Oilfield consultant returns from Saudi Arabia after seven months there during the pandemic crisis

Redberry Lake – When much of the Canadian oilpatch ground to a screeching halt in early 2015, Saskatoon wellsite drilling consultant Douglas Tompson soon found his work, supervising drilling rigs, dried up. Later that year, he found work in Saudi Arabia on a 28 days in, 28 days out, rotational basis, something he’s done for nearly five years now.

But the last time he checked into his Saudi accommodations, it was February. A few weeks later, the global COVID-19 pandemic hit, and most international travel was shut down. Now, seven months later, he touched down in Saskatoon on Sept. 13.

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There, he got into his pickup truck, already stocked up with food and supplies and brought to the airport by his wife and a friend. He promptly drove to his cabin at Redberry Lake, near Hafford. There he will judiciously spend the next 14 days in quarantined self-isolation.

“All of a sudden, the pandemic hit, and they shut the airports down. And everybody around the world anticipated that it was just going to be a short term; a few weeks or a month or so. And then it turned into this saga,” Tompson said by phone from Redberry Lake on Sept. 15.

He has a Saudi cellphone, and received regular text alerts in Arabic and English as the pandemic hit. He said, “They did a great job of communicating everything, and they just said everybody's locked down.

“Masks were mandatory. They weren't optional. There were no businesses making decisions as to whether or not they were going to have masks or not have masks. There was none of this discussion. It was a central decision that you're going to wear masks and it was a public policy.

He noted the policy came from the Saudi Ministry of Health, and included mask usage, handwashing, and social distancing.

“I felt very good over there. It was well organized. And they had the curfews there, and the curfews were well organized. Everybody knew what was going on. And I actually, I was pretty impressed. It gave me a lot of reassurance, knowing how well organized it was. There were no people discussing whether or not masks work or not. I mean even if masks don't work, they don't do any harm.”

Tompson added, “Hand sanitizer was everywhere. Social distancing was everywhere. Workspaces were doing it. The posters were up galore. They were doing remote working, people working remotely.

“We embraced Skype like no one’s business.”

In Saudi Arabia he worked as an oilfield instructor. At first, they switched to distance learning, but eventually in-person instruction resumed. The class groups were reduced by half in size, and the classrooms were larger spaces than before. All wore masks. Even the smallest things to increase social distancing, like staggered coffee breaks, were done.

Tompson said restaurants were initially closed, but the restaurant in hotels like his stayed open. You had to stand in a well-spaced line, where you were handed food with disposable cutlery and containers, and then eat in your room. It was a couple months before he used real cutlery again. And when the restaurants did allow seating, at first a table meant for four to six would only have one person allowed. Eventually that was increased to two, sitting on opposite ends.

He noted that in one case, instead of continually sanitizing door handles for public washroom doors, they realized it was easier just to keep the door propped open so no one had to touch the door handle.

John Hopkins University’s global COVID-19 monitoring website notes that Saudi Arabia has had 326,930 cases as of the coronavirus as of Sept. 15, placing it 16th in the world. Its daily new case count peaking at just under 5,000 per day on June 17, but it had fallen to 607 per day on Sept. 14, roughly close to what Canada is now averaging.

Tompson didn’t encounter any major outbreaks, he noted.

He could have come home earlier, but that would have meant terminating his employment, making it essentially a one-way trip. “I was looking at what they were doing, and what was happening. And I know that I have to go through certain countries to get home and I could see the effort that was being made in the Kingdom. And they were doing everything right.

“They were the people were trying to follow the rules as well as best as possible.”

Tompson plans on returning to the Kingdom in a few months time to continue working. For one thing, there’s not a lot of work in his field in the Canadian oilpatch right now, with drilling activity, his specialty, being a shadow of what it was five years ago. “Not many options for me, in Canada, in the oilpatch,” he said.

Tompson said he was actually more concerned about the trip home, saying, “The highest risk activity I've done in the past seven eight months has been traveling home.”

He noted many people on the flight home were debating whether they should actually carry out the full two weeks of quarantine. Not Tompson.

Now, he gets to catch up on his many projects at the cabin, before re-uniting with his wife and son in two weeks time.

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