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Alumnus Reflects on First International Assignment - Das Island

February 26, 2018

Thunderbird Alumnus Remembers First International Assignment

Thunderbird alumnus Thomas Fuegner '74, with his colleague, a laborer from Yemen.

By Thomas Fuegner '74

From the cockpit of the DC-3, the long tails of black smoke would come into view long before the island was visible. The plane’s approach was straight in from the southwest, avoiding the flared off gasses on the northern end of the island. Stepping off the plane, your senses were quickly assaulted – a steaming blanket of heat and humidity wrapped around you like a lost lover’s embrace and a pungent mixture of seawater, aviation fuel and sour gasses filled the air.

Welcome to Das Island!  

As a young HR professional fresh out of graduate school and an eighteen month company orientation, Das was to be my first international posting.

110 miles off the coast of Abu Dhabi, Das is a bleak, barren speck of land less that a square mile in size.  Dubbed by Fortune Magazine as “A Petroleum Purgatory in the Arabian Gulf”, Das was home to a peak construction workforce of over 6,000 men and the site of what would become the first Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) plant in the Middle East.

The island is a collecting point for submerged pipelines leading in from Abu Dhabi’s massive Umm Shaif and Zakum offshore oil fields and the gas bubbling up from these pipelines, long considered too expensive to capture, was simply flared off.  And the flares burned constantly, giving off long plumes of black smoke that the prevailing winds carried directly over the island.  By day, the smoke was a dark grey haze filtering the unrelenting sun. But at night the effects were more hellish with the reflected glare of the flares coupling with the incessant roar of combustion.

However, with advances in technology and continuing concern over oil shortages during the region's tumultuous times, collecting and marketing that gas now became economically viable.  Our plant was designed to capture the gas, and under extremes of both pressure and cold, liquefy it and ship it in specially designed tankers, to the commercial markets of Japan.

And in the midst of this Faustian landscape, nestled up against the construction site in a series of connecting trailers, was the HR department.  I reported to the Project HR Manager on the mainland and looked after HR operations on the island. My HR team was young and enthusiastic and comprised of professionals from Jordan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Challenges abounded

The effort to assemble a workforce to build this plant was a herculean task in and of itself – project HR teams recruited welders and pipefitters from the shipyards of India, carpenters from Pakistan, electricians from Egypt, heavy duty drivers and equipment operators from Somalia, laborers from Oman and Yemen.  And as an American-Japanese led joint venture, management and supervision came primarily from the US, UK and Japan.  In total, 31 nationalities came together on Das to take part in this epic construction adventure.

To address this wide range of skill sets and nationalities, a number of assignment types and terms were employed – a variety of expatriate terms for management staff assigned on either long term, short term, rotational or extended business trip assignments; local contract terms for those from the Arabian peninsula; local plus conditions for contract staff from Southwest Asia and other Middle Eastern locations. 

'Expanded scope of responisbilities'

One of the most rewarding aspects I’ve found on international assignments is the expanded scope of responsibilities afforded HR professionals.  In addition to the day-to-day functions of most HR departments, here project HR teams were also responsible for a truly global recruitment effort, home and host country immigration compliance, the development and implementation of local and local plus assignment conditions, government relations, all project-related travel and on-island medical support.  

HR also had the arduous task of demobilizing thousands of employees - first from the island to restricted transit lounges on the mainland and then ensuring (at the insistence of the Abu Dhabi government) their direct and immediate departure from the country.  And then there was “our airline”.

With as yet no commercial transportation to the island (aside from one Gulf Air flight a week from Bahrain en route to Abu Dhabi) the company chartered a fleet of three DC-3s, ferrying people and supplies to and from the island three times a week, Saturday through Thursday.  Project HR had direct oversight of the airline contractor and was responsible for all scheduling, baggage handling and all other ground operations.

This expanded scope of responsibilities (not uncommon on large international engineering/construction projects in the Middle East) was entirely managed in-house as part of what we called International HR Operations - long before the advent of outsourcing and relocation management companies – and when mobility was still simply a noun and not yet an industry!

There was major project activity on the Abu Dhabi mainland as well, serving as a marshaling yard for equipment and material due to the space constraints on the island. Many of the larger sections of the plant had been modularized there and towed out to the island for assembly.  

Mainland operations also supported a base camp on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi City to accommodate mainland-based staff and a few dozen families of senior management staff. Those on family status and assigned to the island were able to spend Fridays with their families, flying out on Thursday evenings and returning to the island early Saturday morning.  For all others, Das was home for long stretches between paid leaves.  

Periodic escapes were essential! 

Management staff would get a reprieve every three months for ten days of Rest & Relaxation (R&R) with airfare paid to London or the equivalent.  And as dictated by Abu Dhabi labor law, those on local/local plus contracts were issued tickets to their points of hire every nine months for 45 days of paid leave.

Days were hot, humid, dusty and long. All staff worked a scheduled 60 hour week – a minimum of 10 hours a day, six days a week, leaving little time for the limited recreation available.   Outdoor basketball and tennis courts had long been taken over as laydown yards for pipe supports. A planned swimming pool was never quite completed, and with temperatures reaching 116 degrees, the blistering sand and shallow waters of the Gulf were anything but inviting.   An outdoor movie theater broadcasted an eclectic mixture of Indian, Middle Eastern and Western movies several times a week with multi-lingual subtitles that were both helpful and confusing at the same time.

Management staff had access to the “International Club” serving shots of whiskey for 25 cents and cans of beer for 50 cents – price being a function of the respective shipping weights !! Weekly club “highlights" included Bingo and the occasional western movie. 

Golf enthusiasts had somehow fashioned a course within the confines of the island with coral fairways outlined in tar and “greens” made of oiled sand.  When shots landed within the fairways, one could then place the ball on a strip of artificial turf that each player carried to assist in making subsequent shots.

The food was much more than acceptable and served in mass quantities with nearly forty tons dispensed each week by a first class UK catering company. Three meals a day were delivered cafeteria-style to all staff via a number of mess halls featuring Asian, Arab and western cuisine.

Life on Das was indeed difficult, but not necessarily morose!

In the 1970’s Abu Dhabi and the rest of the UAE were only just emerging commercially from the Arabian Desert.  Imagine if you will - no computers, no iPhones, no Internet!  Telexes were the preferred means of international project communication. From the island, it could take over an hour to place a personal international telephone call and a three-day-old copy of the International Herald Tribune was considered “current” news! 

Das was the first of seven long-term international assignments that have been sprinkled throughout my career, affording me the opportunity to spend more than twenty-two years overseas. 

Not all were as bleak as Das. However, there were other desert construction camps in North Africa and Arabia along the way, but a fortunate shift in focus from oil and gas to urban infrastructure in the mid 1980’s allowed me the opportunity to kick the sand out of my boots and begin exploring the more comfortable environs of the Asia Pacific region.

Not all were as challenging as Das. But on each assignment, HR was an integral part of the business, playing a strategic and pivotal role in successful project execution.  It has long been my belief that HR’s value to the business is at its most visible when HR is properly positioned to provide experienced, strategic guidance and counsel to business leaders in support of their companies’ global operations.

Completion

The Das LNG Project was completed just a few months over schedule, which was remarkable given the magnitude and complexity of the undertaking. The gasses have long since been captured and the flares long since extinguished and I understand that the island is a much more hospitable place these days with a number of shops, activity clubs and restaurants now available in addition to the oil and gas production facilities.   

It's been quite sometime since my tenure on the island, but Das still stands apart as a uniquely rewarding and challenging experience and the memories from that first international assignment remain today, as vivid as a Das Island sunset.

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