As its pavilion at EXPO 86 suggests, Saudi Arabia has leaped headlong into the modern age of communications and transportation. By investing billions of dollars and tens of thousands of man-hours, this once isolated kingdom has built an extraordinary modern transportation system and has installed a state-of-the-art communications network that, in a single generation, has transformed a largely insular society into one not only in touch with the present but on the move toward the future.
There is, certainly, a lot still to be done; though firmly in place and functioning, the new systems require, and will continue to require for a long time, adjustment, tuning and improvement. But already the kingdom's planners have shifted gears - moving from the frenetic pace of the construction years to the more measured demands of maintenance, extension and training - of the legions of technicians needed to run and repair the sophisticated network of new services.
Even in today's fast-moving world, Saudi Arabia's long leap forward is remarkable. Some veterans working in Saudi Arabia, both Americans and Saudi Arabs, can still recall when camel caravans provided the only means of reaching the interior, and Aramco personnel administrator Muhammad Salamah, who joined Aramco in 1939, can remember living as a child in a palm-frond hut on the Arabian Gulf, with no electricity, never mind a car, telephone or air conditioning.
"Who would have imagined to see what I see now?" he asked recently while driving from Dhahran, Aramco's administrative headquarters and residential area, to nearby al-Khobar. He waved a descriptive hand at the road - a six-lane expressway feeding into a new causeway linking the Saudi Arabian mainland to the island shaikhdom of Bahrain. (See Aramco World, January-February, 1984) "The road to al-Khobar - this road - was just a strip of sand, with oil sprayed on it, and in summer the wind blew sand across the track and the buses got stuck. We pushed the buses coming to work and we pushed the buses going home."
The change is remarkable. Today, if he wished to, Muhammad could drive to Riyadh in three hours, fly there in one hour, or get there by train in four - trips that, five years ago, would have taken nearly double such times, and, 40 years ago, would have required several days by truck or camel across unpaved desert tracks.
Muhammad could also, if he needed to, send a letter across the kingdom to Jiddah in one day, telephone - by direct dial - or Telex anywhere in the world.
Statistics tell the story even more graphically. In 1951, the Saudi government built its first intercity paved road and by 1954 had completed a total of just 237 kilometers of paved highway (147 miles). But by the end of 1985 some 30,000 kilometers (18,630 miles) of paved roads had been laid - a 125-fold increase in just over 30 years - the bulk put down since the start of the First Development Plan in 1970 (See maps). More than 45,000 kilometers of agricultural roads (27,945 miles) have also been built.
Such achievements, of course, are expensive. According to the Ministry of Communications, which is responsible for the nation's land and marine transportation, the kingdom spent roughly $20 billion between 1970 and 1985 to establish that network, plus billions more for ports, pipelines, communications, airports and other transport. But, as other statistics show, the massive spending yielded massive results:.
At ports, overall handling capacity increased from two million to around 50 million tons.
At airports, the number of passengers leaving and arriving rose fifteen-fold, from about 1.6 million to 24 million.
At post offices, the amount of incoming and outgoing mail jumped from 80 million to 713 million pieces a year, delivered to or sent from some 3,700 Saudi towns and villages.
In homes and offices, the total number of phone lines increased 31 times: from just 29,000 to more than 900,000.
In a sense, both topography and geography demanded that Saudi Arabia invest heavily in communications and transportation when the government launched the first of its three five-year plans; because the kingdom is so large and its population so spread out, modernization and industrialization simply could not have been achieved without extensive networks of roads and communication lines.
Saudi Arabia covers about 2.3 million square kilometers (901,320 square miles) - roughly equivalent to the area of Western Europe - and its population is far-flung. Although the distance from the Dammam metropolitan area on the Arabian Gulf to the capital, Riyadh, is just 380 kilometers (235 miles) it's another 840 kilometers (520 miles) to the Red Sea metropolis of Jiddah and it's 1,952 kilometers (1,212 miles) from Tabuk to Jizan, the north-south route in the western part of the country. In between the major cities, furthermore are scores of towns and several thousand villages scattered across vast stretches of sand desert to gravel plains, jagged escarpments, and mountains that rise to 3,050 meters (10,000 feet).
Today, nevertheless, highway travel is fast and smooth. In cities like Riyadh, Jiddah, Makkah (Mecca) and Buraydah, ring roads, sleek overpasses, viaducts and tunnels divert or direct traffic swiftly and efficiently. Outside the cities, modern expressways funnel traffic in from places like Jordan and Kuwait, and either route it toward destinations in the kingdom or send it off to neighboring states.
As late as the 1970's, a trip across Saudi Arabia's midsection - from Jiddah to Dammam - was usually a 25-hour marathon drive. Now a new 388-kilometer (241-mile), six-lane expressway between Riyadh and Dammam reduces the time by half, and a new Riyadh-Jiddah expressway now under construction will cut the time even more - a far cry from the bruising automobile expedition undertaken by King Fahd's father, 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn Sa'ud, when he drove from Jiddah across the country to Hofuf in 1929.
Though no car at that time had ever crossed all the way to the east coast, writes David Howarth in The Desert King, 'Abd al-'Aziz led a convoy of Fords and Chevrolets across Arabia from Makkah to Riyadh and then to the shore of the Arabian Gulf. He arrived, Howarth says, with some of his autos "tied together with leather thongs... some without springs and riding on their axles..."
In the kingdom's western province, the new network of highways includes a Makkah-Medina expressway and the breathtaking 753-kilometer (468-mile) highway that runs along the rugged escarpment.from Ta'if to Abha in the southwest and then down to the Red Sea city of Jizan. Called the "Road of Prosperity," the twisting $528-million route serves more than 400 villages, as well as the big cities, and links together some 400,000 people in the mountains and 30,000 on the coastal flatlands. Previously, these people traveled by foot, airplane or ship.
Equally spectacular are 12 descents being built from the escarpment to the coastal plain. One, already completed, is the Sha'ar passage. Beginning about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) east of Abha and linking the Road of Prosperity to the Makkah-Jizan coast highway, the 58-kilometer (36-mile) two-lane road is studded with tunnels - fitted with portholes looking out over plunging valleys - and drops from 2,012 meters (6,600 feet) to 1,219 meters (4,000 feet) in 14.5 kilometers (nine miles). The terrain was so difficult, reports the construction journal ENR, that the firm building the road flew in 60 supple Taiwanese mountaineers "to reconnoiter the sites..."
As the highway system grew, so did the number of registered vehicles in the kingdom: from 60,000 in 1970 to 3.9 million in 1984 - an average annual increase of 37 percent. As a result, about 70 percent of all intercity trips in the kingdom are made by private car as opposed to public modes of transport - airplane, bus, rail or taxi.
Growth of that sort, of course, created traffic congestion, but by 1979 the government was taking steps to cope with congestion too: it helped found the Saudi Public Transport Company (SAPTCO), a joint government-private bus company in Riyadh. With 165 distinctive blue, orange and white vehicles, SAPTCO was an instant success in Riyadh and by the end of the year had spread to Jiddah, Makkah and Dammam and had a total of 698 buses.
Today the total is even higher: 1,100 buses serving nine major cities and intercity routes, linking all of the country's main population centers. Every day, the company's long-distance cruisers clock some 72,650 kilometers (45,115 miles) - the equivalent of nine round trips between Los Angeles and New York.
Each year, the bus company also assigns 600 to 800 additional buses to Jiddah, Makkah and Medina to help move pilgrims during the Hajj season and this April, 70 doubledeckers normally used on intracity routes were pressed into service to transport soccer fans to the Gulf soccer championships in Bahrain, making SAPTCO the first transport company to use the new causeway.
Passengers can also enter and leave Saudi Arabia by ship - through ports like Jiddah, Jizan or Yanbu' on the Red Sea or al-Khobar and Dammam, a 39-berth port, all on the Arabian Gulf - though, in fact, port modernization in Saudi Arabia has been focused on cargo rather than people. Jiddah, for instance, handled 470,000 arrivals in 1985, but has 51 berths, including one brand new livestock facility and another exclusively for cold-storage vessels.
Port development in the kingdom got under way in earnest in the mid-1970's, when bottlenecks began to hold up the massive development projects. To break the logjam, the kingdom built new berths and ports, and, in addition, installed computer systems to link all ports to the Saudi Ports Authority headquarters in Riyadh. Eventually, says a survey sponsored by six major Saudi companies in Newsweek in January, 1984, port investments reached $12.2 billion.
The increase in trade and commerce that required port development also helped fuel the rapid expansion of the Saudi commercial fleet: to 225 ships and a capacity of 5.16 million tons in 1983 - more than a 100 percent increase over 1980 - and 300 cargo vessels by 1985.
In another development, Saudi Arabia is also stressing cooperation with the ports of other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries: Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. One example is the possibility of building a railway along the Arabian Gulf coast from Basra in Iraq to the Omani capital of Muscat, with spurs from Saudi Arabia reaching Bahrain and Qatar. Because of the precipitous drop in GCC oil revenues recently, that project may remain on hold for some time, but in Saudi Arabia, interest in railroad development remains high - partly because railways offer a fourth mode of transport, partly because King 'Abd al-'Aziz was the prime mover behind the kingdom's railway from Dammam to Riyadh via Hofuf.
Built by Aramco and inaugurated in 1951, the railroad, together with a two-berth deep water port at Dammam, heralded today's huge public works projects. And though, with the development of highways and regular air service to the interior, the railroad later fell into decline, construction of a huge railroad freight terminal and customs house in Riyadh in 1981 revived it; those improvements allowed importers in the Central Province to unload Dammam ship-cargo directly onto trains and then clear their goods in the six bonded warehouses, the cold storage area and the sprawling open yards of what is called the "Riyadh Dry Port" rather than at the port.
Recently, the Saudi Railways Organization (SRO) has also begun to upgrade its passenger service. With an investment of $330 million, SRO laid new track - on tough concrete ties - shortened the run to Riyadh by 121 kilometers (75 miles), and introduced locomotives able to reach speeds of 150 kilometers an hour (90 mph). As a result, the journey between Dammam and Riyadh by passenger train has been reduced to four hours. At a cost of $56 million, moreover, SRO is constructing three new passenger terminals - in Dammam, Hofuf and Riyadh - and has spent $28 million on 40 new passenger carriages from France and West Germany. Today, consequently, passengers can ride in air-conditioned, first-class comfort over continuous-weld track for $16.50. The price even includes video programs.
Government planners are also evaluating the feasibility of a rail link between the commercial and industrial ports at Jubail and Dammam, and an extension of the Dammam-Riyadh line all the way to Jid-dah and on to Makkah and Medina. Other proposals would link Riyadh to the Qasim, an agricultural area north of the capital, and even revive the famous Hijaz Railway, which, in its brief heyday beginning in 1908, ran from Damascus to Medina.
Neither marine nor overland transport, however, has had the impact on Saudi Arabia that air travel has had. With a network of 23 commercial airports, Saudia, the national airline can now reach every destination in the country in five hours or less, and can cross the breadth of the kingdom - Jiddah to Dhahran, for example - in only two hours. Saudia also flies to 46 cities in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Far East and North America and for the past decade has operated the largest fleet in the Middle East.
It was not always so. While planes were used in Saudi Arabia for limited special purposes prior to World War II - Aramco, for instance, used a small plane in geological survey work in the 1930's - civil aviation in the kingdom did not really take off until 1945, when the United States presented the kingdom with a twin-prop "Dakota." But then, pleased with the aircraft, the kingdom quickly purchased six more, established Saudi Arabian Airlines and, in 1947, dispatched a chartered DC-3 to Palestine to pick up pilgrims to Makkah - its first international flight.
Since then, Saudia - as it was later christened - has continued to grow, sometimes steadily, sometimes in great spurts. In late 1961, two Boeing 720B's were added - making Saudi Airlines among the first in the Middle East to use passenger jets - and in 1972 so were a range of new Boeing jets. At the same time, the carrier introduced a new image on all its planes: a two-tone green stripe over a blue field running along the body with the national emblem, a palm tree and crossed swords, emblazoned on a dark green tail. The markings have been used ever since.
In 1973, Saudia really took off: it carried more than a million passengers and earned a profit of about $3 million. The following year, the total of passengers increased by 300,000 and profits by $7 million.
At the same time, the Saudi government was investing billions of riyals in such new airports as King 'Abd al-Aziz International Airport in Jiddah and King Khalid International in Riyadh (See Aramco World, January-February 1984) - both showcases for air travel and architecture. The Jiddah airport, for example, included an unprecedented tent-terminal (See Aramco World, July-August 1981) to accommodate more than 600,000 Muslim pilgrims who come by air each year, and the Riyadh field, gateway to the capital, boasts some of the world's most stunningly beautiful passenger terminals. More prosaically, but equally as important, it also has a vast automated cargo building. The kingdom's third new international airport, now under construction west of Dammam and due to open in 1988, will replace Dhahran International Airport, which currently doubles as both the Eastern Province commercial gateway and an important base for the Royal Saudi Air Force.
The furious pace of growth in aviation justified the expansions: in 1975, Saudia carried 1.8 million passengers, in 1980, 9.5 million and in 1984, 11.6 million. The amount of cargo hauled by Saudia grew even faster: from nearly 21,000 metric tons in 1975 to 17,2,000 tons in 1984. By 1984, when the aviation boom finally leveled off, Jiddah had handled 58 million travelers, Riyadh 43 million and Dhahran 27 million.
One of Saudia's key functions, especially on domestic routes, involves still another form of communication: it carries mail. In 1984, in fact, it hauled 11,500 metric tons of mail, a sevenfold increase over 1975, and an almost immeasurable increase in the levels of the 1920's when mail service began.
As late as the early '70's, the volume of mail in Saudi Arabia was still under 100 million pieces of mail a year - perhaps no more than about 10 pieces a year for every man, woman and child resident in the kingdom. But in 1980 the postal services handled more than 400 million pieces and in 1985 713 million, an average of nearly two million pieces a day. To an extent this change measures educational and commercial growth, but it also measures expansion of the postal system itself: by 1985 there were about 580 post offices and the postal service was reaching some 3,700 towns and villages.
Three of the post offices - giant regional postal centers in Jiddah, Riyadh and Dammam - were designed by the French firm Sofrepost and came on stream in the early part of the Third Development Plan (1980-85). Highly mechanized, these centers employ overhead conveyors - to deliver several hundred mail bags an hour to sorting areas - automatic facing and canceling machines, with sensors that react to envelope glue, addresses or air mail markings to organize the mail in bundles, and automatic sorting machines that separate them by geographic area at the rate of about 30,000 an hour.
With that sort of equipment, plus new postal codes and training institutes for recruits, postal service productivity increased from an annual average of 55,000 pieces per employee at the start of the Third Development Plan to 95,000 by its end in 1985, and domestic delivery times reportedly dropped 25 percent. And even that may be improved. "Our goal is to deliver all in-kingdom letters within 24 hours," says Faisal Faris al-Faisal, director of post for the Eastern Province.
In another communications breakthrough, TFT also launched a multi-billion-dollar effort to establish a modern all-electronic telecommunications network.
As late as 1977, to reach someone by telephone in Saudi Arabia was an iffy proposition at best. As the American-educated Minister of TPT Dr. Alawi Dar-weesh Kayyal has pointed out, people in the kingdom's three biggest cities often sent drivers to deliver messages rather than wait to get through to someone in the same city by telephone; fighting traffic was faster. And either international or long distance calls within the kingdom had to be booked through the operator - a procedure that took hours usually, and sometimes days. Incredibly, there was only one phone directory for the entire country and not a single public pay phone anywhere.
Today, reliable and fully automated phone service is taken for granted by several million Saudis. And though the demand for phones still outstrips the supply in both rural areas and fast-growing urban centers, the advances made in the past decade stand among the nation's proudest achievements.
The great leap forward in telecommunications really began in 1977, when TPT embarked upon TEP - its Telephone Expansion Program - by awarding a five-year billion-dollar contract, since renewed, to Bell Canada International to manage the project. At the time, the giant Canada corporation called the award "the largest-ever managerial undertaking in the history of the telecommunications industry..."
TEP was a crash program, and by 1981 Saudi Arabia ranked number one in the world in terms of growth in working telephone lines. It seemed as if virtually every street in the kingdom was being dug up as thousands of kilometers of buried cable were laid.
Again, statistics tell the story: the local switching network shot from 177,000 lines in 1977 to more than 1.2 million by 1985. Working lines increased sevenfold, from 126,000 at the start of TEP to more than 950,000 by November 1985, with 213 local electronic digital exchanges spread throughout the kingdom plus 20 trunk exchanges and five international exchanges.
To supplement its ground-based system during expansion, the ministry temporarily linked 11 cities in the kingdom by satellite using mobile earth stations. In 1977, work also began on a 10,000-kilometer (6,210-mile) microwave network with 300 towers, some in extremely remote locations. Completed in 30 months, the project provided 35,000 new telephone circuits.
TPT also laid coaxial cable running east-west across the kingdom's midsection and north-south on the west coast carrying more than 30,000 telephone channels to augment high-frequency radio transmission.
Nor did TPT stop there. It introduced a uniform seven-digit dialing code and three-digit codes for emergency services. It offered direct dialing, both domestically and internationally, to the subscribers and today more than 90 percent of them use the convenience. It introduced a computer billing system. It installed more than 4,000 coin-operated public telephones in 47 locations - at airports, bus terminals, train stations and on urban street corners - and it put up emergency phones on desert expressways. In 1983, TPT instituted one of the world's most modern mobile telephone services: 49 radio base stations, that enable about 10,000 customers to dial directly to domestic or foreign cities from telephones in their cars.
While developing its ground and microwave systems, the kingdom also began to reach into space and today Saudi Arabia is the seventh largest user of Intelsat, an international satellite communications pro- gram with antennae-trained on satellites over the Atlantic and Indian oceans - and earth stations providing direct dialing to more than 150 countries. Saudi Arabia also contributed more than 25 percent of the funds to launch the Arabsat communications satellites in 1985 (See Aramco World, March-April 1985 and January-February 1986). While using Arabsat-B, primarily for television transmission to or from other Arab countries, the kingdom expects to begin using the satellite's telephone circuits as well in the near future.
Today, Saudi Arabia also operates a coastal radio system that provides ship-to-shore telecommunications for commercial vessels in the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea - code, telephone and Telex.
Telex service is another important means of communication that Saudi Arabia has extended and improved. Though introduced in 1974 there were no more than 700 lines for the three main urban areas until 1979 when three gateway exchanges were completed in Riyadh, Jiddah and Dammam and line capacity was boosted to 15,000, extending service to more than 70 other Saudi cities and nearly 200 foreign countries. By 1985, the number of available lines had increased to 30,000 and there were more than 17,000 subscribers in the kingdom, up from just 7,042 five years earlier. And in a crucial breakthrough for all Arab countries, the kingdom introduced, in June 1983, 2,000 newly developed Arabic-English Telex machines at the gateway exchanges.
Early in its management contract, Bell Canada had advised the Ministry of TPT to establish a government-owned but operationally autonomous phone company to run and maintain the burgeoning telecommunications system. As a result, Saudi Telephone was born.
Later changing its name - as it expanded to include telegraph and Telex services - Saudi Telecom is the equivalent of the former U.S. giant, "Ma Bell." It employs 15,000 people, mostly Saudis. It generates more than a billion dollars a year in revenue. And it can monitor its entire telecommunication system on giant computer display screens at a futuristic National Network Control Center in Riyadh, site of a central computer data center and a computerized directory inquiry center.
By any standard, Saudi Telecom has achieved a high degree of efficiency. According to the Ministry of TPT, 99.9 percent of subscribers get immediate dial tones; 99.7 percent of bills are issued error-free; 93-94 percent of callers get operator help or directory assistance within 10 seconds; and 87.9 percent of all faults are repaired in less than eight hours. Consequently, telephone users in Saudi Arabia can, at the push of a few buttons, communicate with friends, family or business associates throughout the kingdom or the world, thus quickening the pace and broadening the horizons of Saudi life.
To create these elaborate and enormous transportation and communication systems required, of course, an immense effort, and for a time Saudi Arabia seemed like a giant boom town. But today with the boom subsiding, spending on transport and communications is expected to drop to roughly $21 billion, and future emphasis will be on operation, maintenance, training, productivity and, above all, on cost control - an inescapable imperative in a period of declining revenues.
In some cases this will be more of a challenge than it pounds. Road maintenance, for example, is a major problem in Saudi Arabia because of sand encroachment and though Saudi engineers have tried a variety of techniques - stabilizing dunes with oil, chemical sprays, vegetation and snow fencing - sand control will require a tremendous effort - and continued funding. This, though, is a minor problem compared to those faced and overcome as, in one generation, Saudi Arabia entered -and conquered - major challenges in the modern world.
Dick Hobson and Arthur Clark are Aramco writers