyalty to Aramco, and it has to do with the strength of the narrative that the company has put forward about itself: that it is a world-class organization built through the sheer determination of Saudis and Americans who worked productively, side by side, for decades, that employees are, as the website puts it, “less like employees and more like cherished members of an extended family.” The children of Aramco employees, who came of age on utopian oil camps that resembled 1950s Bakersfield, are particularly susceptible to this narrative. The reason I keep writing about Saudi Arabia is because it was my first and most indelible home. Aramcons are my people.

The problems at the root of the Saudi-American partnership extend far beyond the individual career choices of several thousand people. But still, as I watched the drama surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance play out, and as the U.S. Congress again finds itself pitted against Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s killing as well as the Saudis’ catastrophic war in Yemen, I can’t help but question the cost of my family’s time in the gulf.

In March, I was supposed to return to Saudi Arabia as part of an official Aramco annuitants reunion sponsored by the company, where I planned to do informal novel research. However, I have decided not to go; it is my own small protest against the horrors of the Khashoggi case and the starving children in Yemen. Still, I know many Americans will go back, and they will reminisce fondly about their time in the kingdom. I wonder if any of them will dare to whisper Khashoggi’s name while there, even if only in prayer.