Craig JacksonBy Craig Jackson, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology.

Recent news about the plight of British oil workers stranded in the Libyan desert reminded me of my own time stuck in a desert-based oil field with nowhere to go, and how deserts can be the strangest places on earth to work.

The news this week reported there were around 250-300 UK ex-pat workers stuck in their desert compounds while Libya revolted around them. Stories of food shortages and pillaging locals armed with automatic guns were by no means an exaggeration reported by the oil workers. Most oil companies with operations in desert countries rely on staff from the UK, Netherlands and India to fly out to the country in question and work 12 hours a day without a day off for anything between 28 to 56 days. Once these long “hitches” are completed, the workers are bussed to the airport then flown home again for a 28 day rest period. Workers are driven from the compound to the airport and vice versa by coach – often on dangerous desert roads with little light and even less Tarmac surface. I was stationed in  the great desert of Syria, eight hours drive from the capital Damascus, with desert roads being so unsafe that workers were not allowed to leave the protection of the compound. Compounds are usually protected by soldiers or armed guards, and there is little entertainment – due to the strictness of the country or regime in question, there may not be any satellite TV, Internet or mobile phones, or even the infrastructure to support them if they were allowed. When stationed in “dry countries” oil companies insist that their workers obey the strict drinking laws – and often the only entertainment to be had involves playing five-a-side, darts, or ping pong. The hard work provides a welcome distraction from the boredom of desert-compound life.

I was in the field In April 1998 when the tense situation was developing between the UN and Saddam Hussein in neighbouring Iraq (only a few kilometres to the East of the compound I was in) and a second gulf war looked like a reality. We were given one simple instruction from the oil company HQ back in the UK – “Keep 100 US dollars in your shoe at all times, and if it kicks off, head North to the border with Turkey”. It seems that little had changed between then and now in terms of preparedness for national emergencies. The oil workers were tense at the time, as during in the first gulf war, a scud missile had strayed off course, distracted by the flares from one of the oil fields, and landed very close to one of the compounds. Or so the legend went.

There were several suicides by workers in the field while I was there – that was actually my reason for going; to investigate the causes of such an epidemic. Such suicides commonly occurred between 5 – 10 days into a 28 or 56 day hitch – when the freedom of going home must have seemed like such a long time away for the workers. For those who stayed alive, there was almost a kind of in-field insanity that kicked in around days 12 – 14 with many workers exhibiting odd or unusual behaviours and obsessions – perhaps as a way to cope with the boredom and missing family back home.

If you look very closely at Google maps, in the lower South East corner of the Great Syrian Desert, you may see “Steel Henge” – a 60 foot diameter circle made of canisters and oil drums by a group of workers who one night, after drinking too much illicitly brewed alcohol, decided to escape into the desert and create their own sculptural testament to this peculiar and strange way of earning a living. The desert can do strange things to a man’s mind – and so can his job.

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Craig Jackson

Craig Jackson

Head of Psychology Division at Birmingham City University