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Oil Industry Workers Learn Language, Culture Before Heading to Saudi Arabia

  • Ed Mayberry

Americans have been working in Saudi Arabia's oil industry for around 70 years. The companies that send them to the Middle East are aware that they will be living and working in a culture very unlike the United States, and that understanding the Muslim society is as important as understanding petroleum geology and engineering. So, their job training includes cultural orientation at oil company headquarters in Houston.

Saudi-Aramco executive Stephen Sawyer, who spent a decade in Saudi Arabia with his family, says employees learn useful Arabic phrases and get an introduction to Saudi culture. "We should be, as Westerners, very sensitive to their culture," he says. "We are guests over there."

Mr. Sawyer says the main culture shock for Americans on their first assignment in the Middle East comes from religious differences. "All the culture really focuses on Islam. But that's not to say that this assimilation and acceptance can't be made," he says. "It often is. And I think for most Americans, when they go over there, they see this manifested. They see the culture. They see the way of life of the Muslim hosts, and they respect that."

Since oil workers may spend years overseas, many move with their families, so spouses are also invited to the orientations. In her sessions, Aramco instructor Pat Chichakli always starts by showing employees where they'll be living. "This is a map of one of our communities," she tells one group, pointing to a colored patch on a large map. "We have four, but this is Dhahran. It is the original community. It is the largest one. It has 10,000 people living in it, and it's about 10 square miles. So it's like living in a small American village."

The workshops are designed to prepare the new employees and their families for anything they might encounter. Mariane Malet, a relocation supervisor for Aramco Services, says that includes films as well as discussions. "We have a couple of films on culture shock and cultural adjustment," she says. "Then we go into a little bit about the religion - the differences (between) Christianity (and) Islam--and how that affects daily life outside the communities as well as inside the communities."

When Jim Sgarlet and his family arrived at an Aramco community, or camp, in Saudi Arabia in 1990, one of those differences was immediately obvious. "Women could drive around camp but could not drive off camp," he recalls. "So my wife had a car and then we had a vehicle to drive into town on adventures or wherever we'd ever want to go."

In addition to getting acquainted with Saudi culture, the orientation is an opportunity for applicants to learn some of the details of their upcoming assignment.

Although English is the official language of Saudi Aramco and the other oil companies, knowing a bit of Arabic in the Middle East is very helpful. Relocation supervisior Mariane Malet says employees come out of the orientation with a basic vocabulary, thanks to a little booklet, called 'Welcome to Saudi Arabia.' "It's actually put together here at our company," she says, flipping through the pages. "(It) just introduces them to the Arabic language--the alphabet, some of the numbers, the sounds and some of the key words that you might want to use when you step off the airplane, like, you know, 'hello' and 'thank you,' and that type of thing, 'please.' Those are always good phrases to know when you go to any country."

Those who sign up to work in Saudi Arabia tend to be interested in world travel, and often end up staying overseas much longer than they originally planned. The average tour of duty for Aramco workers is around 11 years. The training they receive from the cultural experts in Houston serves as a useful springboard for their international experience.