DESPITE the global alarm over Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the potential threat to Saudi Arabia - owner of 25 percent of the world's oil reserves - everything is ``normal'' at the Saudi national oil company, say Americans working there. Well, not quite. The Saudi Arabian Oil Company, known as Saudi Aramco, operates and maintains 787 miles of pipeline and two pump stations that move Iraqi oil to a Saudi port on the Red Sea. The Saudi government has halted the pipeline's flow, and an Iraqi tanker was not permitted to load crude at the port Sunday night.
And Saudi Aramco has told its foreign employees that the company will give a free trip home to any of their dependents who wish to leave. Saudi Aramco has 2,700 North American employees with 6,750 dependents living in the kingdom, says William Tracy, a spokesman for the subsidiary Aramco Services Company in Houston.
On Monday, two special flights brought 568 Canadians and Americans to Houston. Two flights a day were expected thereafter. Saudi Aramco assumes that half of the dependents will choose to spend some time away.
However, the tickets are round-trip with an open return date, in anticipation that the family members will eventually feel secure enough to return.
At Saudi Aramco headquarters in Dhahran, Americans contacted by the Monitor were more concerned about not seeing their names in print than about the possibility of military conflict. Even in the most relaxed of times, a seemingly innocuous remark to a reporter can lead to dismissal from a high-paying job.
``We'd be doomed,'' says one American secretary, speaking of being quoted.
As for being invaded, another company employee, asking not to be identified further, says, ``There is no fear running around. There are no drills. There's no panic.'' People are still working, shopping, and playing golf as usual.
For a few days after the Aug. 2 conquest of Kuwait, some Saudi military traffic could be seen heading in that direction, but not much since. There's been no sign of United States forces.
``I think I saw four guys in uniform in a rental car,'' the company employee says.
He adds that some people are scared, but they tend to be new employees who don't know from experience that turmoil in the Middle East rarely affects Saudi Aramco operations. In its 57-year history, Saudi Aramco has only evacuated personnel on two other occasions, during World War II and following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
As of yesterday morning, Iraqi forces were establishing defensive positions in Kuwait across from the Saudi border, while international forces were assembling in Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea.
A woman who has lived in Dhahran since 1978, and who has been on leave in the US since April, comments, ``If things are like they are now, I'll be back [in Saudi Arabia] in two weeks.''
There's no talk of evacuating foreign employees. Even if it comes to that, the Saudi staff are capable of keeping the oil flowing, company sources say. Of Saudi Aramco's 43,000 employees, three-quarters are Saudi citizens. Saudis hold almost all management positions, 76 percent of the supervisory jobs, and 60 percent of the professional positions.
Saudi Arabia has promised to increase production to offset United Nations-embargoed Iraqi oil, but no valves have been opened yet because - scare-inflated prices notwithstanding - the oil market has been glutted. ``Saudi Arabia will increase the flow when it's time, and they have the ability to do it,'' the company employee says.
Aside from short-term production increases now possible, last year Saudi Aramco launched a program to increase its capacity to the peak reached in 1980 (see chart) through construction and demothballing of idle facilities. The company is also continuing its biggest-ever exploration program, begun in 1987. Some of these projects require new employees from abroad. Mr. Tracy mentions that over the past year about 50 people every two weeks have gone through new-employee orientation in Houston.
Despite the current situation, 10 new North American employees, some with wives, left for Saudi Arabia on Friday.