Sector News

Saudi Aramco’s retirees hold on to their company ties

September 30, 2016

Saudi Arabian Oil Co.—the world’s biggest energy company heading toward the world’s biggest public offering—has been largely walled off from Westerners. But, for a select group of Americans, Saudi Aramco, as the company is known, remains a home away from home.

They are its retirees, and they call themselves Aramcons. Many of them lived and worked in the kingdom for decades, and their families often include more than one generation of Aramco employees.

Aramcons say the company inspires fierce loyalty with a culture built around family and an openhanded approach to education, health care and other costs of living.

“They encouraged everybody to, ‘bring all your stuff,’ ” said 62-year-old Doreen Cumberford, who is originally from Scotland and now lives in Colorado but spent about 15 years in Saudi Arabia with her husband. She sums up the company’s attitude as, “Bring your five kids, and we’ll educate them and send them to boarding school.”

The scramble to understand what happens behind Aramco’s gates is intensifying as Western bankers and lawyers vie for a piece of an initial public offering that could generate $1 billion in fees. Aramco is valued at an estimated $2 trillion to $3 trillion, which means Saudi Arabia could potentially raise $100 billion to $150 billion by selling a 5% stake—part of a plan to make the Saudi economy less oil-dependent. On Monday, Aramco Chief Executive Amin H. Nasser said the IPO is targeted for 2018.

The Aramcons have kept up with the company’s business through an enduring web of relationships built around regular reunions, mostly stateside, and a retiree magazine called “Pleasant Days.”

A reunion last year that crisscrossed Saudi Arabia included a jaunt to view oryx, a once-endangered desert antelope. The retirees also visited an oil-and-gas plant that some of them had helped to plan and build. On a dune overlooking the plant, one retiree noted an expansion that would allow production there to reach a million barrels a day in 2016, according to Pleasant Days’ reunion coverage.

“The friendships that we made in Saudi Arabia are still an important part of our life,” said Linda Shearon, 71, who attended that reunion.

Aramcons credit the company with pulling off the unlikely feat of melding conservative Saudi mores with the vibe of small-town America. Women are allowed to drive inside Aramco’s sprawling residential compounds, unlike in the rest of Saudi Arabia.

The largest of the residential camps is in Dhahran, the desert town where the company headquarters is located. There, people live in ranch-style houses on streets with names like Prairie View Circle, even though there is no prairie in sight. Hearing the call to prayer from the local mosque is part of daily life.

Rhona Messinger, who says she has attended six reunions, including one in Las Vegas in 2008, said she sat at one table with a bunch of young-looking retirees who remembered being coached in softball by her late husband Bob, who was a chemist at Aramco. “They were all people who had lived over there as teenagers and had gone back to work over there,” said the 86-year-old Ms. Messinger.

Workdays start early at Aramco, and no one frowns on executives going home to their families at around 4 p.m., or even for lunch. “You actually got to know your family,” said Munsoor Malik, 65, who moved to Saudi Arabia from California to work at the company from 1980 to 2011, and raised three daughters there.

The company traces its roots to 1933, when Standard Oil of California won the right to explore in Saudi Arabia and set up a subsidiary that later became Aramco. Its first American employees often came without their wives. But to attract and hold the numbers of skilled workers needed to expand the company, Aramco began building family housing.

Many of the original Aramcons witnessed Saudi Arabia’s astonishing economic transformation, as oil money helped to transform unpaved roads to highways. They trained the company’s growing ranks of Saudi workers to take the reins after the government completed its buyout of Aramco’s assets in 1980.

Stephen Furman, 78, the son of one of the earliest Aramcons, arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1945, about two years before Ali al-Naimi, the country’s future oil minister, began working as an Aramco errand boy. He said it had been ingrained in him that Americans were guests of the Saudis. “It was their country, their oil, and that we were there to help them as a people to grow into the company,” he said.

Memories of the American-run period at Aramco are bound to fade with each new generation of Saudi executives. Despite ties forged over more than eight decades, it isn’t always easy for former American expats to keep in touch with Saudi Arabia once they leave. The country issues the bulk of its tourist visas to Muslim pilgrims.

Last year, in one of the rare reunions held in the kingdom, then-Aramco CEO Khalid al-Falih, the current Saudi oil minister, made sure to nod to the contributions Americans made to the company, the retiree magazine noted. He did so by remarking on the day’s weather.

“You have lived in the kingdom long enough to know that we don’t get a lot of rain,” Mr. Falih told a large dinner crowd. “We see it as a good sign and the people who bring the rain are the closest, nicest, dearest people to us.”

By Tripti Lahiri

Source: Wall Street Journal

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