Reminiscences of Saudi Arabia: By Military Aircraft to Dhahran, 37 Years Ago

By Halsell, Grace | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Reminiscences of Saudi Arabia: By Military Aircraft to Dhahran, 37 Years Ago


Halsell, Grace, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Reminiscences of Saudi Arabia: By Military Aircraft to Dhahran, 37 Years Ago

By Grace Halsell

Stored in my memory box from my first visit to Saudi Arabia--37 years ago--I have three vivid recollections. First, just getting there was a memorable experience. Then, I can't forget a visit to Hofuf nor a visit to a complete and back then still relatively new village called Aramco.

To get to Dhahran, I had boarded a U.S. Air Force cargo plane in Wiesbaden, Germany. As an accredited foreign correspondent I could fly free of charge on cargo planes that generally had no heat on a "space available" basis. Passengers huddled along steel "bucket seats" attached to the walls of the plane, and in some instances they sprawled on the craft's belly. It was an 18-hour flight, with a stop in Athens for fuel. During the long flight, I got acquainted with several of 26 Saudis aboard--and learned they were the first graduates of a U.S. training school for Saudi pilots.

All were wearing gold watches, gifts of King Sa'ud. Pilot Mohammed Dughayther told me that the watch he was wearing, with a picture of the King on its face, "cost $200." He added, "Actually, I was given two watches, one for being first in my class." He had not achieved that status easily. Before entering flight training he had graduated from the American University of Beirut.

"My father was a trader," Dughayther explained. "He drove camel herds from Arabia to Beirut. When my father died, our family became poor. I worked while attending classes."

The young pilots said they earned a salary equivalent to $300 a month. I had just come from Spain where I learned that a Spanish army private earned only 15 cents a month salary. The Saudis all were neatly dressed in "pinks," as the U.S. army called its officers' uniforms--and all with whom I talked spoke impeccable English.

I see them "in memory"--and often have contemplated the changes in their lives--and in the vigorous new country reborn in their ancient land. I have traveled in recent times again in Saudi Arabia--and marveled at the transformations. Perhaps no country has undergone such startling changes so rapidly as has Saudi Arabia. It was one man--Abdul Aziz Ibn Sa'ud (1876-1953)--who created the most powerful monarchy in the Arab world.

When "the father" of the country died in 1953, his son, Crown Prince Sa'ud bin Abdul Aziz (1902-1969) became King. He had held the position for five years by the time I arrived. "Would you like to see him, maybe meet him?" a Saudi photographer asked me. He said that he and three U.S. movie photographers working for the Arabian American Oil Company, Aramco, would go to Hofuf--and I could go along.

"The King will be traveling by train, from Riyadh to Damman-Dhahran," the photographer said. "The train makes a scheduled stop in Hofuf. When it stops, we'll board--and accompany the King on to the coast." Thus the photographers and I set out before dawn to drive south to Hofuf.

Untouched by Western Hands

In the old walled city, I imagined that nothing had changed in 2,000 years. We visited a vast covered market, with merchants operating from small stalls--some hardly bigger than a telephone booth. …

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