Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Skip to content Skip to navigation

Ancient rocks and modern collaborations in Saudi Arabia

Heather Rock Woods
March 28, 2013
Group shot of students standing in the desert.
Students examine the multiple species of fossil coral in the Jurassic Jubaila Formation in a roadcut near Riyadh. From left to right: Tess Menotti, Glenn Sharman, Theresa Schwartz, Nora Nieminski, Caitlin Keating, and Lizzy Stefurak.

When 13 Stanford geoscientists arrived in the Saudi Arabian city of Dhahran on the western edge of the Persian Gulf and 8,000 miles from The Farm, colleagues from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) and from the oil company Saudi Aramco welcomed them as old friends.  Which is exactly what they are. Their Saudi counterparts visited them in California last year.

The two geology exchange trips—the first one to the Stanford campus and Death Valley—are part of an initiative by the School of Earth Sciences, KFUPM and Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, to foster joint research and teaching.

Stanford has a long and historically significant association with the Arabian Peninsula. In 1938, Earth Sciences alumnus Max Steineke, ’21, proved instrumental in discovering commercial-scale oil fields in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (more about Steineke follows this story).

During the weeklong trip earlier this year, the group of 32 geoscientists toured the university and Aramco facilities, looked at rock formations in the desert, and drank Arabic coffee in an ornate tent on a camel ranch.

“For our students, these trips are a unique opportunity,” said Don Lowe, the Max Steineke Professor in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences (GES).  “They are successful educationally as well as in promoting interaction and cultural understanding.”

The source of Saudi oil

The 11 Stanford graduate students were accompanied by Lowe and Steve Graham, the Welton Joseph and Maud L’Anphere Crook Professor in GES. The students, who chiefly work in sedimentary geology, examined rocks they normally don’t work with—namely carbonate rocks that happen to be time-equivalent to some of the most productive reservoir rocks ever found.  

“For us, this trip was like a short course, expanding our knowledge of sedimentary systems,” said Tess Menotti, PhD ’14, a GES graduate student.

Energy companies hire sedimentary geologists to help find oil, but the field is much broader than that. For example, Lowe explores Earth’s earliest surface environments and also uses outcrops and cores to study how coarse sediment is transported and deposited in the deep sea.

“Last year in Death Valley, I don’t think we talked about oil, as the focus was understanding rocks and the geology.” Menotti said.  “In Saudi Arabia, we did fieldwork and had academic discussions about the origins of the rock formations and their features, some of which have implications for the oil and gas industry.”

Lowe said there were also discussions about possible Stanford-KFUPM collaborations including student exchanges, short courses, research conferences, field seminars, and cooperative research projects with Saudi Aramco.

Like Stanford, KFUPM is well known for its science and engineering programs and has a campus featuring palm trees and light-colored buildings with colonnaded walkways. Some at the all-male university wear the traditional, often red-checked, ghutra headdress and an ankle-length flowing robe, while others wear Western-style collared shirts and pants.  Classes are conducted in English.

At Saudi Aramco, which is headquartered in Dhahran, students toured the EXPEC Computing Center, the Geosteering Center, and the Upstream Professional Development Center. The group had a chance to experience the Cave Automated Virtual Environment (CAVE), a four-sided immersive virtual reality display that allowed the visitors to see a 3D model of the rocks they would study near Riyadh. At Saudi Aramco’s core warehouse, they saw how much effort the company makes to understand its producing oil reservoirs by using core acquisition and analysis. Lowe said the technology demonstrations were amazing.

The next day, they convoyed west into the desert to Riyadh, the capital and largest city. For three consecutive days, they ventured to enormous roadside rock cuts, which are very valuable to geologists, Lowe said. “Most of Saudi petroleum reserves are from limestone, which forms from organisms in shallow, warm water environments. We looked at sediments representing a variety of shallow-water depositional environments from the perspective of the organisms that inhabited these environments, the wave and current activity during deposition, the role of sea level changes on the sedimentary record, and the potential of the rocks as petroleum reservoirs.

“It is a memorable experience when one examines the same geological section multiple times and still finds something new, “ said Mohammed “Moe” Mohanna, a part-time master’s student at KFUPM and a carbonate sedimentologist at Saudi Aramco. “That was the case during the Stanford visit to Saudi Arabia. It brought new exciting ideas, theories, and even conclusions to extensively studied sections.”

Not all of the learning on the trip was etched in stone. In the evenings, the group sat on floor pillows and ate traditional cuisine, such as Arabic rice, fluffy pita-like bread, and meat-and-vegetable dishes.

“A major thing that will stick with me is how hospitable, how welcoming and sharing everyone we ran into was,” Menotti said. “When we visited someone's home, the camel farm, a restaurant or hotel or shop, we would immediately be offered a platter of dates and Arabic coffee. The Saudis wanted to share their culture with us.”

The Stanford women chose to wear abayas: black, robe-like garments that female Saudis wear when in public. “We were going to be guests with an amazing opportunity,” Menotti explained, “so we thought that it was important to respect their culture. Even with the abayas, we definitely didn’t blend in.”

Some of that was because they wore hiking boots—standard fieldwork footwear—that were visible below the ankle-high hems. Their headscarves weren’t always secured traditionally, either, Menotti said. Regardless, they were greeted kindly by everyone they met. The Stanford women occasionally tripped when walking on outcrops or up stairs but, Menotti joked, “I didn’t have to worry if I wore the same shirt underneath the abaya two days in a row.”

On the final afternoon of the trip, the group of scientists visited Aramco Beach, kicked off their hiking boots, and waded into the Persian Gulf—one final chance for the visitors from California to get their feet wet.

Edited by Bruce Anderson.

Drill a little deeper

The meaningful connection between Stanford University and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia springs from Max Steineke’s persistence and knowing optimism.

Steineke,’21, earned a BA in geology on the Farm, and he learned field mapping during the Stanford Summer Geology class in 1920.  By 1936, he was chief geologist of what was then the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company (now Saudi Aramco), which was drilling near Dhahran—about 25 miles from Bahrain Island, where oil had been discovered in 1932.

Steineke’s careful survey and study of geological formations in the region led him to urge deeper drilling into oil well number 7 on Dammam Dome. In 1938, the well became known as Lucky Seven after oil gushed forth from the “Arab Zone,” 4,727 feet down. Steineke went on to discover even more productive oil fields, including in 1940 the Abqaiq field, which had 12 billion barrels of recoverable oil and is still producing today.

In 2011, Saudi Aramco endowed the Max Steineke chair to honor the man and to acknowledge and celebrate the cooperative relationship between Stanford, Saudi Aramco, and King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (KFUPM) in Dhahran.

Professor Don Lowe, who holds the Steineke chair, has since organized two exchange trips, both sponsored by Saudi Aramco.

Stanford Provost John Etchemendy is on KFUPM’s International Advisory Board, and in January attended the first gathering of the Stanford Club of Saudi Arabia, which was hosted by two alumni who are Aramco employees.

Khalid A. Al-Falih, the president and CEO of Saudi Aramco, spoke at Stanford last year and told listeners that his mantra, inspired by Steineke, was “drill a little deeper.”  He added, “Steineke’s resilience and optimism overcame almost five years of frustration, as a number of wells were drilled and failed to deliver.”