Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil – Book Review

By:  Wallace Stenger 

HD 9576 .S35 A77 2007

First U.S. Edition Copyright © 2007 by Selwa Press

Original Edition published by
Middle East Export Press,, Beirut, Lebanon, 1971

Reviewed by: Paul McMahon

First, this book is very readable and written by an author who has written a number of well received books.

How often do you find a book about American involvement in oil in the Middle East that is positive? This book covers the development of Arabian oil from the beginning in 1933 to the beginning of a ten-fold expansion in production in 1945. It starts with the negotiation of an oil exploration agreement with Standard Oil of California (Later named Chevron) and continues with  the creation of CASOC (California Arabian Standard Oil Company) and stops with the creation of ARAMCO (Arabian American Oil Company.

Note the total lack of government involvement.

We start with a country which was one of the poorest in the world whose most valuable asset was probably the dried camel dung that was everywhere.

First came the geological exploration which mapped the country more or less from border to border. More or less because several of the borders with neighboring states were in dispute. Then came the exploratory drilling which brought good and bad news but eventually convinced everyone that there was lots of oil.

Note that while the Americans were technical professionals, the Arabs who supported them had never seen something as technically advanced as a flashlight let alone cars, trucks, planes, drilling rigs, air conditioning, refrigeration, radio, written communication, accurate maps, etc. In addition everything had to be imported. If a bolt broke, you did no run down to the hardware store to get a replacement. You probably went to your own machine shop that you imported and created a new bolt out of raw stock. Otherwise you would have to go to Cairo or Basra or send a cable to California and get one sent by boat.

During the period covered by the book the company provided health care for the western and Arabian workers and their families, taught people how to reduce the malaria-carrying mosquito population by dumping containers of standing water once a week. The company began teaching English speaking, reading and writing and then realizing that the population was illiterate in Arabic, teaching Arabic literacy so people could learn English more easily. The classes were open to the employees and their families as well as the local people.

As World War II started CASOC was shipping 15,000 barrels a day to Bahrain where it was refined and exported. The company kept this level of production up while overcoming more and more shortages such as tires for trucks and cars, food, medicine, etc. One solution was to ship the support materials for a 1,000 mile pipeline across the desert using hundreds of snarling, spitting camels and shipping the pipe using the trucks.

Near the end of the war the US Government did try to take things over, but cooler heads prevailed and they got what they wanted through private enterprise.

There is some comment on the difference between the American private enterprise approach in Arabia and the European colonial approach in Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East.

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