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The Humble Suburb For Employees Of One Of The World’s Richest Companies

Welcome to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, a small town built for workers at the Saudi Arabian Oil Company.

Boy Scouts, baseball, blue jeans, and abayas. A new book of photography captures facets of life in Dhahran, the gated community for employees of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, popularly known as Aramco. While appearing at first like a carbon copy of an American small town the photographs reveal the deeper nuances of Dhahran’s complex and diverse community.

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The book is a nostalgic look at a place that appears to be out of a different time. But for the photographer Ayesha Malik, who was born and raised in Dhahran, it’s all perfectly normal. “This was all I ever knew for so many years,” she says. “Where I grew up is really small town energy, everyone knows everyone. I’ve always gone around on my bike and photographed people.”

Saudi Aramco is the state-owned oil and gas company in Saudi Arabia.  The company–previously known as the Arabian American Oil Company–was founded in 1933, and Dhahran’s gated community opened soon after boasting a host of amenities. About 10,000 people live in the 22-and-a-half square mile compound, which has swimming pools, parks, tennis courts, and cul-de-sacs–originally built as a way to lure Americans out of their comfortable suburban homes with the promise of a similar lifestyle for company employees. In 2018, the state plans to sell a percentage of the company in what will likely be the biggest IPO in history, worth $2 trillion.

Malik, who started the project in 2011 while completing an MFA at Parsons, has now expanded it into Aramco: Above the Oil Fields, published August 15 by Daylight Books. The photographs focus on the people who live in Dhahran and their homes, with individual and family portraits, landscape shots of residential blocks, and scenes of children at play–including photos of young boys in baseball and Boy Scouts uniforms.

She combines her photography with archival photos of her own family and documents like scanned photos of her childhood drawings, flyers of local businesses, cutouts from the newspaper, maps, postmarked envelopes, and even her sister’s driver’s license. Though women are not allowed to drive outside “camp,” as Malik calls it, they’re free to drive within its limits. “My story is mixed in with these other people’s stories,” Malik says. “I think they’re all connected.”

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The inclusion of documents and archival photos contribute to a feeling of timelessness in the book. “It’s hard to tell in the book sometimes, is it 2016, 2012, 1990, or 1955?” she says. “I wanted to play that up. When I was researching in college, I found this old advertisement from Aramco, to North America. They show camp and it still looks the same as it was in the ’50s.”

In many ways it’s the picture of American suburbia–and she says Dhahran was in fact modeled after a small town in California, though she hasn’t been able to identify which one through her research. “Growing up, I remember that I wanted to be in the States so badly, not realizing that I had the States right there,” Malik says. “The lifestyle is very suburban. It definitely mirrors the life you might have in suburban America.”

But there are some fundamental differences between “camp” and Main Street, U.S.A. While Malik focuses on Americans and Saudis in the book, she says that the community is truly international–soccer moms wearing abayas and teenagers wearing short-shorts are both normal sights–and that diversity creates something else entirely. “I think there’s moments where things start to shift, and it’s a little bit surprising,” she says. “The facts and the history of Aramco and the company . . . creates this new culture, which we all call being an Aramcon.”

Now, Malik is turning her lens elsewhere in the country. She currently splits her time between New York and Saudi Arabia, where her parents still live. Her father no longer works at Aramco, so her family lives in Riyadh. When she’s there, Malik has to rely on him to drive her around, which she finds frustrating sometimes. But she also insists the Western view of Saudi women as oppressed is one-dimensional. “People have this impression that women are all oppressed,” she says. “There are a lot of bold women who are Saudi who are in no way, shape, or form oppressed.”

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Malik’s larger project is to inject nuance into how Saudi Arabia and its people are perceived by the rest of the world. “I think it’s a place where people have a lot of ideas about it, good and bad, probably mostly bad if we’re being honest,” Malik says. “I’m trying to tell the off-tangent narrative. I think they add more nuance to the stories you generally read.”

She hopes to accomplish this by photographing the country’s young people and asking them about their dreams for the future. “It’s a pretty big country, lots of lifestyles and different ways of living,” she says. “I’m just going to keep telling more stories.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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