Update and Ras Abu Qamys Field Study

While this post will cover a reconnaissance field study, I’m going to start with some updates and observations.

There’s virtually no recycling here.  This is killing me.  Until you’re in a position where recycling pretty much doesn’t happen, you don’t realize how much you actually do recycle. Here, cans, bottles, paper, cardboard, newspaper, assorted plastics, and the like simply get thrown away. That means that I throw these away, and I feel that I’m violating the Earth. Here and there on campus one might see a recycling bin, but these are rare, and from my observation they are simply used as trash cans. There’s not a single recycling receptacle, from what I’ve been able to see, in the residential area of campus (and there’s certainly no curbside pickup of such). So, please do me a favor and do some extra recycling (and composting!) for me, to make up for my sins. Bless you.

The idiotic ban on laptops and tablets in carry-on luggage does not list my airport (DMM) as one of the chosen 10. For now. Two other airports in KSA are on the list (Riyadh and Jeddah). Who knows when/if DMM will be on the list. As for others on the list, I’ll be flying shortly to Doha, Qatar and I’ve already flown in and out of Dubai. I guess someone has some information (I hesitate to call it intelligence) that has triggered this, but I can’t seem to wrap my head around it.

I just rented my car for another month, and it feels like I’m simply throwing money down the drain. Last night, my squash partner tells me that the University provides short-term (3 month) loans to faculty. Well, no one has told me about this before. If it’s true, then I’ll get a short-term loan to pay for a car, and once my bank sees fit to give me a personal loan to buy a car, I’ll pay back the University loan. Or something like that.

Here’s a picture from a barbecue that I attended. That is definitely not a pig, because that is illegal in the Kingdom. It’s definitely just an ugly sheep. But holy crap that was some tasty ugly mutton.


Definitely 100% an ugly roasted sheep.

Thought I’d comment on the cost of living here. In general, it’s pretty darn affordable if you’re paying attention and getting local advice. Specifically for me, it’s ridiculously affordable because my housing and maintenance is supplied free of charge. Food ranges from very inexpensive to very expensive, depending on the items. My preferred grocery store is called Tamimi Market, and it is affiliated with both Safeway and Costco, and even uses a stylized red “S” from Safeway as part of their logo. The affiliation means that there are some Safeway and Kirkland brand items available in the store (e.g., “Safeway Selects” tomato sauce and other canned and bottled name brands). The Tamimi I go to is more or less the closest public market to Aramco and therefore it has a bunch of items from the US and the UK to make the expats happy. So, on the expensive end of living expenses, a trip to Tamimi can really add up if one is a sucker for ‘merican comfort foods (well, except for pork and liquor…). Sometimes, I look at the price of an item (for example, Wheat Thins) and talk myself out of it, then say f*ck it and put it in my cart. At times, they’ll get a shipment from the US and there’s a whole array of new items I hadn’t seen before. I bought some cottage cheese from Wisconsin the other day, along with some “Select-a-Size” Bounty paper towels. So far, I’ve only gotten rolls with full-size sheets (who does that anymore, besides my brother?) that don’t exactly tear nicely along the perforations. Small victories. I do not, however, buy produce items imported from the US. Those are mighty ‘spensive. A US head of iceberg lettuce can be $6-8, but local iceberg for the same sized heads are about 10-20% of that. The only difference is that you have to thoroughly wash the local produce. Unless you like to eat sand. For most non-critical cooking items (milk, butter, eggs, rice, pasta, bread, spices, etc.), buying local brands is the way to go and prices are very economical and the quality is quite good.

As you might expect, or have heard, gasoline here is really cheap – about a quarter of the price of gas in the US. However, because of government austerity measures brought on by low oil prices, there has been much hand wringing because the price of gas at the pump essentially doubled recently. That was before I got here, though, so it still seems ridiculously cheap to me. Filling up my car here is about 40 Riyals; filling up my car in the US was about $40. The exchange rate is $1 equals 3.75 SAR (and constant – pegged to the dollar).

Next week is our spring break. I originally was going to go to AAPG in Houston, because it coincides with spring break here (I’m sure that will never happen again, though). I don’t want to spend too much time explaining this but, I won’t be attending AAPG – basically for tax reasons. Even though I’m living outside the US, the IRS still collects federal taxes. However, there is an exclusion if, during your first year abroad, you spend fewer than 35 days total in a year in the US (a year since my arrival). And that exclusion is significant. Essentially, I’m establishing residency outside the US by being away for 330 days, and the reward is that I’ll pay no federal tax on the first $102,500 of my salary. If you figure a tax rate for my bracket, you’ll recognize that there’s a strong incentive for me to be in the US for fewer than 35 days. Although I get 10 weeks off here (paid) in the summer, I can’t spend that whole time in the US (this will likely lead to future blog posts of my travels!). I’ll be back in the US for part of July and August, jumping around from Boulder to Connecticut to Oregon (at least that’s the plan now). Instead of AAPG next week, my first (brief) return to the US will be to see WSMFP at Red Rocks at the end of June. Of course. Hope to see a bunch of you then!

For my spring break, I’m going to spend three days in Qatar, seeing the sights in and around Doha. After that, I’ll spend a day or two in Bahrain. I’m flying to Doha by going in and out of Bahrain on Qatar Air – very short and pretty cheap flight.

And now the field trip…

The University is beginning to emphasize the benefits of undergraduate research and we pushed a group of our students to write a proposal for University funding for a field project. This first trip was essentially a recon trip to pick out some suitable field sites to study Holocene shoreline processes. We chose the Ras Abu Qamys peninsula, based on some prior visits by my colleague Khalid. It was necessary to get permission from the Saudi Coast Guard/Border Patrol – they pretty much have control over about 2/3 of the peninsula because of its proximity to Qatar. Here are some Google Earth images to show you where we were.


Ras Abu Qamys peninsula (red star) is in KSA, but very close to Qatar. It was about a 4 1/2 hour drive from Dhahran.


Zooming in on the Qatar peninsula with Ras Abu Qamys (RAQ) to the southeast.


Very close proximity of Ras Abu Qamys and Qatar (only a couple hundred meters) along the northwest edge of the peninsula. That arm of Qatar has huge (estimated at 20-30 m high) white quartzose dunes.

The Coast Guard station and where we camped is on the eastern end of the peninsula (where the scalloped coastline is). We visited several sites around the eastern, northern, and western shoreline (accompanied by a couple of border control “guides”). We set up camp along a protected cove with a large arabic tent (cover photo) and a couple of outlying small tents (mine included). As the first afternoon turned into evening, the winds came up as storms approached from the northwest. Now, if there are 30 m high dunes nearby, you might imagine that the wind can blow. Like, really hard. And it did. While my tent didn’t ever collapse, the rain fly became a sail and bowed the whole tent over. So, I decided to remove the rain fly – well, this was a great idea – the screening allowed the wind to pass through the tent without buckling it. Then the lightning got pretty darn close and drops started whip by so, with my tail between my legs, I took my tent down. Shamal winds 1; REI 0.


Khalid supervising raising of the tent. That’s the middle Miocene Dam Formation in the background. It’s skeletal, oolitic, peloidal grainstones and packstones that make up the backbone of the peninsula (as a very broad anticline). Not the subject of this study.

The scene inside the main tent was relatively calm and it had become clear earlier that the only place we’d be able to cook was actually inside, under the big top. The rains came and they came with a vengeance. For the most part, we remained dry and comfortable in the tent. Food was eaten and 8 out of 9 of us slept in the big tent (with one sleeping in the truck). There just may have been some scrambling to shore up the tent in the middle of the night, but I pretended to sleep through it and let the students engineer a solution that prevented complete tent collapse.

We spent the full day Friday visiting and describing field sites and taking samples for further study. We’re basically interested in lithification in the intertidal zone, where early cementation is turning recent sediments into rock. Without getting too sciencey, here are some photos of algal flats, tidal channel-marginal cementation, recent beachrock, etc.


Pelletization by intertidal infauna (likely crabs).


Black, pustular, intertidal cyanobacterial mats overlying a thin veneer of sediment over top of a 4-5 cm cemented zone.


Grainy beachrock has incorporated coarse beach sediment (composition shown below). Small vehicle in front of yawning geophysics student is our border patrol escort. Huge dunes in the background are on the Qatari side of the narrow inlet (see map). Vehicles are parked on the Dam Formation.


Sediment is nearly a monospecific assemblage of high-spired cerithid gastropods (and a few cute little mussels). The cerithids are highly salinity tolerant; we took a some water samples to measure salinity later, but these protected inlets and embayments have some of the highest salinities in the Gulf (I’m guessing close to 70‰).


Coarse, grainy beachrock with abundant cerithids and large imbricated intraclasts.


Typical polygonal fracturing of beachrock. However, in this case, the fractures have collected oil (the ropey looking black stuff near the hammer). The dead oil is from natural seeps and/or production/pipeline leaks.

With the forecast for more high winds and damaging storms (indeed there was hail and flooding) we decided to break camp and spend Friday night in a sort of hotel in nearby Salwa, at the very end of the inlet on the other side of the Qatar peninsula. Weather 1; KFUPM geology 0. All good though – most of the students had never camped before, and we made it through some challenging conditions. No use pushing our luck. So, one of the things you can do is to rent out a room in a coffee/tea house and watch TV. So we did that.


Saturday, we started back toward Dhahran, with a couple of other coastal stops along the way (not part of the study, but interesting). When trying to get to one locality, the road stopped and we decided to go charging across the coastal dunes. Well, we didn’t get very far. My brand new (College) Land Cruiser and the Nissan Patrol did fine, but the big Silverado pick-up with most of the camping gear got stuck. Collectively, we figured out how to extricate the truck – not too different from driving in and getting stuck in snow. Good fun was had (another excellent team-building exercise), although I think we all had grit in our mouths for the rest of the day.


Hitching up my Land Cruiser to the truck. We came prepared for this…

As we made our way back to Dhahran, we stopped at a historical site called Al Ogair. This port, now the home of another Coast Guard base, was once a bustling trade stop in the Gulf going back to at least a couple hundred years BCE, serving much of the Arabian peninsula with goods from outside Arabia. Muslim armies spread out from the port to Persia, India, and as far away as China. Traded were spices, tea, fabrics, foods, precious stones, and slaves. King Abdul Aziz al Saud signed the Al Ogair Protocol there with the British in 1922, establishing the framework for the borders of modern Saudi Arabia.


With Khalid in the central courtyard. The buildings housed shops, store rooms, and offices.


Location of the signing of the Al Ogair Protocol in 1922.


Slave holding cells of Al Ogair.

Our final field stop was on a sandy spit nearly two kilometers long. Aragonite-cemented beachrock holds the exposed spit that was generated through longshore drift. Finally, upon arrival back to the Eastern Province cities, we stopped in Al Khobar for a well-deserved seafood feast before heading back to KFUPM.


Beachrock on the narrow spit marking the end of Half Moon Bay.


Choose the fish and they’ll cook it and serve it. Fresh from the Gulf!

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