Saudi Aramco Residential Camp in Dhahran
Saudi Aramco Residential Camp in Dhahran, casually known by its inhabitants as the Dhahran Camp, is the residential community built by Saudi Aramco for its employees. It is located within the city of Dhahran (Arabic الظهران al-dhahrān) in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province.
The Dhahran residential camp is a fenced-in company compound and only Saudi Aramco employees and their dependents may live inside. It is located near the US consulate as well as the Dhahran military airbase, which is located in an area that formerly housed the domestic and international air terminals for the Eastern Province. All commercial air passenger operations have since been moved to King Fahd International Airport in Dammam.
The Dhahran camp (Aramco code: DH) is one of three original expatriate oil company compounds or "districts" in the east of the country, along with the camps in Ras Tanura (the refinery and port), and Abqaiq (also Buqayq). Later, other Saudi Aramco compounds were built, such as Udhailiyah, Safaniyah and Tanajib. More recently, the company established housing areas in various other Saudi cities including Jubail, Yanbu, Jeddah and Rabigh among others - though not all of these are self-contained company compounds. Dhahran camp was the first company compound, founded in the late 1930s, and is still the largest, with space to accommodate over 11,000 residents. In line with the make up of the overall company workforce, the residents are a mixture of many different nationalities. The town consists of three main divisions: Dhahran "main camp" (the oldest section), Dhahran Hills and the newer Ar-Rabiyah (Executive Housing Area).
The Dhahran residential camp is a short distance west of downtown Al Khobar, the closest Saudi town to Dhahran, and its traditional shopping center, and about 15 km south of Dammam, both older Saudi port cities on the coast of the Persian Gulf. Looking farther afield, Dhahran is northeast of Abqaiq, also a Saudi Aramco compound, and southeast of Qatif, and further north, Ras Tanura, Saudi Aramco's main oil port. The island nation of Bahrain is also within easy driving distance to the east (about 20 miles) across a causeway from Al Khobar.
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Dhahran is headquarters of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, which is considered by many measures to be the largest oil company in the world. It has the largest oil reserves in the world, the largest oil production per day of any country or company in the world and is also the largest oil exporter in the world.
Established in 1937, Dhahran is still Saudi Aramco's worldwide headquarters and the center of the company's finance, exploration, engineering, drilling services, medical services, materials supply and other company organisations. Saudi Aramco is the only oil company with operations in Dhahran, and everyone who lives in the compound is either employed by the company or the dependent of an employee.
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Aramco has several self-contained communities to house its employees in the Eastern Province of which Dhahran is the largest community. It has a total population of about 11,000, most of whom are of Asian origin; either Saudis or citizens of other Arab and Asian nations (employees, spouses and children). Due to the ongoing Saudization of the workforce, along with a drive to recruit from less far afield, Western expatriates are now in the minority, both in the company as a whole and in the Dhahran residential community.
While in the past, the "senior staff" inhabitants of Dhahran were mainly US employees of Saudi Aramco, this is no longer the case. For instance, the Ar-Rabiyah Executive Management housing area is almost exclusively Saudi. The community today has shifted somewhat in line with the reduction of western residents into a multi-ethnic mosaic of Saudis, other Arab nationalities (e.g. Lebanese, Egyptian and Jordanian), Asians such as Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis, various South American nationalities and a few US, Canadian and British expats. After several decades of Saudization by the now 100% Saudi-controlled company, many Saudi families now live on the compound, which culturally and linguistically is still predominantly American (i.e. Saudi and Islamic laws are applied to a lesser extent there than outside of the compound, and English is the common language of communication and education).
The community is also unusual demographically in that all residents of Dhahran are either employees of Saudi Aramco or their dependents; consequently, several age demographics are under-represented - 15-25-year olds (Saudi Aramco provides no high school or university for employees' dependent children so many leave for schools elsewhere) and persons aged 60+ (retirees leave the company).
After 75+ years of community life, Dhahran - and the other three Saudi Aramco compounds - have spawned several generations of "Aramcons," most of whom now reside in their country of origin rather than Saudi Arabia. Community ties remain strong years after employees have left, however, and "Aramco Reunions" are held by ex-Aramcons in various locations in the US every two years. In addition, the children of Saudi Aramco employees, "Aramco brats", have developed their own cultural identity and hold their own biannual reunions.
Government, law, and security
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As the centre of the nation's oil industry, Dhahran enjoys excellent transportation resources both nationally and internationally.
The nation's excellent highway infrastructure was modernized extensively in the '70s and '80s and connects the Dhahran area with all major urban centres in the Kingdom, including its neighbors Kuwait, Qatar, and via causeway, the nearby island nation of Bahrain. The oil company also built and maintains a Tapline road for its pipeline stations spread along the highway northwest into Jordan. Roads early linked Dhahran with Saudi Aramco's other major compounds Ras Tanura and Abqaiq and with its nearest traditional Saudi community Al Khobar.
The King Abdulaziz Airbase, a major Royal Saudi Air Force base lies a short distance east of the compound. The area it occupies used to house one of Saudi Arabia's three major international airports, the Dhahran Airport (DHA). Dhahran airport originally consisted of three sections: the old King Fahd Air Terminal for regular passengers, separate facilities for Aramco corporate use (Aramco formerly had its own passenger airplanes offering international air service for employees until the early '60s), and the Dhahran Airfield, an airfield operated by the U.S. from 1946 until 1962. Today, King Fahd International Airport (DMM) serves the entire metropolitan area of Dhahran, Dammam, Qatif and Al Khobar. DHA also used to contain a section designated to Aramco Aviation Department, from which all company-run flights operated, but Aramco Aviation Department has since moved its services to its own buildings located near the King Fahd International Airport. The American air force still maintains a presence there.
Although rail service in Saudi Arabia plays a much more minor role today than 50 years ago, an industrial railroad with a station adjacent to Dhahran still exists, linking it to the capital Riyadh.
Within the company itself, Saudi Aramco runs free bus service for its employees, both within the compound, between the Dhahran Inter-District Bus Station and each of the three other Aramco districts, and shopping bus service into Khobar. Taxi service is also available within the compound. There are basically no traffic jams in Dhahran even in rush hours (with the exception of the security gates and around the core area). However, all traffic lights in Dhahran camp are computer-controlled to maximize the traffic flow.
Dhahran's main office buildings, where most of the residents of the Dhahran camp work, include the Exploration and Petroleum Engineering Center (EXPEC) Building and the Engineering Building, as well as the Tower Building, the Old Administration Building and the New (Executive) Administration Building. The EXPEC, Engineering and Tower buildings are connected by an underground tunnel to help employees avoid exposure to the extremes of the Saudi climate. These offices are located within the Saudi Aramco camp, but outside the residential camp proper.
The Communications Department of Saudi Aramco administers land line communications in Dhahran. Local calls (i.e., calls within the Eastern Province) and calls to other Aramco Camps are free. Calls to cities outside the Eastern Province, to mobile phones and overseas calls are charged at the same rates as those set by the Saudi Telecom Company.
A dial-up home internet service is provided for free, however ADSL and Fiber Optic Internet services cost $40 per month. The Communication organisation does not provide mobile communications, these services are provided by national companies such as STC and Mobily.
Within the compound itself, Saudi Aramco operates two schools, the Dhahran Hills School (Elementary, K-5) and the Dhahran School (6-9). The company has never provided a high school level, which used to compel employees to send dependent students out of country after the 9th grade for secondary school and college. (A graduation ceremony is attached to this rite of passage, and Aramco brats identify themselves thereafter as the "Class of 1990", for example.) Since 2002 however, the International Schools Group (ISG) Dhahran campus, located within a mile of the Saudi Aramco compound in Dhahran, has offered US-based curriculum education through to 12th grade, enabling Dhahran residents to send their children there after leaving the Saudi Aramco school system, if they wish.
Dhahran schools employ an American-based curriculum. The children of Saudi Aramco expatriate employees of whatever nationality are allowed to attend, however the children of Saudi employees may not attend unless they have special permission from the Ministry of Education (very rarely given and only temporarily). Until 1980, Saudi employees living on camp were allowed to register their children in the company school, but thereafter the Saudi Ministry of Education regulations were enforced.
Beyond the compound, the greater Dhahran area is home to the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, a national technical institution built just outside the compound's original perimeter fence, and the Aramco Training Center (ATC), which includes the campus of the selective College Preparatory Center for promising Saudi secondary students preparing for study abroad.
Newspapers and magazines
All papers published locally are either owned by Saudi Aramco or special community interest groups (SIGs), and they are all free. The main weekly is the Arabian Sun newspaper. Most Saudi Aramco-owned papers and magazines are available online at Aramco's official website (anyone may request a hard-copy subscription free of charge). The papers that are owned by SIGs are available online only through Saudi Aramco's internal network.
Like the publications listed above, the company's highly regarded Saudi Aramco World magazine of Middle Eastern and Islamic cultural topics can be subscribed to worldwide for free.
Aramco TV (Dhahran TV, and named Channel 3 later) was the first TV channel in the Persian Gulf area and the second in the Middle East. Dhahran TV started broadcasting on September 16, 1957. Although originally in English, it later started to broadcast in Arabic, but at the same time, viewers could listen to the English version of the TV programs through Aramco radio simultaneously. By 1970, it had become a commercial free, all-English channel after the Saudi channel started broadcasting in 1966. Up until the first Persian Gulf War Channel 3 was the only English language television station readily available and it was sometimes the object of humor for its airing of dated and censored entertainment programming, and a bland nightly news broadcast.
Many Saudi and expat residents of the Eastern Province that grew up in the 1980s and 1990s will recall some quaint memories of the channel, e.g., the onscreen calligraphy that appeared to announce the prayer times, or the fact that most shows were at least a couple years old and could not show any kissing between men and women. Most Dhahran residents used their television set to watch VHS tapes or play video games. The highlight of Channel 3 was that it did air well done documentaries on Middle Eastern history, culture, cuisine and environment.
The demise of Channel 3 was due to the fact that Dhahran residents started to get other choices for English language entertainment and news television. In the early 1990s the first Persian Gulf War gave Dhahran residents the ability to pick up the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. By the late 1990s, satellite television services were becoming more affordable and offering a wider selection of commercial news and entertainment programming that was less censored and more contemporary. The result was that in 1998 Saudi Aramco discontinued the channel.
The Dhahran community has a very active social calendar undertaken through 'Self-Directed groups' within the Saudi Aramco community. These groups are organized through four main areas; Cultural Groups; Service Groups; Special Interest Groups and Sports Activities, with the latter being the most active, and heavily pursued within Dhahran and the other main areas. A number of the sporting groups have participated internationally, for example Saudi Aramco Youth Soccer Organization (SAYSO) travel teams regularly participate in tournaments in the Middle East and Europe (notably the Gothia Cup, Dana Cup and Norway Cup) and the running group compete in races all over the Middle East. The Little League Baseball team from Dhahran qualified for the Little League World Series in 1983, 1985, 1987–1989, 1991, 1994–1998, and 2000–2011.
The following text has been adapted from Aramco's relocation and orientation guide for new employees.
The community of Dhahran is composed of two sections: Dhahran main camp and Dhahran Hills. These two sections are separated by Dhahran's 18-hole Rolling Hills golf course and club house. The term 'camp' has stuck with Dhahran and the other communities, since its early development in the 1930s and 1940s. However, in reality, Dhahran is a community with tree-lined streets, stone houses and grass lawns.
Dhahran main camp is located at the site of the original Dhahran camp and contains the administration complex, health center, dental clinic, dining hall, library and theatre. The community's Al Mujamma service center is a mall-type complex which houses the mail center, barber shop, travel office, photo shop, laundry, dry cleaners, housing office, community bulletin boards and ticket office for community events. The supermarket and florist are adjacent to Al Mujamma, as is the bank. The Dhahran dining hall is also on the main camp, not far from Al Mujamma.
There are two recreation complexes on the main camp. One complex is next to the middle school and includes a youth center, swimming pool, gym, tennis courts, squash courts and games fields. The other is situated near the community library. Included in this complex is the bowling alley, movie theatre, games room and dance hall.
Most homes in the main camp are constructed of brick or fieldstone, and many have undergone recent modernisation. There are also some newer, modular homes in this area. The gardens and landscaped areas of these homes are surprisingly green with large shade trees and flowering bougainvillea and oleanders.
Dhahran Hills, which is mostly residential, is located about 2 miles west of Dhahran main camp, just beyond the community's golf course. Most houses in the hills were constructed in the early 80s. The Dhahran Hills school, for kids aged 5–10, is located in the hills. Adjacent to the school is a large community recreation center similar to the ones in the main camp.
Dhahran also has a hobby farm (horse stables), bicycle and jogging paths, and a rugby field.
Dhahran's marina and adjoining beach facility are at Half Moon Bay, a small inlet of the Persian Gulf. It is 25 minutes from the community of Dhahran. Sailing, fishing and water-skiing facilities are available.
Al-Munirah is a compound in Dhahran but outside the main camp and the Hills, it is designated for junior staff (as Dhahran Hills and the Main Camp are for senior staff and their families). Ar-Rabiyah, a compound that is "attached" to Dhahran, is exclusively reserved for company executives and their families. Ar-Rabiyah is also considered one of the classiest compounds in the whole region, even being referred to as the "Golden Ghetto" (a name also used to describe Beverly Hills, an exclusive neighborhood of Los Angeles, California).
Dhahran in film and TV
- HOME-The Aramco Brats' Story: a movie that gives a glimpse, for the first time ever, into expatriate life within Dhahran and other Aramco camps in Saudi Arabia through the eyes of its children - the Aramco Brats'. To be aired on PBS, Discovery Channel, History Channel and Arabian Networks
- The West Wing: In one episode, the story plot was picketers outside the Aramco camp of Dhahran.
- CNN: A report about the Dhahran compound was aired.
- In 1998 after the kidnapping and murder of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming college student, the major American news networks would occasionally mention that the student's parents lived in Dhahran and worked for Saudi Aramco. In 2002 a made-for-TV movie “The Matthew Shepard Story” was produced by the US-based TV company, NBC.
- In 2007 the movie "The Kingdom" was released in theaters in America. The story is about the investigation by the FBI of a bombing of a Western compound in Riyadh, though many have noticed superficial similarities to the ARAMCO compound of Dhahran.
- Website: http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com
- Little League. “Little League Baseball World Series Participants.” Little League Baseball, 2014. http://www.littleleaguebiglegacy.com/Little_League_World_Series/Little_League_Baseball__World_Series_Participants.htm#Saudi+Arabia.
- Dhahran City
- Travel guide with photos
- Saudi Aramco World: A 1963 article about Dhahran TV.
- History of Dhahran (1950s)
- General information about Dhahran, useful for first time visitors -- link broken
- Aramco Services Company site: By clicking the "communities" link, information and photo tour can be found about Dhahran as well as other Aramco communities.
- Aramcon Films, Music, Literature and Art
- HOME - The Aramco Brats Story a movie that gives a glimpse into extpatriate life in Aramco through the eyes of its children- the Aramco Brats