Many petroleum geologists fancy themselves adventurers of a sort because they are often exploring remote regions of the world in search of new petroleum provinces.
But only a handful of geologists can claim to have changed the course of a nation by their mere presence. Only a handful has directly influenced the pages of history.
This is a story of such people. The first American geologists to come ashore in the Al Hasa Province of eastern Saudi Arabia in 1933 arrived with courage, dedication and determination to succeed. And in doing go, they initiated a way of life that transformed the essentially nomadic desert country that is older than Abraham into a powerful westernized nation.
Most of these adventurer-geologists are now dead, and most were AAPG members. They broke new ground and crossed new territories, sometimes defining their roles as they developed – and their legacy continues to make an impact to this day.
It started with Standard Oil Co. of California (now Chevron Corp.), the first American firm to explore for oil in the Middle East. The company began its Middle East operations in Bahrain, where its subsidiary Bahrain Petroleum Co., brought in the first producing well on the island nation in May of 1932.
While working on Bahrain, Socal geologists Fred A. Davies and William F. Taylor became convinced that the low hills along the coast of Saudi Arabia – only 12 miles away across the Persian Gulf – were similar to the classic domal structure that paid off in Bahrain.
Their hunch helped encourage Socal to negotiate an oil concession for 371,263 square miles of the desert nation.
Saudi Arabia, hit hard by the worldwide depression of the 1930s, desperately needed the revenue an oil concession might bring. But the government was not willing to let the concession go for a less than fair price.
After months of tough negotiations, Saudi King Ibn Sa’ud instructed his finance minister on May 29,1933, to “Put your trust in God, and sign.”
First To Arrive
Robert P. “Bert” Miller and Schuyler B. “Krug” Henry, the first geologists to enter Saudi Arabia, came ashore in Al Hasa on Sept. 23,1933 – just two years after the United States officially recognized Ibn Sa’ud’s nation.
One month later former AAPG member J.W. “Soak” Hoover joined Miller and Henry. Three more geologists,Tom Koch, Art Brown and Hugh Burchfiel, arrived soon after Hoover, and those six became the nucleus of the first season’s 10-man American team that mapped the desert.
(According to AAPG records, all but Henry were members of the Association at one time.)
A steady stream of Americans poured into Saudi Arabia in those first years, reaching a total of 425 in 1940. Soon after the concession was signed, Socal formed a subsidiary, California Arabian Standard Oil Co., to handle operations there.
Miller and Henry wasted no time in examining the hills that initially attracted Socal. The two covered 75 miles of the coast during their first week and discovered a structure – later named the “Dammam Dome” – that they instinctively knew would be oil bearing.
“We ... could see the beds dipping away from a common center,” Miller said in a 1983 interview (a year before his death) for “Aramco World” magazine. “We got on one of the beds and drove around it, and we knew, in just a few minutes – it was like a copy of Bahrain Island. To get two structures like that was rather a marvelous thing.”
Many who were involved in Saudi Arabia in 1933 must have expected clashes between two vastly different cultures. But, surprisingly, there were no major incidents. The Saudi government and Socal desperately wanted the concession to evolve into a lasting relationship and both sides went out of their way to avoid any conflicts.
In fact, the Saudis sometimes were too accommodating.
When Miller and Henry waded ashore there was a crowd waiting to greet them. The local emir and other dignitaries from towns along the coast as well as the Bedouins planned a celebration of welcome, delaying their work.
The government was so solicitous, in fact, that it sometimes impeded the geologists’ work. Each field party was required to have 16 soldiers along to demonstrate to the Bedouins that the geologists traveled under the protection of King Ibn Sa’ud. Plus, the Arab culture prohibited the combining of jobs. So whenever two geologists headed for the desert they were accompanied by a guide, an interpreter, a cook, a cook’s helper, a houseboy, a mechanic, a mechanic’s helper, a driver, four camel drivers, a contingent of soldiers and two to three dozen camels.
But the Americans and Arabs soon learned to live together and began adopting many of each other’s customs.
The geologists grew beards, adopted the Arabs’ ghutra head dress and practiced their Arabic on anybody that would listen.
The Saudis were entranced with the things the geologists brought to the desert. Cars, generators, radios and other wonders of western civilization were welcomed by the townspeople and the desert Bedouins alike ...
The Bedouins quickly learned the advantages of medicine, and many were convinced the geologists, who carried medical supplies, were doctors.
The geologists were not doctors, of course, but they were certainly more than just geologists. Through necessity they also became electricians, mechanics, inventors and much more.
Their inventions and developments included a still to distill water, a photo lab and huge, low pressure tires more suited for traveling on sand.
By the end of the first field season, the geologists had marked the spot on the Dammam Dome that they hoped would be the site of the first oil well in Saudi Arabia.
When they returned from a muchneeded vacation in the mountains of Lebanon to start the 1934-35 season, there were reinforcements waiting to greet them. The most significant among the new geologists was AAPG member Max Steineke.
Steineke of Arabia
Almost all who worked with Steineke agree that he was the one man who unraveled the stratigraphy and structure of Saudi Arabia’s desert. Steineke was soon named chief geologist and remained in Saudi Arabia until his death in 1952.
Many claim that Max Steineke, who in 1951 received AAPG’s Sidney Powers Award, discovered more oil in his lifetime than any other geologist in history. He is credited with discovering much of the 10 billion barrels of proven reserves in Saudi Arabia at the time of his death.
Barger said of Steineke, “He always talked to every young geologist that came in. This is a ploy used by some managers to make people feel at home, like part of the team. But Max talked to them because he thought he might learn something he didn’t know.”
…By 1939 the first wave of geologists had all gone home and Steineke was the senior scientist. But the changing of the guard did not change the job. There were still miles of uncharted desert to explore.
One of the most significant tasks undertaken by the second wave of geologists was the mapping of the Rub’ al- Khali, also known as the Empty Quarter, which is one of the harshest deserts in the world. Only two Europeans had crossed the Empty Quarter before Barger and Harriss were sent to map the region.
Two more major oil fields were discovered in those first 10 years of exploration – both credited to Steineke’s geologic expertise.
The Abu Hadriya Field, over 100 miles northwest of the Dammam Field, was discovered in March 1940 when the No. 1 well struck oil at 10,115 feet. That same year the No. 1 Abqaiq was spudded 35 miles southwest of Dhahran. The Abqaiq well was shut in early in 1941 when World War II interrupted operations in Saudi Arabia, but even then drillers knew that the Abqaiq field was the largest discovery so far.
The field turned out to be one of the world’s largest oil reservoirs.
The Abqaiq Field was probably Steineke’s greatest achievement. Seemingly unrelated clues like salt flats, tertiary outcrops and the alignment the sand dunes led him to believe the region had potential. Structure drilling proved his theory, that there was a well-defined dome at Abqaiq whose surface features had been obliterated.
Barger wrote in one of his letters, “Max has been all his life looking for a place like this.”