How an oil company created an American suburb in Saudi Arabia

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Ayesha Malik

Much of the world’s oil comes from Saudi Arabia, and it now accounts for 92% of the country’s budget.

It began in the 1930s, when Standard Oil of California began breaking ground for oil in the country. Working with the Saudi government, SOCAL agreed to employ Saudi nationals within the country, “as far as practicable,” as the contract stated.

As American geologists began to also work on the site, they found their new life in Saudi Arabia was foreign to them in many ways. In response, the company, whose name was changed in the 1980s to Saudi Arabian Oil Company – or Saudi ARAMCO – built a compound that imitated the look and feel of an American suburb.

There, Americans working for Saudi ARAMCO could raise their families in a more familiar setting. Photographer Ayesha Malik was born and raised inside the Saudi ARAMCO community in the 1990s, and her new book, “ARAMCO: Above the Oil Fields,” explores her experience there.


The compound is called Dhahran, and it’s a 22.5-square-mile gated community built specifically for Saudi ARAMCO employees and their families.

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Dhahran Commissary.
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Ayesha Malik

Those who live there often refer to themselves as “Aramcons.”

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Gardener offering fresh dates from the local palm trees.
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Ayesha Malik

In an interview featured inside the book, Malik reflects on the positive experience she had growing up inside Dhahran.

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Families by the pond at sunset.
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Ayesha Malik

“The Americans did not come to colonize,” she said. “They came to work, on Saudi Arabia’s terms, and they stayed because the company provided them with the comforts of home, and along the way, they also developed this warmth and love toward the comforts of Saudi Arabia.”

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Baseball players on the field.
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Ayesha Malik

“It isn’t just the American thing that makes this place so memorable. It is the Saudi thing and so much more, this graceful meeting place of the familiar and something you can’t quite explain,” she said.

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Latifa with her daughter, Juriyah, before a soccer game.
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Ayesha Malik

Archival photos from Malik’s childhood are also included in the book. Here, she poses after her dance recital.

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Holding flowers after a ballet recital.
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Ayesha Malik

Malik also noted that life was different for women inside the community when compared to women outside. Saudi Arabia is notorious for its restrictions on women’s freedoms. “The fact that in Saudi Arabia, in this place, we can wear what we want in public, and drive — it is a different world,” she said.

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A mother waves goodbye to her daughter as she leaves for Dhahran Elementary School.
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Ayesha Malik

Source: Newsweek


Although Malik’s father has since retired from the company, she took portraits of those currently working there.

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Suha after work in the commissary parking lot.
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Ayesha Malik

“The retirement age for the company is 60. There are exceptions to this, but for the most part, 60 years old is the age for retiring. Most people leave the country on an exit visa, and it is rare for anyone to return,” she said.

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Mr. Embleton in his office, Public Relations.
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Ayesha Malik

Malik has a nostalgic attachment to Dhahran. “I can look at something in the States and say that reminds me of home in Saudi Arabia. People look at me confused,” she said.

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Sara’s birthday treasure hunt at the 80 road jebels.
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Ayesha Malik