From a mile above it looks much like the rest of the endless desert "Empty Quater" of eastern Saudi Arabia except for the scattered dots of flame and black smoke curling upwards from the sunbaked earth. In fact, stretching 150 miles in an eastwest direction and producing 5 million barrels a day.
Ghawar is the heart of the biggest oil empire, one whose physical limits and reserves are still unknown but conservatively estimated in the "probable" category at 177 billion barrels. Every year, the Arabian American Oil Co. finds more new oil than it pumps out of the desert to meet the avaricious energy needs of the West - particularly of the United States.
The Saudi oil empire was founded and built almost entirely by Aramco, the creation of four American companies - Standard Oil of California, Exxon, Texaco, and Mobil - operating here since 1933. Ithas turned this once-isolated and still extremely conservative Bedouin desert kingdom into a world center of oil and fabulous wealth.
The oil fields are an astounding sight at first visit: ultra-modern machines and entire plants across together by 7,000 miles of pipes, sprawled across a moon-like wasteland of stone and sand.
Everything here seems to be the world's largest when it comes to oil-from ports, tanks, and pumps to reserves, production and development plans. Clearly Saudi Arabia is the giant of the industry, dwarfing the United States in all respects except technology and expertise.
The average well produces 16 to 17 barrels a day in the United States and 11,000 in Saudi Arabia. It takes 500,000 wells for the United States to come up with a daily production of about 8 million barrels, but the Saudis needed only 800 to average 9 million barrels last year.
Like it or not, the United States - which looked abroad to fill 47 percent of its total oil requirements last year - is becoming steadily more dependent on Saudi Arabia, which already rank as its major source of foreign oil.
Flying over Aramco's 85,000-square-mile concession area and seeing how Aramco is spending $25 billion to boost Saudi oil production and collect the now-flared-off gas makes the debate in the United States about this country's future ability to meet the West's energy needs seem slightly unreal.
The controversy was stirred by a Central Intelligence Agency report that surfaced in the press late last year casting doubt on the kingdom's production capacity and ultimate reserves.
Aramco officials will not discuss the output anticipated when an ongoing expansion program is completed in the early 1980s. This, they say, is the prerogative of the Saudi government, which already owns 60 percent of the company and is about to take over the rest while allowing a renamed Aramco under total Saudi direction to continue operation the fields.
They point out quietly, however, that Aramco already has sustained a daily average of 11 million barrels. Other Western sources note that Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh Zaki Yamani has mentioned the figure of 14 million barrels as a hypothetical daily production level when the present expansion program is completed.
Right now, however, the company is producing only about 7 million barrels because the slack in world energy demand. But Aramco officials, echoing Yamani, emphasize that the main constraint on Saudi oil production is not the physical ability to pump oil but the Saudis' political willingness to do so. This, they say, depends on Saudi Arabia's overallrelationship with the West, particularly the United States, and involves especially the general U.S. disposition and economic development needs.
As for Saudi Arabia's ultimate reserves, Aramco still is probing the desert, expecting to find considerable new quantities, but not anotherGhawar. Even if it finds no new fields, Aramco could go on producing at its present rate for another 60 years.
Last year, the company for the first time kept just barely ahead in finding more new oil than it shipped abroad. Whether this heralds a new pattern is still too early to tell.
About half of the $25 billion being spent today by Saudi Arabia on its oil fields in going for expanded port, storage and pumping facilities plus a major water reinjection system to keep up the pressure below the oil.
It id declining underground pressure that has raised the biggest question about the future of the Saudi fields. It is this pressure that brings the oil gushing to the surface without the need for the pumps that the American fields depend on heavily to maintain production.
If Saudi Arabia is not running out of oil, it is already short of underground water in or near its producing fields, which need 11 million barrels daily - 2 million more than its average daily oil production last year - to sustain the pressure. Thus, Aramco has built a special seawater treatment plant at Qurayyah on the Arabian Gulf to supply 4.2 million barrels a day to the Ghawar field 60 miles inland to require used subsurface water.
It is not how long this additional water supply will keep Ghawar war field going without resort to other more expensive methods, such as electric pumps, but no one is Aramco is talking of any immediate crisis.
Aramco also building the world's biggest oil and gas storage farm at Bas Tanura, which is already the leading oil port, capable of loading 18 tankers at once. Everything, its oil storage capacity will reach 30 million barrels plus another 15 million for oil products.
The rest of the $25 billion being invested in Saudi oil fields is being used to set up a vast gas collection network that, as one might expect, will make the kingdom also the world's largest exporter of natural gas liquids - butane, propane and natural gasoline - when it is completed in 1985. This will put an end to the waste of energy to starkly illustrated by the gas flares dotting the Saudi fields today and also will provide Saudi Arabia with the basis for a petrochemical industry.
It is Aramco that is in charge of this program as well as of building and managing the new Saudi Consolidated Electric Co. that is to provide power for all eastern Saudi Arabia. Together, this has meant an enormous expansion in its activities and number of both Saudi and foreign employes - hardly what one expects to find a company about to be totally taken over 100 percent by government.
Clearly the coming formal end of Aramco does not spell the end of the predominant American oil role here.
Aramco officials, who already talk like salesmen for the Saudi government despite their American nationality, point out the side benefits to U.S. industry of the Saudi-American relationship. Last year, they say, Saudi Arabia bought $3.6 billion worth of nonmilitary goods from American markets, while Aramco alone has $3 billion in contracts with U.S. companies.
And the market here for American industries is practically unlimited, they argue, with the U.S. Corps of Engineers already having drawn up $16 billion in development projects and the Saudi government in the midst of a $100-billion-plus five-year development plan. CAPTION: Picture, At Ghawar field plant, Aramco injects hundreds of millions of cubic feet of gas into oil fields to maintain reservoir pressure, [WORD ILLEGIBLE]