Spalding combined engineering with fascination for Middle East
Jenny Spalding enrolled at Princeton in 1974 planning to major in English and go to medical school. Along the way, she thought she’d become a geologist. She finished as a geological engineer with a deep interest in energy and a lifelong fascination with the Middle East.
It began with her roommate, Near Eastern studies major Martha Curtis, who influenced Spalding to explore Near Eastern studies courses and introduced her to Charles Issawi—a professor in the department with whom Spalding remained in close contact until his death in 2000.
Spalding decided to earn her B.S.E. in geological engineering after spending the summer of her junior year in Cairo, Egypt, working on a research project with geology professor Franklin Van Houten to study Miocene evaporites, a type of sedimentary rock that forms when water evaporates and leaves minerals behind.
“While in Egypt, I began to learn about the Middle East (I spent part of the grant money attending Arabic classes at the American University of Cairo) and the oil business…,” she said in an email from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. “I was hooked. I came back to Princeton, changed majors and work hard to make up the course differences, and decided I needed to work in the Middle East.”
So she did. But not at first.
When she graduated from Princeton, she took a job with Shell Oil in New Orleans, where she was one of the first women to go offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. She went on to earn a master’s degree in Petroleum Engineering at Tulane University.
And then the phone rang, with an offer to work for Aramco in Saudi Arabia. It was 1980 at the time, and the oil company was transitioning from leadership by Chevron, Exxon, Texaco and Mobil to full Saudi control.
“It was a fascinating time -- I arrived in a place where you couldn’t get coat hangers, a country where the oil company was also the major vehicle for development,” she said. “The oil industry was also booming (and later went bust in the 1980’s) --there was so much to see and do professionally and culturally. The medieval forts and markets were still in existence; modernization was just starting to bury the old mud townhouses under the bulldozers for progress. Dubai was not a Middle Eastern Disney Land but a sleepy backwater with lovely whitewashed mosques and canals.”
Eager to continue her education, Spalding traveled with her new husband (they married in Bahrain en route to Massachusetts) to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 1987, where she studied energy policy. Upon completing her master’s degree in public policy (and a set of twin daughters later) she took a job with the World Bank as an environmental economist. Her job took her to India, Eastern Europe and Egypt -- keeping her on the road some 150 days each year.
But Spalding missed the Middle East, and in 1992 she returned there with her family (and a son on the way). After consulting for the World Bank from Dhahran for a year, she rejoined Saudi Aramco.
Since then, she has held a variety of positions in petroleum engineering and corporate planning. She is currently a senior energy economist and also involved in Saudi Aramco’s training initiatives, working to develop Saudi human resources in the petroleum business by ensuring the people in the field are constantly learning and developing along the way.
“At this point,” she said, “I feel my interest in development and in energy have come full circle as I work toward better preparing the next generation of Saudi professionals.”
She also is working to further her own education (completing her PhD in management at the University of Maryland) and the educations of countless Middle Eastern women. She has been the head of Princeton’s Saudi Alumni Schools Committee for more than a decade, and also is a member of the Society of Petroleum Engineers standing committee and the Middle East Women in Science, Engineering and Technology organization. Additionally, she has spoken at multiple meetings of the Eastern Province Saudi Chamber of Commerce Women.
“I remain fascinated with the Middle East,” she said, “and if my love is now tempered by realism over the past decade, I still am glad I spent my time here.”