Clam digger: biologist Scott Zengel gathers possibly polluted samples for testing.
Clam digger: biologist Scott Zengel gathers possibly polluted samples for testing.

Oil Spill-After the Deluge

Documenting Life in the Wake of Desert Storm
March 31, 2003

During the last Gulf War, Saddam Hussein's troops released more than 400 million gallons of crude oil--forty times what was spilled by the Exxon Valdez--from Kuwaiti wells into the Arabian Gulf, coating the Saudi coast and creating the largest oil spill in history. Eleven years later, on the eve of another conflict with Iraq, a team of scientists from South Carolina conducted a massive ecological assessment as part of the international response to the Gulf War spill. From October 2002 to February 2003, I walked the oiled shores of Saudi Arabia as a field biologist on that assessment team.


Okay, Grandma, I will. I love you, too." I hang up the payphone in Terminal C of the Houston Airport and round the corner, looking up just in time to avoid a collision with a seven-foot-tall, bronze statue of the first President George Bush. The engraved message at his feet reads, "Winds of Change."

Thirty hours later, I am standing on a sunny street corner in Bahrain. My jet-lagged neurons cannot comprehend why my attire--cargo shorts and a collared shirt--has prevented me from entering the Saudi embassy. Elie reappears.

" Elie, I'm so sorry. I just...."

" Sign this." He hands me a Saudi work visa application. "And don't worry about it. How were you to know? Besides, the embassy changes its policies twice a week. Today they tell me that I must pay in Bahraini dinar instead of Saudi riyal. What kind of embassy does not take its own currency?" His Lebanese accent is strong, but his English is clear and perfect. Elie Malko is the liaison between my employer, Research Planning, Inc. (RPI), and its Saudi partner.

The King Fahad Causeway, which links several Bahraini islands to the Saudi mainland, reminds me of the low bridge that connects the islands of the Florida Keys. Twenty-five minutes into the drive, we come to a series of tollbooth-like checkpoints that mark the border between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. We show our passports and collect customs forms. Below the usual questions about valuable goods is a "Religion" blank. I write "Christian," even though I'm not. After a cursory inspection of our vehicle, we are back on the highway and across the border.I meet Elie in the hotel lobby at three o'clock. He tells me that when he returned to the Saudi embassy to pick up the completed paperwork, it took the embassy officials an hour and a half to locate my passport. I definitely shouldn't have worn shorts. As I walk toward the car with my duffel over my shoulder, an atonal drone fills the street. It is the mid-afternoon call to prayer reaching me from a nearby mosque.

Through the Saudi province of Damam, dusty yellow school buses, construction equipment, and piles of metal parts litter the right side of the highway. I see a swastika and a few Arabic words scrawled in black spray paint on a cinderblock wall. A mile down the road from the scrap yard, perfectly conical sand dunes rise inside a double row of barbed wire fence. As we drive beyond them, I realize that they are airplane hangars, camouflaged to blend with the desert sand.

A Brady Bunch-style station wagon eases up alongside in the right lane. The driver stares. I stare back, a cultural faux pas akin to wearing shorts to a government office. The driver is wearing the traditional thobe, a long white shirt, but no guthra, the characteristic red-and-white checked head cover. An egal, the ring that holds the guthra in place, hangs from his rearview mirror. Expressionless, he speeds away.

Pipelines, covered in a thin layer of dirt, weave over the undeveloped stretches of landscape like gophers' burrows. The blue sky around me has a thick, gauzy quality, as if the desert dust is permanently unsettled. The edges of the sun are blurred even though there are no clouds. The increasing frequency of power-line clusters and monster metal towers, their transformer coils dangling like thickly muscled arms, hints of our approach to Al Jubail. This industrial city, located midway down the Gulf coast, is the base of RPI operations. We pull into town just before five o'clock. Two quick lefts bring us to the Gulf Mahmal compound.

The Gulf Mahmal is a three-story, rectangular, stucco structure with barred windows and a single, gated entrance. There is a room with no outer wall to the right of the gate in which a skinny, bearded man in Western clothes sits cross-legged on a woven rug. He is smoking a cigarette and acknowledges us only with his eyes; I will find this "guard" in the same position for the next two months.

A young Indian man is waiting for us in the parking area with the key to my room. Upstairs in Room 2309, I drop my duffel on the white tile floor. I kneel across the cartoon rabbit--a Bugs-Bunny knockoff--pictured on my bedspread to peer though the bars at the orange desert sprawl. The evening call to worship rises from an unseen loudspeaker on the street below. To my right, King Faisel Street is lined with restaurants, parked cars, and trash. To my left, the chalk road continues to an oil refinery that sits on the horizon, shrouded in a cloud of its own emissions. I can just make out an exhaust flame, mimicking the setting sun.

Because our shoreline survey focuses on the intertidal zone--the part of the shore that is exposed at low tide and inundated at high tide--our work schedule is dictated by the tidal cycle. I have arrived in Saudi Arabia during the part of the month when the high tide occurs at midday. Since the field teams are able to survey the coast only during low tide, midday high tides are days of rest, and my first day on the job is my first day off.

The twenty-something generation of Saudis loves country music. It's 5:42 a.m. on my second day in Saudi, and Saad Al Rasheed, the Saudi member of my four-man field team, is drumming the steering wheel in time to a Randy Travis song. Without warning, he swings our SUV to the right, fishtailing onto a dirt road and plastering me against the left side of the backseat. With four other four-wheel-drive vehicles in tow, we race across the sabka toward the morning sun. Sabkas are giant sand flats that stretch between the inland desert and the coastal zone. Walking on the crusty, uneven top layer of the sabka is like walking on stale sugar cookies.

The geologists, three of the four members of each field team, begin at a site by probing for signs of oil contamination farthest from the shore. They lay a transect line--in our case, a twenty-meter rope with knots every couple of meters--perpendicular to the shoreline. The team works seaward along the line, digging holes up to a meter deep at varying intervals. The oil geomorphologist, affectionately called the OG, characterizes the sediment layers in each hole and looks for oiled crab burrows and other hints of oil infiltration. The Global Positioning System technician (G-tech) pinpoints the exact location of the hole. He enters codes that describe what the OG finds in the hole--light, medium, or heavy oil residue and, sometimes, even pockets of liquid oil--into a handheld computer. The data from each hole sampled are automatically linked to a point on a digital map. All told, the teams will run transect lines every 250 meters along the entire gulf coast, a distance of about 800 kilometers.

The sediment technician, one of the geologists, usually a Saudi, collects sediment for chemical analysis. The 30,000-plus sediment samples collected during the project will be analyzed for concentrations of petroleum hydrocarbons--the molecules that constitute oil. Because oils from different sources exhibit unique hydrocarbon "fingerprints," it is possible to identify the source of oil contamination. The results of this chemical analysis will be used as evidence in an international court.

After the Gulf War, the United Nations Security Council froze Saddam Hussein's international assets and used the money to create the United Nations Compensation Commission. The UNCC, charged with processing claims associated with Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, allocated a fraction of the seized funds to the Saudi government's environmental agency to pay for a survey of the oil-soaked Gulf coast. Saddam is fighting a legal battle to get his money back. The Saudi government, eager to collect damages, is racing to document just how much of its coast has been contaminated by the oil released from Kuwaiti wells.

The fourth member of each team is a biologist, like me. I zoom around the habitat between transect lines, doing a timed count of all species of flora and fauna and looking for evidence of oil damage. I am armed with a mini-shovel, walkie-talkie, binoculars, gloves, compass, pocket PC, sunscreen, plenty of food and water, and bags for holding samples of invertebrates. I carry a clipboard with data sheets and wear a digital camera on my belt like a holstered gun. I scrape algae, dig in the dirt, look under rocks, and chase crabs down their burrows. I identify plants and snails and worms. I am an ecological detective. I am a twelve-year-old at the beach.

I learn quickly that the life of a field biologist in a former war zone is not without its hazards. Chewing my peanut butter on pita, reflecting on my first five hours in the field, I notice a frosted piece of glass sticking out of the sand. I am about to dig it up when Scott Zengel, our head biologist, says, "You know, it's probably good policy not to mess with anything that you can't positively identify."

I raise an eyebrow.

" Yeah, there are rumors that the British land-mined certain parts of the coast when they thought the Iraqis were going to invade. Plus, you get ship mines and depth charges washing ashore. You know, that sort of thing."

Access to most of the Saudi coastline is through military or coast-guard installations. As in the U.S., these bases contain some of the wildest areas in the country. The expanses of land that buffer firing ranges and tactical training grounds become de facto ecological preserves. As our caravan speeds across the sabka one morning on the way to a field site, Norm Dodson, Team 3's G-tech, points out cement artillery platforms on the dune ridge ahead and the reinforced walls of the rifle range to our left. Norm is ex-Army Special Forces; a drive through a firing range with him is like a guided tour through a museum. While most of our survey team wears old running shoes or hiking boots into the field, Norm wears combat boots.

At 3:15 in the afternoon, a military jeep stops at our sampling station. Two haggard-looking men dressed in fatigues converse with our Saudi team member, Muhammad Nasser Al-Qhatani, and then drive away. "Time to go," he says. "Time for Navy shooting practice."

Zengel and Fathi Al-Abazaid count inveterbrate species in tidal flat sample

Water works: Zengel and Fathi Al-Abazaid, count inveterbrate species in tidal flat sample.

biologist Stowe Beam investigates salt-marsh plants

Biologist Stowe Beam investigates salt-marsh plants.

the folds of an algal mat from a dead salt marsh

The folds of an algal mat, below, from a dead salt marsh.

I am stumped. I am standing in a field of mini-moguls, a sprawl of hummocks and rivulets that is the telltale sign of a Saudi salt marsh. In a healthy salt marsh, the earth around the halophytes (salt-loving plants) is riddled with Nasima dotilliformis burrows. When this species of crab burrows into the salt-marsh sediment, it creates a donut of dirt around the opening of its burrow; the compounded mud-moving effect of thousands of burrowing crabs shapes the salt marsh.

When the high tides carried oil into marshes like this one during the Gulf War spill, Nasima burrows served as chutes for the oil, allowing it to infiltrate to depths of sixty centimeters or more. Oil seeped into the sediment around the burrows, filling the space between grains of sand or mud and making the ground too toxic to support life.

Looking at the area around my feet, I expect to see oiled burrows and the remnants of oiled plant stems, but I see neither. A slick, grayish-green algal mat covers the mounded ground and stretches for hundreds of meters in all directions. Algal mats are common in the dead marsh areas along the Saudi coast, but this one is remarkable in its pervasiveness and impenetrability.

On a whim, I use my trowel to slice a two-meter by two-meter square in the algal mat. I peel it back to reveal the terrain beneath, and find Nasima burrows and oiled halophyte stems, frozen in time. Because little air or water has penetrated the dense algal mat, there has been very little weathering of the oil. I am essentially looking at a snapshot of what the marsh looked like just before the algae took over. Faisel Bukhari, the last biologist to join our ranks, arrives in late October. An ichthyologist from the Saudi Office of Fisheries, he is more familiar with the fish in the Arabian Gulf than the plants and invertebrates that inhabit its shores, so he is spending a few days with each of the other project biologists to get acclimated. I am his first host.

" This is Nodilittorina arabica," I say, bending down to pick up a fingernail-size snail. "It's usually a rocky-shore species, but we've been finding it like this, on hard algal mats with no rock in sight." I return the snails to the algal mat and we resume our walk.

" I wish that breeze would come back," I mumble, swatting a fly on the brim of my hat.

" Would you like some water? I brought two bottles." Faisel begins to unzip his pack. "I'm okay, thanks anyway."

" No, no, please. Water is life in the desert. It is a sacred gift and is to be shared."

Fathi Al-Abazaid is another of my Saudi team members. He is twenty-four. He sings while he works. He teaches me Arabic and I teach him English. Samakha lawsia. Sting ray. Every day, Fathi collects a bag of shells for his soon-to-be bride.

I feel a camaraderie with Fathi that I don't share with any of the other Saudis. One afternoon in the field, when Fathi is particularly rambunctious, he tells me that he and his fiancÈe are shopping for wedding rings during our upcoming, two-day break.

" No kidding! Is she going to pick you up at the compound tonight? Will I get to meet her?" I ask.

" You crazy man! You in Saudi now, women cannot drive!"

At 4:55, Muhammad picks up the CB radio and calls Saad, who is driving the truck behind us. Without using a turn signal, as is the Saudi way, Muhammad skips across the highway divider and into the parking lot of a truck stop, the only commercial structure within miles. This truck stop, like most Saudi filling stations, has a miniature mosque on the premises. A loudspeaker atop the minaret crackles to life with the evening prayer call as we glide into a parking space. The sound of chanted Arabic resonating off the eighteen-wheelers in the lot provides a surreal soundtrack for the fiery pink and orange sunset.

Because of our circumstances--more than an hour from home and our waiting dinner--our Saudi team members have decided to break their Ramadan fast on this, the second day of the month-long holiday, at this roadside establishment. The rest of us wait in the trucks as Muhammad, Saad, and Faisel melt into the crowd of white thobes that has formed in front of the restaurant counter.

Just as I am beginning to wonder how long the traditional break-fast lasts, our colleagues push out of the glass doors with bags of food in each hand. They summon us out of the trucks and unwrap packages of sambusas (pastry triangles filled with meat, vegetables, or cheese), plain yogurt, and dates. Fresh dates, rutub, are the traditional break-fast food. The seven of us huddle around a rusty oil drum, our makeshift table, and break the fast together as the last tinges of pink disappear on the horizon.

I am sitting at the only table in the only Baskin-Robbins in Jubail, finishing a double scoop in celebration of Patrick Hannah's birthday when two children, a boy and a girl, appear at our table, begging for money. With blank faces they ramble in Arabic, each thrusting a single finger toward the sky. All four of us at the table shake our heads and softly mumble "sorry," but the kids don't leave. The boy, maybe nine years old, keeps saying, "One, one. Okay, two, two." Now he is leaning on Patrick's chair. A few moments of awkward silence envelop the circular table as we search for unoccupied space with our eyes.

" No!" I say, when it is clear that the man behind the counter has no intention of intervening. The kids step toward the door. The boy pauses long enough to scream an English obscenity and grab his crotch before ducking out after his sister.

Two weeks later, I'm stopped at a red light on Jedda Street when a child appears next to my window. I recognize him as the same boy who begged in the Baskin-Robbins, only a few blocks away. I don't roll the window down, simply stare at his stone eyes as his fingers play across the glass. I watch as he uses one hand to simulate an object flying into his other hand, held vertically but toppling at the impact. In spinning disbelief I whisper to my companions, "Guys, guys! Watch!" They turn toward my window just in time to see another mimed recreation of the World Trade Center attack. The light turns. I pull away.

Three of the sheep's legs are bound together, but it does not struggle. It arches its neck so that its eyes are looking in my direction, but I just stare. We connect with a calm resignation, both of us aware that it is going to die. The sheep does not struggle when the two Bedouins pick it up by the legs and carry it to the slaughtering block, nor does it react when its throat is cut.

sharing a feast of roasted sheep and rice

Saudi scenes: sharing a feast of roasted sheep and rice.

remains of a boat on the Jubail waterfront

Remains of a boat on the Jubail waterfront.

an unusual sandstone outcropping discovered during a downtime                      day trip

An unusual sandstone outcropping discovered during a downtime day trip

We sit on Persian rugs on the sand floor of the tent tea room, the Bedouin way. I watch as Fahlah Al-Hajri, our host, roasts green coffee beans over the wood fire in a small skillet. He grinds the beans with a mortar and pestle and then pours the grounds into an elaborate metal kettle, which he places on coals at the edge of the fire.

During the meal of sheep and rice, eaten with our fingers from communal trays, Fahlah's son points to my curls and laughs out a few Arabic words. When I ask Elie for a translation, he smiles and says, "Ibrahim says you have more hair than a camel. He thinks you have spaghetti on your head." I make an exaggerated face at the child, and he ducks from the tent, still laughing.

As I click the "Send" icon at the top of my inbox, I can hear my colleagues in the adjoining room making bets about when the first American bomb will fall in Iraq. It is the night before our move to a trailer park compound in Tanajib, a northern Saudi province. The new compound, run by the global petroleum powerhouse Saudi Aramco, will afford easy access to the coastline just below the Kuwaiti border. Communication is just one of several uncertainties associated with the new compound--we will be living within sight of the Aramco refinery, arguably the most obvious target in the country--and so I am getting one final e-mail message off to my family.

On our first morning in Tanajib, it takes twenty-five minutes for Muhammad and Jon Whitlock, an OG, to persuade the guards at the Aramco main gate to admit our two vehicles, and even then only under escort. As we pass through the gate, Jon nods to a huge wooden sign with the words "No Photos" in English and Arabic. "They made us promise to obey that sign," he says.

At the start of our final transect, I sneak a picture of the gi-gantic cylindrical containers and the tangle of metal pipes that are inside the barbed-wire fence. Seconds after I've returned the camera to the case on my belt, a security jeep drives over the dune and pulls up beside our truck. Jon frowns at me and walks over to talk to the guard. He returns to the transect line a few moments later.

" Jeff, seriously, no pictures!"

At the science meeting that evening, Muhammad asks to present our team's findings, even though it is Jon who is scheduled to report on the day's work. When his turn comes, Muhammad stands and says, "I am very happy this day because it is the first time that I have found a clean transect."

Jeffrey Pollack

Jeffrey Pollack. Stowe Beam.

Muhammad has been with the project since its inception in mid-September. This, his first entirely clean transect in four months of work, is located on the grounds of a massive oil refinery.

" Oh, yeah, one more thing," Miles Hayes, the project leader, says, wrapping up the meeting. "I need all of the Americans to stick around for a few minutes. Payroll issues. The rest of you can take off." Miles sits back down, closes his eyes, and rubs his temples with his thumbs. He looks tired, deflated by logistical battles and nagging financial worries. When the room has settled, he leans forward in his chair and addresses those of us remaining at the white Plexiglas table.

" This isn't about payroll. We got an e-mail from the American Consulate. They've issued a new travel warning for Saudi Arabia, advising all American citizens to rigorously evaluate the security of their situations. I leave the decision to you."

After a sleepless, emotional forty-eight hours, ten of us--more than half of the American staff--decide that it is time to leave Saudi Arabia, even though nothing around us seems to have changed.

Sitting on a plane fourteen hours later, I realize that Scott may have captured it best when he said that things felt fine, even at the end, and they probably would have continued to feel fine, right up until the second that something really wasn't fine.

Pollack M.E.M. '02, is a writer and a coastal ecologist for Research Planning, Inc., an environmental consulting company based in Columbia, South Carolina.