SAUDI ARABIA: A new road in the world’s largest sand desert is the first-ever land link between Saudi Arabia and Oman

by John Bayliss

At nearly 600,000km2, the sandy wilderness of Rub’ al Khali – or Empty Quarter – covers a huge tract of the Arabian Peninsula that is comparable in size to the whole of France. The terrain is covered with active sand dunes that can rise to 250m as well as areas along the eastern edge which are marked by salt flats. This is one of the world’s hottest, driest and most unforgiving environments.

 

The Saudi company Al-Rosan Contracting was contracted to construct a 256km-long highway linking the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman. The greater part of its length comprises a single-lane carriageway in each direction, although in sections where there are steep inclines there is

 

According to Fahad Hazza Aba Alros, General Manager of Al-Rosan Contracting, the project presented unique obstacles. “I would say the entire project was a challenge from day one, whether it was the climatic conditions, topography of the area, the distance from the nearest inhabited city, or the availability of spare parts and services. None of the usual factors that are associated with success were present in this project.”

This is one of the world's hottest, driest and most unforgiving environments

This is one of the world’s hottest, driest and most unforgiving environments

HIDDEN OBSTACLES

The highway starts at a site near the Shaybah oil well, owned by Aramco of Saudi Arabia, and runs up to the border of the Sultanate of Oman. One of the many challenges facing the Rub’ al Khali project is that the road passes through the Chiba petroleum field, requiring special care in dealing with existing services there. Within the field there are pipes and power cabling, telephone lines and electrical towers. All the road construction has had to be planned to avoid causing any disruption to the Chiba operations.

 

Summer daytime temperatures in the desert can rise to as high as 50ºC and then drop to below 1ºC at night. With such extreme conditions to overcome, Volvo CE was singled out as the construction equipment supplier because of its reliability and dependability. The plant machinery was sourced through FAMCO (Al-Futtaim Auto & Machinery Co. LLC) which has provided full support.

 

“Al-Rosan is one of our important contractors and a loyal customer of Volvo CE,” explains FAMCO Saudi Managing Director Amal Almizyen. “When they were awarded this contract, we were left with the challenge of supporting them logistically as the closest city was nine hours away by road. More challenging than that was the reliability of the machines. With temperatures ranging from 50ºC in the day to -1ºC at night, and sand blowing continuously, it was very difficult for both operators and the machines. However, from the very beginning Al-Rosan said on-site support was crucial and so we had to gear our services up to that challenge.”

FAMCO’s Amal Almizyen (l.) and Paul Floyd

FAMCO’s Amal Almizyen (left) and Paul Floyd

SUPPLY BRIDGE

From its Riyadh branch, FAMCO established a logistics ‘bridge’ to supply Volvo equipment to a remote and isolated area in one of the most barren deserts in the world. “With a distance of 1,000km from the nearest inhabited city, we were determined to rise to the occasion and prove that we are worthy of our reputation,” says Almizyen.

 

“The road through Rub’ al Khali is a fine example of how service, product support, customer engagement and on-site maintenance all came together for the contractor,” says Paul Floyd, FAMCO Group Senior Managing Director. “This is a project that is extremely important to Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure development and we are extremely proud of being part of this iconic but ambitious project, and rising to the challenge.”

 

In all, some 95 pieces of Volvo CE equipment have been used on this venture – a range of articulated haulers, excavators and motor graders. In spite of the extreme desert conditions, no modifications were needed to the equipment, with FAMCO expressing complete satisfaction with their operation.

 

“With 95 machines on site, a demanding round-the-clock construction schedule, 1,000 feet [305m] high dunes and unimaginable terrain, this was not a simple task,” says Ahmad Halwani, FAMCO General Manager, Construction Equipment Division. “Without mentioning names, we had a few competitors whose machines stopped functioning after some time as they couldn’t keep up with the uptime, or their nearest support was hours away. The star feature was the maintenance support we could provide, although most evident was real durability in one of the most barren places
on Earth.”

 

With no local settlements or safe drinking water, desalination plants have had to be set up and temporary accommodation constructed for the nearly 600 drivers, excavator operators, technicians and auxiliary staff needed for the three-year project. Special units are required for the maintenance of equipment, too, as the nearest facilities are 40km from the construction site. Fuel and spare parts, along with food and water for the workers, have all had to be shipped in.

 

“It is no secret the project had its own unique challenges, especially when it came to the after sales support and maintenance,” comments Mark Johnson, FAMCO General Manager, Aftersales Division. “Never before has the
region witnessed such a remote construction site, so we at FAMCO had to build our own modular maintenance facility to support the contractor. Taking into consideration the remote project location, difficult area topography and extreme environment as well as no phone coverage, FAMCO’s aftermarket support division played a major role in the success of this contract. We established 24/7 on-site workshops operated by experienced technicians to ensure smooth and reliable service and maintenance of the Volvo machines.”

95 Volvo machines were used on the project

95 Volvo machines were used on the project

DIRECT IMPACT

The region’s strong winds shift sand from one area to another, creating a frequently changing landscape. In addition, marshes created by ground water on the surface are common and necessitate specialist construction, including the creation of a fabric mesh shield to protect the road from rising water levels.

 

Every day, sand was excavated and then compacted using the naturally salty ground water to construct sand bridges across the salt flats and between the high-rise dunes.  The volumes of sand are enormous, says Fayez M. Subbaheen, Project Manager at Al-Rosan Contracting. “The amount of sand transported in this project to construct the bridge of the road was 130 million cubic meters. At the same time, another 12 million cubic meters of selected material has been used to protect the sand embankments from erosion by wind or water.” To give some idea of the volumes involved, 130 million cubic meters are equivalent to 26 of Egypt’s giant pyramids.

 

The new road is set to have a huge impact on transport between Saudi Arabia and Oman. Until now, goods shipped by land between the two countries have had to make a circuitous journey via the United Arab Emirates on the existing road network. The direct route across the Rub’ al Khali will reduce the journey times dramatically.

 

For such an important project, Essam Al-Malik, FAMCO Saudi Regional Manager (Central Province) has no doubt why his company was chosen for the work. “Al-Rosan selected FAMCO because of its reputation, the quality of its products and the continuous technical and logistical support which we provide for our clients,” he says.

 

FAMCO’S Ahmad Halwani pays tribute to Volvo CE: “We are proud that Volvo CE has played a part in making one of the most iconic, possibly the longest road in the Middle East,” he says, while FAMCO’S Paul Floyd adds:“The strategic importance of this project represents a key addition to both FAMCO’s and Volvo’s record of achievements.”

 

Click here to watch a video of the road being built