Saudi Aramco Residential Camp in Dhahran

Saudi Aramco Residential Camp in Dhahran

Saudi Aramco Residential Camp in Dhahran, casually known by its inhabitants as the "Dhahran Camp", is the residential community built by Saudi Aramco for its employees. It is located within the city of Dhahran (Arabic الظهران "al-dhahrān") in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province.

The Dhahran residential camp is, technically speaking, a fenced-in company compound, and only Saudi Aramco employees and their dependents may live inside. It is located near the [ US consulate] as well as the military airbase, which was formerly the international airport of the Eastern Province. (This has since been moved to King Fahd International Airport in Qatif).

The Dhahran camp (Aramco code: DH) is one of three original expatriate oil company compounds or "districts" in the east of the country (now four), which also include camps in Ras Tanura (the refinery and port), and Abqaiq (also Buqayq) - and more recently in Udhailiyah. Dhahran camp was the first of the group, founded in the late 1930s, and is still the largest, with 11,300 residents, including approximately 6,200 North Americans. The town consists of two main divisions: Dhahran "main camp" (the oldest section) and Dhahran Hills. Among Aramcons, "Dhahran Hills" is sometimes used to refer to any or all Saudi Aramco compounds rather than just one section of the Dhahran compound.

Geography and geology

The Dhahran residential camp is a short distance west of downtown Al Khobar, the closest Saudi town to Dhahran, and its traditional shopping center, and about 15 km south of Dammam, both older Saudi port cities on the Persian Gulf. Looking farther afield, Dhahran is northeast of Abqaiq, also a Saudi Aramco compound, and southeast of Qatif (a traditional Shi'ite oasis town) and, further north, Ras Tanura, Saudi Aramco's main oil port. The island nation of Bahrain is also within easy driving distance to the east (about 20 miles) across a causeway from Al Khobar.


Saudi Aramco, the national oil company with its headquarters in Dhahran. Saudi Aramco, is considered by many measures to be the largest oil company in the world with the largest oil reserves in the world, and it produces more oil per day than any other country or company in the world. Most of the oil is exported, since local Saudi needs require only a tiny percentage of the total production. Saudi Aramco is also the largest oil exporter in the world.

Sixty-five years on, Dhahran is still Saudi Aramco's worldwide headquarters and the center of the company's finance, exploration, engineering, drilling services, medical services, materials supply and other company organisations. Company-wide, Saudi Aramco has a very large multi-national workforce, totaling over 56,000 mainly Saudi employees scattered around the country, including approximately 9,000 expatriates from around the world. Saudi Aramco is the only oil company with operations in Dhahran, and everyone who lives in the compound is either employed by the company or the dependent of an employee.


Aramco has several self-contained communities to house its employees in the Eastern Province of which Dhahran is the largest community. It has a total population of about 11,300, including approximately 6,200 Americans (employees, spouses and children).

Traditionally, the "senior staff" inhabitants of Dhahran were mainly US employees of Saudi Aramco but included minorities of other Western nationalities, non-Saudi Arab nationalities (e.g. Lebanese, Palestinians and Egyptians), and other non-Western nationalities (e.g. Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos). Due to several decades of "Saudi-ization" by the now 100% Saudi-controlled company, many upper-level Saudi families have also come to live on the compound, which culturally and linguistically is still predominantly American (i.e., Saudi and Islamic laws are applied to a lesser extent there than outside of the compound, and English is the common language of communication and education).

The community is also unusual demographically in that all residents of Dhahran are either employees of (Saudi) Aramco or their dependents; consequently, several age demographics are missing - 15-25-year olds (Saudi Aramco provides no high school or university for dependents' children so they must leave for schools elsewhere) and persons aged 60+ (retirees leave the company).

After 65+ years of community life, Dhahran - and the other three Saudi Aramco compounds - have spawned several generations of "Aramcons", most of whom now reside in their country of origin rather than Saudi Arabia. Community ties remain strong years after employees have left, however, and "Aramco Reunions" are held by ex-Aramcons in various locations in the US every two years. In addition, the children of Saudi Aramco employees, "Aramco brats", have developed their own cultural identity and hold their own biannual reunions.

Government, law, and security

Laws in Dhahran camp (and the other old Saudi Aramco compounds) are distinct from the rest of Saudi Arabia's, and law enforcement -- in addition to health care and fire protection -- is mostly the internal responsibility of Saudi Aramco. Thus, some Saudi national laws are not applied in Dhahran. For example, women, forbidden from driving in the rest of the country, can drive freely within the compound and have no special dress code (unlike Saudi women in the rest of the kingdom). And while pork products and alcoholic beverages are prohibited nationwide, for a long time there was a "pork store" as a subsection of the Dhahran employees' commissary, where non-Muslim families could buy a rationed amount of pork products (including hog-hair brushes). Beginning in the 1940s, Aramco produced a publication on the safe bootleg production of household alcohol. Fact|date=December 2007 (Selling it to Saudi nationals invited certain expulsion or imprisonment.) Other national laws are enforced on the compound. For example, any foreigner that tests positive, during the annual medical checkup, for HIV (the virus causing AIDS) will be deported. Fact|date=December 2007 Hence, issues relating to public health, safety, or certain moral issues (e.g., adultery, homosexuality) that become too public or involve Muslims, especially Saudi Muslims, are taken extremely seriously and can lead to termination, deportation, or other severe consequences if the rules are not obeyed. Early in Aramco's history, a special department of Government Relations was formed to mediate between non-Saudi employees within the compound and the Saudi government, in effect, providing a buffer between Western "compound culture" and traditional Saudi culture. Fact|date=December 2007

The de facto government of Dhahran camp consists of some departments of Saudi Aramco that are related, such as Loss Prevention, Industrial Security, Community Services, Fire Protection, etc. Saudi Aramco's Industrial Security Department is the traffic, security, and safety enforcement service. In addition to regular law enforcement forces, it operates K-9; the Special Search Unit. The K-9 has been active since terrorist attacks hit other parts of the country.

Saudi Special Emergency Forces' Eastern Province headquarters is located one kilometre away from the main gate of Dhahran; the forces do not enter the camp unless some serious security issue has occurred (which has so far never happened). Beyond a secondary interest in community moral policing, the government is, post-September 11, 2001 attacks, mainly preoccupied with ensuring the physical safety of expatriate workers.

Although terrorist incidents in Saudi Arabia since 1996 have targeted Westerners in neighboring Al-Khobar and Abqaiq, no single incident has so far occurred in the Dhahran compound itself, due perhaps to constant vigilance by government and company security. (See: List of terrorist incidents in Saudi Arabia.) During the Six-Day War in June 1967, however, a small-scale riot erupted outside the compound due to anger at perceived US support of Israel, and some rioters (mainly non-Saudi Muslims) managed to gain entrance to the camp, inflicting minimal damage (overturned vehicles, broken car windows) but scaring US employees and their families enough that the company saw fit to evacuate most dependents and repatriate them for several months at company expense.

Also, there is added security in the fact that the residential camp lies "inside" the Saudi Aramco camp. In order to get in, a person must first pass through a main outside gate, where vehicle stickers and company IDs are checked. Then, there is a second gate where identification and vehicle stickers are checked for eligibility to enter the residential camp. The area between the two gates contains the industrial area of the Saudi Aramco camp, which contains the different buildings where the residents work. Only residents, their dependents and employees of a specific grade code may enter the residential camp. Any visitors not carrying Saudi Aramco identification must stop at a visitor centre and have a resident sponsor their entry.


As the centre of the nation's oil industry, Dhahran enjoys excellent transportation resources both nationally and internationally.

The nation's excellent highway infrastructure was modernized extensively in the '70s and '80s and connects the Dhahran area with all major urban centres in the Kingdom, including its neighbors Kuwait, Qatar, and via causeway, the nearby island nation of Bahrain. The oil company also built and maintains a Tapline road for its pipeline stations spread along the highway northwest into Jordan. Roads early linked Dhahran with Saudi Aramco's other major compounds Ras Tanura and Abqaiq and with its nearest traditional Saudi community Al Khobar.

Formerly one of Saudi Arabia's three major international airports, Dhahran Airport (DHA) lies a short distance east of the compound. Dhahran airport originally consisted of three sections: the old King Fahd Air Terminal for regular passengers, separate facilities for Aramco corporate use (Aramco formerly had its own passenger airplanes offering international air service for employees until the early '60s), and the Dhahran Airfield, an airfield operated by the U.S. from 1946 until 1962. Today, King Fahd International Airport (DMM) serves the entire metropolitan area of Dhahran, Dammam, and Al Khobar. DHA also used to contain a section designated to Aramco Aviation Department, from which all company-run flights operate. The old airport is now called King Abdulaziz Airbase, a major Royal Saudi Air Force base. The American air force still maintains a presence there. Aramco Aviation Department moved its services to its own buildings located near the King Fahd International Airport.

Although rail service in Saudi Arabia plays a much more minor role today than 50 years ago, an industrial railroad with a station adjacent to Dhahran still exists, linking it to the capital Riyadh.

Within the company itself, Saudi Aramco runs free bus service for its employees, both within the compound, between the Dhahran Inter-District Bus Station and each of the three other Aramco districts, and shopping bus service into Khobar. Taxi service is also available within the compound. There are basically no traffic jams in Dhahran even in rush hours (with the exception of the security gates and around the core area). However, all traffic lights in Dhahran camp are computer-controlled to maximize the traffic flow.

Dhahran's main office buildings, where most of the residents of the Dhahran camp work, include the Exploration and Petroleum Engineering Center (EXPEC), Exploration Computer Center (ECC), and the Engineering Building, as well as the Tower Administration Building, are connected by an underground tunnel network to help employees avoid exposure to the extremes of the Saudi climate. These offices are located within the Saudi Aramco camp, but outside the residential camp proper.


The Information Technology Department of Saudi Aramco administers all communication in Dhahran. All local telecom services are provided for free, as well as home internet (except ADSL, which costs $40 per month). The ITD does not supervise mobile communications, mobile services are provided by national companies such as STC and Mobily.

Local calls (i.e., calls in the Eastern Region) and calls to other Aramco Camps are free. Calls to other cities are charged at the same rates as those set by the Saudi Telecom Company.


Within the compound itself, Saudi Aramco operates two schools, the Dhahran Hills School (Elementary, K-5) and the Dhahran Middle School (6-9). The company has never provided a high school level, however, compelling employees to send dependent students out of country after the 9th grade for secondary school and college. (A graduation ceremony is attached to this rite of passage, and Aramco brats identify themselves thereafter as the "Class of 1990", for example.)

Dhahran schools employ an American-based curriculum in teaching whatever the nationality of the pupil. All children of Saudi Aramco employees are allowed to attend, with the noted exception of the children of Saudi employees, who are required to attend alternative Saudi-curriculum schools. Until 1980, Saudi employees living on camp were allowed to register their children in the company school, after which time a company policy was instituted to forbid it.

Beyond the compound, the greater Dhahran area is home to the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, a national technical institution built just outside the compound's original perimeter fence, and the Aramco Training Center (ATC), which includes the campus of the selective College Preparatory Center for promising Saudi secondary students preparing for study abroad.


Newspapers and magazines

All papers published locally are either owned by Saudi Aramco or special community interest groups (SIGs), and they are all free. The main weekly is the "Arabian Sun " newspaper. Most Saudi Aramco-owned papers and magazines are available online at [ Aramco's official website] (anyone may request a hard-copy subscription free of charge). The papers that are owned by SIGs are available online only through Saudi Aramco's internal network.

The company's highly regarded "Aramco World" magazine of Middle Eastern and Islamic topics can be subscribed to in the United States for about $3. (Website:


Aramco TV (Dhahran TV, and named Channel 3 later) was the first TV channel in the Persian Gulf area and the second in the Middle East. Dhahran TV started broadcasting on September 16, 1957. Although originally in English, it later started to broadcast in Arabic, but at the same time, viewers could listen to the English version of the TV programs through Aramco radio simultaneously. By 1970, it had become a commercial free, all-English channel after the Saudi channel started broadcasting in 1966. Up until the first Persian Gulf War Channel 3 was the only English language television station readily available and it was sometimes the object of humor for its airing of dated and censored entertainment programming, and a bland nightly news broadcast.

Many expat brats that grew up in Dhahran in the 1980s and 1990s will recall some quaint memories of the channel, e.g., the onscreen calligraphy that appeared to announce the prayer times, or the fact that "Children's Shows" were at least a couple years old and could not show any kissing between men and women. Most Dhahran residents used their television set to watch VHS tapes or play video games. The highlight of Channel 3 was that it did air well done documentaries on Middle Eastern history, culture, cuisine and environment, and during the first Gulf War it aired a documentary on how to properly use gas masks, after some accidental deaths occurred.

The death of Channel 3 was that Dhahran residents started to get other choices for English language entertainment and news television. In the early 1990s the first Persian Gulf War gave Dhahran residents the ability to pick up the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. By the late 1990s, satellite television services were becoming more affordable and offering a wider selection of commercial news and entertainment programming that was less censored and more contemporary. The result was that in 1998 Saudi Aramco shut down the channel.


The Dhahran community has a very active social calendar undertaken through 'Self-Directed groups' within the Saudi Aramco community. These groups are organized through four main areas; Cultural Groups; Service Groups; Special Interest Groups and Sports Activities, with the latter being the most active, and heavily pursued within Dhahran and the other main areas. A number of the sporting groups have participated internationally, for example the Youth Soccer regularly participate in Europe, and the running group compete in races all over the Middle East. The Little League Baseball team from Dhahran qualified for the Little League World Series in 1983, 1985, 1987-1989, 1991, 1994-1998, 2000-2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.

ites of interest

*Ar Rabiyah Compound
*Dhahran Hills Park
*Dhahran Rolling Hills Golf Course
*Saudi Aramco Oil Exhibit
*The Heritage Gallery
*Al-Fayrouz Theater
*Munira Ashgar's Museum
*King's Road Theater
*Hamilton Guest House
*Dhahran Hobby Farm
*King's Road Library
*EXPEC Building (in the Admin Area)
*The Almujamma (Blue) Mosque
*Engineering Complex (Office Buildings and Library)
*King's Road Recreation Area
*Steinecke Hall
*King's Road Ball Field
*Dhahran Dining Hall
*Tower Building
*Dhahran Rolling Hills Putting Area

More information

"The following text has been adapted from Aramco's relocation and orientation guide for new employees."

The community of Dhahran is composed of two sections: Dhahran main camp and Dhahran Hills. These two sections are separated by Dhahran's 27-hole Rolling Hills golf course and club house. The term 'camp' has stuck with Dhahran and the other communities, since its early development in the 1930s and 1940s. However, in reality, Dhahran is a community with tree-lined streets, stone houses and grass lawns.

Dhahran main camp is located at the site of the original Dhahran camp and contains the administration complex, health center, dental clinic, dining hall, library and theatre. The community's "Al Mujamma" service center"(seen in the image)" is a mall-type complex which houses the mail center, barber shop, travel office, photo shop, laundry, dry cleaners, housing office, community bulletin boards and ticket office for community events. The supermarket and florist are adjacent to Al Mujamma, as is the bank. The Dhahran dining hall is also on the main camp, not far from Al Mujamma.

There are two recreation complexes on the main camp. One complex is next to the middle school and includes a youth center, swimming pool, gym, tennis courts, squash courts and games fields. The other is situated near the community library. Included in this complex is the bowling alley, movie theatre, games room and dance hall.

Most homes in the main camp are constructed of brick or fieldstone, and many have undergone recent modernisation. There are also some newer, modular homes in this area. The gardens and landscaped areas of these homes are surprisingly green with large shade trees and flowering bougainvillea and oleanders.

Dhahran Hills, which is mostly residential, is located about 2 miles west of Dhahran main camp, just beyond the community's golf course. Most houses in the hills were constructed in the early 80s. The Dhahran Hills school, for kids aged 5-10, is located in the hills. Adjacent to the school is a large community recreation center similar to the ones in the main camp.

Dhahran also has a hobby farm (horse stables), bicycle and jogging paths, and a rugby field.

Dhahran's marina and adjoining beach facility are at Half Moon Bay, a small inlet of the Persian Gulf. It is 40 minutes from the community of Dhahran. Sailing, fishing and water-skiing facilities are available.

Al-Munirah is a compound in Dhahran but outside the main camp and the Hills, it is designated for junior staff (as Dhahran Hills and the Main Camp are for senior staff and their families). Ar-Rabiyah, a compound that is "attached" to Dhahran, is exclusively reserved for managers and executive vice presidents and their families. Ar-Rabiyah is also considered one of the classiest compounds in the whole region, even to being referred to as the "Golden Ghetto" (Beverly Hills, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, was created by the Amalgamated Oil Company).

Major yearly events

Reflecting the community's historically American cultural ties, the town celebrated special events for the Fourth of July and Christmas, including a nativity pageant on the grounds of the main baseball park, until 1989, when the Saudi-owned company discontinued the celebrations out of Islamic religious and nationalistic considerations.

Dhahran in film and TV

* [ HOME-The Aramco Brats' Story] : a movie that gives a glimpse, for the first time ever, into expatriate life within Dhahran and other Aramco camps in Saudi Arabia through the eyes of its children - the Aramco Brats'. To be aired on PBS, Discovery Channel, History Channel and Arabian Networks
*"The West Wing": In one episode, the story plot was picketers outside the Aramco camp of Dhahran.
*CNN: A [ report] about the Dhahran compound was aired.
*In 1998 after the kidnapping and murder of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming college student, the major American news networks would occasionally mention that the student's parents lived in Dhahran and worked for Aramco.

ee also

*Saudi Aramco
*Ras Tanura

External links

* [ Travel guide with photos]
* [ Saudi Aramco World] : A 1963 article about Dhahran TV.
* [ History of Dhahran (1950s)]
* [ General information about Dhahran, useful for first time visitors]
* [ Aramco Services Company site] : By clicking the "communities" link, information and photo tour can be found about Dhahran as well as other Aramco communities.
* [ Aramcon Films, Music, Literature and Art]
* [ HOME - The Aramco Brats Story a movie that gives a glimpse into extpatriate life in Aramco through the eyes of its children- the Aramco Brats]

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