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frank jungers

Frank Jungers first came to Saudi Arabia in the late 1940s to help in the restarting of oil facilities following the end of World War II. In the 1970s he became president of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco). in this interview he shares his memories of King Faisal, the kind of man he was, and their conversations, many of which concerned the King's strong feelings on the Palestinian issue. In one instance, Faisal pressured Aramco to try to influence the U.S. government and public opinion in support of the Palestinians. Jungers also recounts the dramatic days of the Saudi oil boycott following the '73 Yom Kippur War and one of the big secrets during that boycott -- the Saudis' agreement to covertly supply oil to the U.S. Navy. This interview was conducted by producer Jihan El-Tahri on June 11, 2003 in Portland, Oregon.

How did Aramco come to have access to Saudi Arabia's oil?

The concession was gotten by Chevron -- actually then Standard of California -- in 1933. They had the sole concession for most of Saudi Arabia. And from then on they operated for a number of years until they needed help after oil had been discovered. ...

Up to 1939, there were times when the shareholders of Standard of California and the board of directors really questioned the wisdom of continuing work in a desert country like this that nobody knew anything about, and the terrain and all just didn't seem to be right.

And so they finally decided to drill a well in '38 or '39, and the first number of holes were dry, and the question was, why should we continue with this? And they finally did strike oil in 1939 on a well called Dammam Well [No.] 7. They had been ordered to stop, and they'd failed to read their mail or whatever, and so they did strike the oil, and that well is today operating, so it was a significant discovery.

photo of jungers
[King Faisal] was a very gentle man, a quiet man, taciturn, sincere, but when it came to this issue -- the Palestinian issue -- he had very strong feelings.  One time he got me in and lectured me a long time on this...

And that changed everybody's life.

Finally it did, yes.

By not reading the mail!

That's right. Communications were difficult at that time, of course, and so I don't want to imply that people didn't deliberately read their mail, but it was difficult to communicate. It came through Bahrain and all of this, and there were no telephones so far. ...

How did you join Aramco, and what was Aramco then?

Well, I joined in 1947. During the war, of course, operations were shut down, and it was after the war that they had to get back into business. And in 1947, they already had a small refinery and some facilities to produce oil out of the Dammam zone and the others, and they were trying to staff up so that they could expand operations. At that time, I was hired out of college from the University of Washington where Aramco, which was then a company that took the place of Standard of California, was hiring recruits for Arabia. So I took the job. ...

We arrived at an airfield in what is now Dhahran, and it was a fall September day, but when I got off the plane, which was a company plane, unpressurized, you got out that door [and] you couldn't believe how hot it was, even in September. And there was a shomal, which is [the] north wind, with sand flying, and you had to wonder right there, what am I doing here? But that was Arabia.

There wasn't much construction. There were no local people, really, around that area. They were off a number of miles to the coast. This is where people came in and they went to work in the oilfields, so there was nothing to see but a few shacks where the customs officials took your passport and did their thing. And from there we went on … to Ras Tanura, where my job assignment was at the refinery.

Were you immediately told the regulations of working in Saudi Arabia?

The first trip, no, but on the second trip we spent some time in a place called Riverhead in Long Island, N.Y., which the company had set up for new employees to tell them a little bit about what is an Arab and what you might expect when you get there, a little bit of the religion and all of this, and so that was very helpful, and maybe a word or two of Arabic, at least how to say hello and good-bye. And you got your first indoctrinations. ...

We were told, of course, that the people frowned on drinking and these sorts of things, although the company had an agreement that the Americans could have some liquor, and that agreement was informal. We knew that the women were clothed in a different way. We knew that the people had come a long way themselves and had no place right nearby to live. They were living in company facilities, and these people turned out [to be] as curious as we were as to what was going on there, and so we struck up a camaraderie of sorts, and that was the idea. We'd go down to the local restaurant on Long Island and have meals and just lived with the guys and got to know them. ...

By the time you joined Aramco in the '50s, how would you describe the relationship between Saudi Arabia and America at that point?

Well, at that time, the Aramco senior management were not many, and the Standard of California senior management and the other partners had done their bit to explain to the American government that this was indeed a notable find of oil and that it was something we needed to pay attention to. ...

I think at that time, the Saudis began to realize that this was a major discovery and that it was important to the United States, and therefore they could depend on the Americans to do a job with their resource, and this was a realization that they had really arrived as a nation in the world. That was the feeling you got at that time. Again, I was young and didn't talk to the ruling people at that time, but the feeling was this was a government that existed in the community of nations in the Middle East.

When did you start dealing with the family as such, with the political side of the operations?

It was about 1960, I think, when it became clear to me that the management at that time had picked me to get into those sorts of things as a management development thing, perhaps. So that's when I was first assigned to Riyadh, for example, to see the kinds of problems we actually had with the government on day-to-day dealings. ...

It's a time when there was a bit of tension among the Sauds.

Well, many of the worries of Aramco were day-to-day worries: when you get paid, when you do this or that, and dealing with endless requests they made for services and money. And the work of the Riyadh office was to determine what these requests really were, what it might take to satisfy them or to ward them off, and who in the government or bureaucracy really needed to be satisfied or to have the facts of life explained to them. ...

So that was one of the series of problems. The others were with the Ministry of Finance, which wasn't under one of the family; it was under a commoner. He tried to explain to us -- and this would last for the rest of my career -- how he would like to see the money come in and go out, but we had to explain how the money really got there, what the dates were and settle these issues, because he had the pressure to use this money. So those were the kinds of pressure we were under.

Now we come to the Faisal period. Palestine was quite an issue for King Faisal. ...

King Faisal saw this as a great injustice to the people of Palestine and to the Arabs. I think we need to realize that the king was very cognizant of Saudi Arabia's role in the Islamic world and in the Arab world. They were the keeper of the holy places and as such had to be cognizant of what was happening around them, and indeed be sympathetic with it. That wasn't a must; it was a natural thing, so that he constantly wanted to look for ways that we could do something to alleviate this injustice, and that's how it all started with him. He felt strongly on this issue.

Later on he became so concerned with this issue that he would talk to me about it from a number of standpoints. One was what we as Aramco were doing to help this; we were a big oil company. In one incident he wondered why Aramco couldn't take a more proactive part with the government of the United States and with public opinion in the United States, and it was difficult to try to explain to him that we, as an oil company, didn't have the kind of political stroke we might have had in Saudi Arabia, where we were the oil company.

He finally developed a theory of his that communism and Zionism were allied in this conspiracy against Islam and the Arab people. Well, of course we know that's not the case, but to try to explain it to him when he was so set on trying to tell us what we ought to do, that it was a very, very difficult time to talk with him over this. A few times he would get emotional in that kind of a conversation.

He was a very gentle man; he was a quiet man, taciturn, sincere. But when it came to this issue, the Palestinian issue, he had very strong feelings. And part of it, of course, was to establish with the surrounding countries that he felt that way. But he felt it nonetheless. One time he got me in and lectured me a long time on this, and he finally said: "I'm going to have to tell you, you're simply not doing enough. And I'm serious about this. And somehow Aramco has got to establish in the United States more of a clout to get this message across, the message that Palestinians have the right and that the Israelis were overstepping all of the agreements that were made in the United Nations and that we should do something about this to advise the American public of this injustice and of the unbalanced political movement in the United States."

On that occasion, I really took him seriously, and it was serious because he meant it. I knew him well enough to know that. I decided, well, I'm going to go to the United States and make a trip. He mentioned other companies in the United States [that] ought to take the issue to the public as well, and maybe you should help to educate them, and so I took that to heart, and I arranged a trip to the United States during which I saw 33 CEOs of all the major companies in the United States at that time -- General Motors; Ford, [where] I met with Henry Ford; IBM -- the major oil companies, the major banks, one at a time and sometimes more than one, and tried to explain this issue. They themselves had business in the Middle East and had business in Saudi Arabia, and, for example, the Ford Motor Company was boycotted in Saudi Arabia. Didn't you, Henry Ford, know this? You've got to do something to establish yourselves.

And many of the companies took it very seriously and did make statements to the public. In fact, Standard of California had riots outside their office building in San Francisco because the head of Chevron at that time did make some very forceful statements.

Tell me, for example, what you would go and tell the CEOs.

I would tell them that we had to do something on this political issue, that in Saudi Arabia and in other [Middle Eastern countries], because of taking sides with the Israelis on the Palestinian issue -- and that somehow we had to explain to them that the Palestinians had certain rights to the land that were recognized by the United Nations, that there had been U.N. resolutions passed and that we should try to explain this to the public where the politicians weren't explaining this or didn't want to. So I tried to tell them that if this doesn't happen, many of you are going to be boycotted out there, and you can't afford this in an area where the oil revenues and all that goes with it, the infrastructure, is booming.

So they understood the message, and they did what they could. They would write letters to their shareholders -- public letters, for example -- explaining that this is the situation and that this is why these events are occurring in the Middle East and that we can't afford to lose our position in the Middle East, and therefore you, the shareholders, and being a member of the public, should try to do something about this with your congressmen and with your senators. It was that sort of a message. ...

I went back to [the king] and told him that I had been to the United States, and he said he had heard that, and that I had called on the following companies, and he was very interested in who they were. And he asked pointed questions as to what was the reaction you got with this company or that company, and I tried to explain it in as favorable a light as I could. ...

How did the idea of perhaps using oil as a weapon first start?

The king was concerned that certain countries, the United States being one, were taking a one-sided approach to the Israeli-Palestinian question and that it was not in their interest to do this, and that these countries needed to feel the pressure, make them consider that they had other interests besides whatever caused them to be so pro-Israeli. And this was the genesis of the idea of a boycott. ...

I was very leery of a boycott because boycotts never seem to work, and boycotts tend to exacerbate the situation with the public in those areas. And it was easily that kind of thing that was easily turned back on us by the media and by the politicians, and that it probably wouldn't work, and besides that, I didn't really know how you could really boycott them anyway. This was a world market; oil came from all over. So yes, we were the biggest single producer, but we probably didn't have that much clout, and we couldn't tell anyway whether it was our oil that came into those countries or not -- did it go to a refinery somewhere else and be refined and then the products went into those countries, in which case we had no control over that? -- and so forth. And we had many talks on how the oil market worked and all of this, but I managed to stave this off for a long time just by philosophically trying to show him that this was probably not a very good idea.

That was in May. In October, the 1973 [Yom Kippur War] breaks out.

When the war broke out and the Egyptians were initially successful, there was great elation, and wherever you went in the Arab world and Saudi Arabia, everyone thought that at last maybe the Egyptians were going to do something about this. And then when the Americans really stepped in and turned the tide, of course the people were furious, and the king in particular was furious, and would say so to anybody that he encountered. And this was when the question of the boycott became a serious issue, because he was groping for anything he might do to counter this injustice. ...

I was called into Riyadh immediately after the Americans stepped into the war and airlifted supplies and help into Israel. And the king was furious about this and the fact that all of whatever efforts we had made to try to get some political help were all down the tubes. He saw no way to do anything but to boycott. ... The king just simply said, "You are going to do it; embargo the countries that need to be embargoed." We talked then about what countries would need to embargoed, and he said, "I will talk with the minister, and we will supply you with the list of the embargo countries," and that we would work together on it.

And so I, at the end of this discussion, rushed back to inform the four companies that this had happened and that the choice was none, because it was down to being nationalized if necessary, and there was no choice. He didn't say there'd be nationalization; he simply said: "You are going to do this: Embargo the countries that we need to have embargoed." The meaning is clear. When a king tells you you are going to do this in his country, you are going to do it, or else. It was that stern. ...

I assigned two people to this team to try to design a system that we knew would work, and in order for it to work, we had to have knowledge of which oil went to where exactly from what tanker to what port to when it was offloaded to what its destination would be to what refinery. It was a big task, and it had to be done quickly. And we began then -- [Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Ahmed Zaki] Yamani worked with the king trying to determine which countries and how much of a boycott would be put on those countries for whatever political reason, and then what would happen if the country kind of gave in and did some things that they wanted them to do. The boycott would be relaxed. It was a carrot-and-stick approach to the various countries that were involved. ...

There were many countries involved. There were, of course, many tankers involved. These tankers belonged to other oil companies or belonged to tanker companies. They would be loaded at our port, but before they could be loaded at our port, we needed to have exact destinations, exact times of arrival, exact times of departure, exact so that we knew for sure that the oil went from here to there at that time and the tanker was empty when it came and it was empty when it got back. ...

As an American, boycotting America, how did that feel?

As an American, of course, [in] the press in the United States, I was the bad guy. There were some who virtually said that I had betrayed my country during that period of time by agreeing to boycott my own country. Of course, the United States government knew the whole story; they knew exactly that I or nobody else had a choice in the matter. But nonetheless, the public perception was that I was one of the bad guys. ...

So people didn't know everything that happened during that period.

Well, there were a number of secrets during that period, of course. One was the oil for the U.S. Navy, which was at that time a top-secret thing.

What happened?

I got a call from the chairmen of two of the companies, Exxon and Mobil, who are on the East Coast. Very briefly, there was a problem with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific not having sufficient oil because they obtained it all in the past out of Aramco through the various companies. They had been called by the president and asked to do something about this, and since they were not really able to respond, as they knew there was a boycott ... the question was, could someone talk to the king about this? And so they called me to see if I could come into Washington and go to see [President Nixon] and deal with him on the boycott as far as the U.S. Navy was concerned, and that was all I was told. ...

My meeting with the president was very brief, and he simply told me that this was a serious matter; they didn't know how to deal with it. ... Well, I had to tell them, of course, that [there was] nothing that I can do and really nothing that anybody could do. We would have to get around the orders of the king, and therefore it meant going to see the king.

So I went back immediately and went to see King Faisal and told him the story. ... I explained the problem and went into some length, which was probably unnecessary, to explain that really, when it comes to this issue, this was more important than any boycott. ... He knew well that the fleet was in the Pacific partially to protect the oil business; partially to protect its allies, the Saudis; partially to protect the American interest in the rest of the Far East. ... He listened and asked a lot of questions, and we had tea and coffee, sort of the typical meeting with King Faisal and a typical type of response, and he finally said to me, "OK," he said, "well, God help you." And that was the answer.

What does that mean?

Well, he meant that you probably ought to do it, but don't get caught. ...

And so we worked out the detail of how we were going to do this without telling our people everywhere that we were breaking the boycott. So we had to devise a system of breaking the boycott that would fool even the people who were breaking it. And this was done under all kinds of guises, and the oil did get to where it belonged, and that's the last I heard of it from the king and from the United States government. ...

[Nixon's Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger was sent to meet King Faisal to try and get the boycott limited publicly.

Kissinger was sent to Arabia to try to discuss this boycott issue with the king. The State Department believed that they might be able to dissuade him. And of course, the king had made his mind up. ... Kissinger had no real rapport with the king. ... First of all, Kissinger, whether he realized it or not, was seen as a Jew, period. Never mind that he was not necessarily involved with the Israeli side; they saw him as a Jew, and there was no compromise on that score. ...

How did you hear of Faisal's assassination?

This is a vivid recollection. I was having lunch at my home in Iran, and I got a call from Riyadh from … the protocol officer of the king. And he said, "Frank, we have a problem." He said: "I can't talk to you over the phone right now. We need help." I said, "What kind of help?" He said, "What is the worst thing you can think of that could have happened?" And I said: "Really? Is he alive?" And he said: "Yes, he is, but we need help. I can't tell you much. We need doctors." I said, "Well, I'll get to it right away." He said, "We need them immediately." ...

We got a planeload of doctors, equipment, surgical equipment that they may not have had in Riyadh together and sent them over there. ... I think they got to the king before he died, but they were not in time to do anything to help him.

And so that was it. I went back to the office, and I asked my secretary to call [and find out] when I should drop over to see the family, because I did know all of the sons, most of them very well. ...

We were escorted to the central square of the city of Riyadh, where there were tents put up, and we were brought in, and we were the only people there. [There were] big tents and seating all around and a gate on one end, and we sat there a while and they said, "Just wait here."

But this was very strange. I thought we were going to see the family. And pretty soon, people began to arrive at this thing. There was the king of Jordan and the president of Lebanon, and they all began marching in, and I realized we were part of some kind of a program. As an aside, Idi Amin of Uganda came ... and said hello to everybody, and he had his little boy with him who was dressed exactly like he was, and he had a toy pistol on his hip. ... The American ambassador came, and we were the only Americans there, as it turned out. And finally this whole series of tents were filled, and we were sitting, and it was getting hot.

All of a sudden, the protocol people came running, and they grabbed me and said, "Come with us quickly." And so I ran down with them -- they were running -- and we ran to nearly to the entrance of the square, and here came the king's sons carrying a slab, and obviously the king's body was on the slab. This is, now, the day after he was shot -- most unusual. And they came in, and they were all crying, and I was motioned in to see them. ...

The family was taking him out to bury him, and, you know, they bury him in an unmarked, secret grave. And Idi Amin would have none of this, and he insisted on coming to the burial, and they couldn't keep him from coming. And he got out there, and he actually got a shovel and started digging. They let him dig, and afterward, they finally got rid of him. But in retrospect I'm convinced that even though they thought this was very odd and all that, later on when he got in trouble, they brought him into Arabia, and I'm convinced that they never forgot that as a gesture. ...

Any other favorite stories?

(Laughs.) I can tell you another story that just came to mind on Faisal, which is kind of a good example of how he thought. There was a point in time somewhere in all of this Palestinian issue that there was a big story in the French press about the fact that I was about to be kicked out of the kingdom because I had had a dispute with King Faisal on a number of subjects; that he was finally just sick and tired of hearing my demands and complaints and that I was being kicked out. And of course this was a laugh, because there was no such thing. But the rumors persisted in the French press, and it appeared in the Israeli press, and we learned later that they were planted by the Israeli press.

The rumors got worse and worse as to how much difficulty we were really in…. And I said to the secretary, "Let's get us an appointment [with the king] as soon as you can. And she tried and knew who to call, knew all the steps. So we didn't get an appointment [for] two weeks. ... Usually I get an appointment, you know, within a day or two. ... And I began to wonder what the hell is wrong here; this thing has somehow gone cuckoo, and the press kept saying things.

Finally the two weeks came up, and I went over there as agreed and hadn't heard a thing from anybody, and walked into the king's office. ... The king came in and was obviously irritated. He was picking hairs out of his [robe]. That was a good sign that he was irritated. And he had nothing to say, and I had nothing to say, and we sat there for a bit. He said, "Chai" and we got the tea, and we drank the tea and nothing -- sort of "How is everything?" "OK." "OK."

And the doors burst open, and here comes a French TV crew -- yeah, broke into the room -- and I knew that the king didn't like French people very well, and he didn't like TV people at all of any nationality. To have a French TV crew come in there didn't make any sense. And they began taking pictures of me and the king together. He kind of acted like he was going to say something, but he didn't. And finally he just shushed them all out, and they left.

And he ordered coffee. We had coffee, and we talked about nothing. And he said: "Well, I've got things I've got to get done. I'll see you later." ...

And then it dawned on [me] what was happening. That was Faisal's way of doing things. He wanted to kill this damn rumor. He knew that if he called me in -- and he knew that I had to be worried about it because I couldn't get an appointment, all for whatever reasons. So he had these people come in, take pictures, which he knew that I knew that he'd rather take cyanide than do this -- it was French -- and then shushed them away and didn't bring up the subject at all. He knew that had he brought the subject up, I'd have still had the question: Why isn't he telling me? Why is he telling me that nothing's wrong? He surely didn't call me here to tell me that. But he said nothing. They went away, and not another word was said. The stuff died down, and it was his way of saying, "Don't worry about it; there's nothing here." Without saying a word. And he knew I knew that he knew I knew.

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posted feb. 8, 2005

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