How a Saudi Bedouin helped discover Saudi Arabia’s first oil well 80 years ago

Exactly 80 years ago, in March of 1938, a Saudi Bedouin named Khamis bin Rimthan helped an American petroleum geologist to find the kingdom’s first oil well, known as ‘Dammam No. 7’.

Max Steineke is largely credited for making the first discovery of oil in commercial quantities in Saudi Arabia. But Rathman played a major role in this discovery. He was an expert in desert navigation, using stars to find his way, and knew where the best locations were to find oil.

Steineke became the chief geologist at California-Arabian Standard Oil Co. (CASOC), now known as Aramco, from 1936 until 1950. He graduated from Stanford University in 1921 with a degree in geology. Before going to Saudi Arabia, Steineke worked in oil exploration in California, Alaska, Canada, Columbia and New Zealand. He died in 1952.

The kingdom granted the country’s first oil exploration concession in 1933 to the American company, Standard Oil of California, which later opened its subsidiary company CASOC.

Rimthan was chosen to be the official guide for American geologists when the American company asked the Emir of the eastern region, Abdullah bin Jalawi, to provide them with a skilled desert guide.

At the time, Rimthan was living with his tribe in the ad-Dahna desert, but began working with the company in 1934.

On March 4, 1938, Steineke and Rimthan discovered oil well ‘Dammam No. 7’. The Americans were impressed with Rimthan’s talent, to the point where in his book, ‘Out in the Blue’, American geologist Thomas Barger wrote: “After we left the well, Khamis said he had never been there before. I asked him if that was the case how did he know where it was? Pointing to a couple of sand hills twelve miles away he said, “Do you see that hill over there? Do you see that one over there? One day I was on the first hill and a man told me that Ain al-Abd was this side of the other sand hill.”

“It is very simple. You have someone point out a sand hill about 15 miles away and then you return some years later and recognize a round, low, sand hill by approaching it from the opposite side and, of course, anyone would know where the well was.”

Rimthan died in the Aramco hospital in 1959, after which an oilfield was named after him in 1974 in recognition of his efforts to help in the discovery of oil.


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