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Day: September 28, 2010

Keizerite finds fulfillment, and a living, in Saudi Arabia

Deborah and Tom Hogan on the third floor of a Starbucks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Hogan has worked there as a contractor and with Saudi Aramco, while Deborah worked for the U.S. Department of State. (KEIZERTIMES/Jason Cox)

Of the Keizertimes

Welcome to Saudi Arabia.

Tom Hogan, a Keizerite who spent much of the 1980s training employees at Saudi Aramco – the state owned oil company that is also the world’s largest – had gone back to Khobar, S.A., as a contractor in May of 2004.

Two days after his arrival, al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the Oasis Compound just miles from where Hogan was living, along with buildings for two oil companies. The compound was primarily housing for foreign workers.

In total, 19 people were killed in the attacks, including two children after someone fired into a school bus.

“My wife was still back in the States,” Hogan explained. “She got up the morning after the attack and reads that about Khobar. She was scheduled to come over in August. Of course, she has no idea that I’m in the Aramco compound. And everything is safe.”

It might have scared off a first-time employee – and indeed, several companies pulled their foreign workers out of Khobar after the tragedy. But Hogan has spent enough time there to have a little more perspective.

He worked from 1981-88 for Aramco, coming home when it was time for his youngest daughter to attend high school. His two sons attended prep school for their high school years in Minnesota, where Hogan grew up.

Hogan moved to Oregon in 1977 to attend Oregon State University’s leadership development program. He worked at Linn-Benton Community College as director of co-op work experience.

His world changed forever on a convention trip to California in 1979.

Aramco was recruiting at the conference, and met with Hogan and a colleague.

They had breakfast, and Hogan had two questions: “Where is Saudi Arabia and what does Aramco do?”
Must have been a good breakfast – they were both offered jobs. His colleague was overseas in four months. It took Hogan a year and a half to decide to go.

The money helped – Americans offered a chance to work abroad are often pretty well-compensated, and Saudi tax laws at the time were beneficial to foreign workers. But more than that, it was the chance for him and his kids to experience another culture.

“But when people work overseas, it’s not, ‘Yeah, the money’s great so let’s go,’” Hogan said. “You’re in another culture, even though you’re supported by the Western culture within the compound. You have to understand their culture is predominant over your culture.”

For sure, Hogan wasn’t in Oregon anymore. Alcohol is outright banned in the Saudi kingdom, which is predominately Muslim. Women cannot drive, much less vote, and must dress very modestly. Most wore an abaya – a robe-like dress that covers everything but the hands, face and feet.

“Some people say they have to cover their face – no, not Western women,” Hogan said.

Stores close five times a day for prayers – even if there are customers there.

His wife Deborah, who worked for the U.S. State Department while with Hogan in Saudi Arabia for a time in the 2000s, said no car of her own was the hardest part. There were taxis – or convincing Tom to take her somewhere – but driving in Saudi Arabia is not for the faint of heart.

“The drivers over there aren’t really good,” Deborah said.

Tom elaborated.

“It’s all-about-me kind of driving,” Hogan said. “You have to be very careful – you may be going straight, someone’s in the far right lane and they make a left turn in front of you. I’ve been there 13 years and never had an accident. But that doesn’t mean I’m immune to it.”

If you want a drink head to Bahrain, a small island kingdom in the Persian Gulf. When Hogan was there in the early 1980s getting there required a boat or plane, but a causeway opened in 1986 allows more or less free movement to the island. The atmosphere there is a bit more liberal – meaning you could actually buy a beer.

Some, particularly in the 1980s due to closer relations with Iraq, would smuggle in alcohol. Or you could try some homemade “wine” made right in Saudi Arabia.

“It’s not French wine, it’s not Oregon wine,” Hogan said. “It’s a makeshift, make-believe wine. Because what they do is they take a grape juice, a dark or white, and put yeast in it. Then they let it ferment for a while, and it becomes alcoholic in some way.”

That said, “Saudi Arabia is the last place you want to go if you’re trying to become less dependent on alcohol.”

As different as the nation is from Western culture, Hogan said the Saudi population “has a great love for Americans.” The difference between the country in the 1980s and today, purely in terms of modernization, is vast.

“Roads were much better, and many high-rise buildings made it almost unrecognizable,” Tom said.

His job is conducted in English; Hogan said he picked up basic greetings and niceties in Arabic, but doesn’t know the language.

When he was living there in the 80s he usually came back to the States for a month or two each year. His employer the second go-round only paid for return plane tickets as far as London.

Some might consider it an inconvenience. Hogan took it as an opportunity, having his now-grown children, or his wife, meet him in London, or Amsterdam, or Vienna.

“Just in the six years we’ve been to Greece four times – to Crete, to Athens three times,” Tom said. “Of course we’ve been to Bahrain many times, we’ve been to Dubai – that’s where they have the beautiful, indoor ski slope.”

Deborah, who called working for the State Department “interesting and fulfilling” – including assisting in planning for official visits from then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice – loved the traveling they got to do throughout the world. But Saudi Arabia – which has some, but not all, of the modern amenities we take for granted – has its own charms.

“Because there weren’t all of those modern distractions, it sort of forced you to sit back and do quiet things like reading, watching movies, taking walks around the compound – just enjoying the simple things,” Deborah said.

The physical distance remains the same, but Skype and Vonage – video and phone chat – has lessened the emotional gap between family back home.

“Not to be a commercial for Skype, but it’s a wonderful thing when you’re away from your family,” he said.

His three children attended school through ninth grade in Saudi Arabia.

“It was a great experience for them,” Tom said. “It also taught them responsibility.”

Deborah has been back since 2008, working for Scio Telephone. Tom is in town for a leave, but returns for a few months before his retirement at the end of this year.