- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

SHAYBAH, Saudi Arabia - Born in a tent and weaned on camel’s milk, Abdullah Ibrahim al-Ajmi learned as a boy how to read the wind like a compass to find his way in the barrens of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Desert.

But like many other Bedouins — or Bedu, as they call themselves — Mr. al-Ajmi gave up his nomadic life for the money and security of a job with the state-run oil company, Saudi Aramco. Now he manages a permanent camp for 650 oil workers in the heart of the arid Empty Quarter.

Mr. al-Ajmi’s career illustrates Saudi Arabia’s rapid progression from economic backwater to petrol superpower. Although many Saudis cling to traditional customs and beliefs, their society has undergone upheaval since American prospectors first struck oil here in 1938.

Few Saudis have experienced as much change as the Bedu, the independent tribes of camel-breeding nomads “whose spirit once lit the desert like a flame,” in the words of British explorer Wilfred Thesiger.

Saudi society was molded by the self-sufficient and egalitarian virtues of desert life, yet today it’s in thrall to fast food, cell phones and gas-guzzling SUVs. The country’s oil wealth has paid for an imported culture of conspicuous affluence, typified by modernistic shopping malls and highways worthy of Southern California.

“Oil changed the whole of life in Saudi Arabia,” Mr. al-Ajmi says.

As Saudi Arabia grew into the world’s biggest exporter of crude oil, inflation took hold and the Bedu faced ever-higher prices for the few essential goods they couldn’t make for themselves, such as guns and cooking pots. At the same time, demand for their skills as guides and traders declined, and Bedu began to abandon their goat-hair tents and drift into the mainstream economy. Many took menial jobs with Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company in terms of reserves.

“It seemed to me tragic that they should become, as the result of circumstances beyond their control, a parasitic proletariat squatting around oil fields in the flyblown squalor of shanty towns in some of the most sterile country in the world,” Mr. Thesiger wrote in “Arabian Sands,” his account of crossing the Empty Quarter, or Rub al-Khali, by camel and on foot.

Although some Bedu fulfilled Mr. Thesiger’s bleak expectations, others excelled. Ali Naimi joined the company as an office boy and rose to become its president and chief executive. Mr. Naimi has served since 1995 as Saudi Arabia’s minister of petroleum and mineral resources, making him the most powerful voice in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Mr. al-Ajmi, 48, signed on with Saudi Aramco as a metal-shop apprentice. His father already drove trucks for one of the company’s subcontractors. Advancing through the ranks, Mr. al-Ajmi learned English and came to administer the camp at Shaybah, a production outpost 475 miles southeast of the capital Riyadh.

Shaybah supplies a half-million barrels of crude a day, and Saudi Aramco built a self-contained camp to house its employees. The camp sits alone amid a Martian landscape of towering orange sand dunes. Manicured trees border its immaculate buildings, and the compound boasts its own airport and irrigated soccer field.

Mr. al-Ajmi can enjoy satellite TV, buffet meals and other sedentary comforts. His Bedu roots seem a world away.

When he was a boy, he and his father used trained falcons to hunt rabbits and lizards to supplement their diet of dates, bread and camel’s milk. His home until he turned 6 was an open-front tent with separate sections for male and female members of his family. To navigate in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Desert, he studied the stars and deciphered patterns in the sand that showed the direction of a wind that always blew from the north.

One of Mr. al-Ajmi’s few physical links with his nomadic past is the herd of 35 camels that he keeps near his home in the eastern village of Hassa, where he goes each weekend.

“Sometimes he brings them into his bedroom,” jokes his engineer friend Ahmed Shwaiheen.

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