Photographer: Ayesha Malik
Photographer: Ayesha Malik

A Slice of Small-Town America in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi state oil company has a gated community for its workers, and it looks like any small town in America. A new book documents life inside the compound.

Ayesha Malik was born half a mile from Dammam well No. 7—the well that started the Saudi oil industry in 1938. She was raised among some of the world's largest oil fields and refineries. Yet her home was an oasis within the kingdom: the 22.5 square-mile gated community created to house employees of the state-owned company that's known today as Saudi Aramco. 

She documented the buzz of the compound and nearby area in a series of striking photographs she is publishing in her book "Aramco: Above the Oil Fields." (Daylight Books, $50) The compound forms a world largely unknown outside the closely knit community of Aramco staffers. The city, which was built by the American oil companies that owned Aramco before its nationalization in 1980, could be any small town in America. Children travel in iconic yellow American school buses. Baseball fields abound. The Boy Scouts have their own pack, number 253. Set aside the desert heat and this could be suburban Los Angeles.

Inside the gates is a life available nowhere else in Saudi Arabia. Women drive. Concerts are allowed. Men and women shop together. (Alcohol is banned as in the rest of the kingdom) 

"The American town recreated in Saudi Arabia has defined my understanding of the world through its dusty rose-colored filter, the simple yet exceptionally worldly people, and its iconic landscape," writes Malik, who was born in the compound hospital in 1989 and lived there until 2012. Now 28, she splits her time between New York and Saudi Arabia.

The world that Malik photographed is about to undergo its biggest upheaval since the Saudi government nationalized Aramco. Riyadh plans to sell shares in its crown jewel next year, bringing foreign investors back into the company for the first time since the companies that are today Exxon Mobil and Chevron sold their last stakes back to the government. 

 

Families by the Pond at sunset.

Photographer: Ayesha Malik

An aerial photo of Dhahran from 2004.

Source: Daylight Books

Early-morning view along Rolling Hills Boulevard.

Photographer: Ayesha Malik

Christmas lights at Lava Circle.

Photographer: Ayesha Malik

A transplanted American “Blue Bird” school bus transports custodial workers along Rolling Hills Boulevard.

Photographer: Ayesha Malik

The Cub Scouts House.

Photographer: Ayesha Malik

Baseball players on the field.

Photographer: Ayesha Malik

Latifa with her daughter, Juriyah before a soccer game.

Photographer: Ayesha Malik

Main Camp house.

Photographer: Ayesha Malik

Gas masks issued were issued to families by Aramco during the Gulf War in 1990.

Photographer: Ayesha Malik

Dhahran Commissary.

Photographer: Ayesha Malik

Saudi Aramco CEOs on display at the Community Heritage Gallery.

Photographer: Ayesha Malik

Oil refinery in Jubail II on the eastern coast of Saudi taken during the construction of the site.

Photographer: Ayesha Malik

Jubail is one of the industrial cities in Saudi where these facilities are concentrated. 

Photographer: Ayesha Malik

Tank farm, Saudi Arabia.

Photographer: Ayesha Malik