1973 was not a good year for me or for thousands of other engineers and architects that worked on the east coast of the United States. That was the year that the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC), met in conference and decided to impose an oil embargo on the United States.
By then I had completed twenty years of experience working up the corporate ladder from a project engineer at CBS, then to ITT, then to TWA and to Western Union on a variety of increasingly responsible assignments. Each required an expanded depth of experience.
I had just returned from a trip to the Middle East to visit the site that was to become a large ship repair, marine engineering, and drydock facility on the Persian Gulf state of Dubai.
A week after the return to our New York office I received word that our project was to be shelved – suspended until further notice – as were many other engineering, architectural design, and construction projects. Thousands of projects never made it to the bidding and construction phase. Many thousands more architects and engineers were laid off. I too became part of that statistic, as were millions of other men and women.
After some deliberation and investigation it became apparent that I had to explore opportunities in the Middle East. It seemed that was where the opportunities were.
I searched and found that the business turmoil resulting from the oil embargo had national and international ramifications. Firstly, there was a significant increase in the cost of crude oil. This increased the operating costs of doing business in America and created huge increases in revenues for the OPEC countries. Each of those countries initiated planning for new infrastructure projects: highways, bridges, water desalination plants, power generating plants, schools, colleges, and hospitals – projects of all types and sizes.
The hub for this business activity, the wheeling, dealing and awarding of all contracts including engineering, design, and construction was Beirut, Lebanon.
Beirut had become the Paris of the Middle East. But the enormous activity and the flow of serious money triggered a civil war in the country and Beirut became the center of this power brokering activity. The business center of the Middle East and the playground for the new super wealthy Middle-Easterners became a bloody battleground.
I learned that many companies working on Mideast projects left war torn Beirut and had reestablished their management/business operations across the Mediterranean in Athens.
I contacted several of the relocated companies and arranged to meet with them in Greece to discuss business opportunities. To my delight, the timing was perfect and I was able to choose the best of several offers.
My first assignment was the design and construction management of three luxury Hilton hotels in Saudi Arabia – one in Riyadh, the capital, another in Jeddah on the west Coast, and the third in Jubail, the oil export terminal on the east coast. The design and construction management support effort was performed in our offices on Leoforos Sygrou in the neighborhood of Kallithea in Athens
During that involvement, there was a period when I resided in Riyadh on bachelor status. I shared a villa with several other expatriate management personnel involved in other projects.
The work and the heat was intense. My days required a constant concern to maintain the logistical support required to insure the delivery of adequate labor and of construction material to keep the project moving on the construction schedule, or as close to it as local restrictions and conditions would allow.
The evenings were different. We had a live-in chef and tasteful meals were prepared for us every day. Drinking was not available as a relaxant or as an escape, however. It was just simply unavailable.
As for myself, I decided to explore my creative skills. I found a shop that sold molding clay and decided to try my hand at sculpting. I went on to sculpt the head of a native of the country. I found that easy and went on to sculpt my father’s head from a photo I had of him.
The R&R days in Saudi Arabia were Fridays – there was no work and all projects were shut down for the day, the Muslim day of rest.
On this one Friday, I convinced my villa mates to take an exploration drive out into the desert to see what we could find of interest.
And thus, an adventurous journey began.
We had breakfast and prepared to drive out of Al Khobar and into the empty desert. Our preparation consisted of taking along two gallon jugs full of water.
We drove through Al Khobar and then into the wilderness for at least two hours. There was not a thing to see. Nothing, just sand, total emptiness. Finally we could see something irregular projecting above the flat, empty, featureless horizon. We set our sights on the irregularity as our target and kept driving toward it. It soon became apparent that the irregularity on the horizon was in fact a Bedouin village.
We drove slowly into town, parked and began walking deeper into the village. It was eerie – the village looked abandoned. There was not a sound, not even a dog barking – not a living soul in sight. We kept walking.
Suddenly we heard a young voice call out: ‘’Hello… G.I. Joe.” The voice seemed to come from out of nowhere – there was no one in sight. “Hello G.I. Joe,” we heard again. This time a young boy dressed in a white thobe (robe) walked towards us. Calling out again, “G.I. Joe.” The boy walked to us, extended his right arm and greeted us. Then almost on cue, a dozen or so other young boys came out of hiding to participate in the greeting.
Now an explanation: as for our appearance, we were each wearing light colored chino pants, khaki colored tee shirts, and light colored baseball caps. We carried no side arms or weapons of any sort. You might say that we just looked American the way we carried ourselves. The young boy related to us immediately as Americans, as the good guys. We were not able to exchange much in conversation during our brief visit. We smiled, laughed, shook hands and resumed our walk further into the village with our new friends cheering us on this journey of adventure.
We then arrived at a large open field, roughly the size of a regulation football field. There, off to one corner of the field was a building being renovated and a huge pipe of nondescript construction debris – except for one thing.
There, at the very top of the heap, half buried under loose chards of bricks, concrete, and bits of mortar was a pair of handmade, artfully painted, heavy wooden doors.
I climbed to the top of the pile and rescued the doors that had been cast away as debris. I decided that they were a rare find – something worth bringing home for display – possibly as a souvenir of my projects in Saudi Arabia. Then I realized the issues I had to deal with.
First, I had to take possession of the doors. I had to remember that we were not in the States where you could salvage something being discarded by someone and carry it away as your own. There in Saudi, I had to find someone with authority that would give me permission to take the discarded doors.
By this time the village had came alive. The siesta was over. The village was teaming with people. We and the doors captured everyone’s interest; we tried to explain that we wanted to take the doors and that we wanted permission to take them away with us. Unfortunately we were not able to make ourselves understood. Some time ensued during this phase of the door rescue. Suddenly a figure appeared rushing towards us from the other end of this large field.
It was a tall figure of a Saudi dressed in a white thobe and head covering. He walked briskly and his garments tailed behind as he walked towards where we were standing. When he arrived we explained about the doors and asked for his approval to take them for our own. The Sheikh took a good look at us and at the old wooden doors being discarded. Then he responded… “OK, for 100 reals,” roughly $29. I was taken back by his response but I decided to horse trade with him and quickly shot back with a counter offer of 50 reals.
The sheik responded with a wink and a smile as he extended his right arm towards me … “OK, 75 reals. We shook hands and the deal was made. Now getting the doors out of Saudi Arabia and back home to New York is a whole other story for another time…