Friday, October 16, 2009

Shayabh: Oil Wells, Sand Dunes, and Sunset

On Thursday, Saudi Aramco treated the KAUST's faculty, staff, and students with a visit to Shayabh in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, one of the most isolated places in the world. Shayabh has a producion capacity of 12 million barrels of oil per day and is being expanded to produce even more. Shayabh is known for the quality of oil it produces, even more than its quality. Shayabh's oil is one of the sweetest (having a low sulfur content) in the entire world.

Visiting Shayabh was a special treat for us. It is rare for people who are not Aramco employees or native Beduins travel to the empty Quarter - it is accessible only by corporate jet or by camel. There is a road connecting the oil outpost to the nearest Saudi Arabian city, but the region is so isolated that employees are not allowed to travel on that road because it is dangerous. The highway is only used to transport heavy equipment to and from Shayabh.

Mr. Nadhmi Al-Nasr, KAUST's acting vice president and one of KAUST's first founding team members, was our special sponser for this trip. Ten years before KAUST, he was one of the principal project managers of the Shayabh construction and development. Mr. Al-Nasr was a great host; he spoke intimately about Shayabh as if he were introducing us to one of his closest friends or family members.

Mr. Al-Nasr was just as proud of the natural wonders in this region of the desert as he was the accomplishments of his company at Shayabh. Though built in the middle of nothing, Aramco still made a conscientious effort to preserve the beautiful and unique landscape which surrounds the facility. "Keep Shayabh Clean" signs line the streets between the airport and the refinery. Community rules strictly prohibit littering and Aramco policy is very very careful to avoid spills and waste.

The tours were informative, and the company information interesting, but the biggest treat for us was watching the sun set over the sand dunes in the evening. After a drive around the facility, we were set free to hike through the sand before dinner.

I took the chance to venture off by myself. The desert is a very peaceful, quiet, and beautiful place. The sand in Shayabh is very red and very soft because of its high iron content. The sand's gentle beneath one's bare feet is almost as pleasing as the shifting colors of the red dunes in evening twilight. I had not imagined this kind of beauty in the desert.

There is also life in Shayabh. I came across some lizard tracks and these fox tracks while I was walking. The most amazing form of life was the persistant little bushes which grow on the dunes. They have very long roots to anchor themselves to the loose sand, and yet they don't get their water from the ground, but from the air. These plants survive by absorbing moisture in the air through there leaves. They must be very efficient, because it was not humid in Shayabh while we were there.

As the sun dipped lower and lower, the sands changed colors. I wish my camera could adequately show what my eyes saw yesterday.

The sunset alone was worth the journey. This is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. This short trip was the perfect respite from tests, homework, and business back at KAUST. One of the downsides to living in a compound - even one that is well designed and comfortable - is that I rarely get a chance to get away from people and just be still, listening to God's voice and admiring his creation.

Of course, after our trip through the desert, we were treated to a wonderful traditional meal. The lamb was prepared excellently - I cannot remember having such tender meat before!

After dinner, I and a few others went back to the dunes to sneak away from the lights tarry under the stars. We almost missed the bus, but a clear view of the night sky was worth a little excitement. I will probably never get to visit Shayabh again, but there will be many more once-in-a-lifetime opprotunities for us while we remain in Saudi Arabia. I am glad to be here.


  1. Thanks Nathan for this report. No one can get this chance easily..(: All the best ! SaLeM

  2. Wow, you sure are getting to have some amazing experiences!

  3. Hey Nathan,
    Great reporting and awesome pictures it seems like you had fun out there! keep up the good work.
    On a side note I am pretty sure that 12 million barrels is the overall oil production capacity of Saudi Arabia. I think Shaybah produces under a million barrel per day.

    Best wishes!

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  5. Thanks. 12 million is the number I was told by an Aramco employee... twice. I'm no oil expert, and I'll look around for better sources and change the number if there is a contradiction.