en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 18, Number 2March/April 1967

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Desert Road

Across the sands it goes—Saudi Arabia’s newest trade route to the Mediterranean.

Written by Jan Van Os
Photographed by Khalil Abou El Nasr

The delicate pink flower stood in its innocence on the border line of two worlds. On the right was the desert—motionless and quiet. On the left was a road—a road where clouds of yellow dust billowed into the sky, where huge earth-movers clanked up the side of a small hill, where trucks roared off with great loads of sand and rock.

The scene was a few miles west of Badanah in northwest Saudi Arabia. The work underway was the reconstruction and surfacing of what is known as the "Tapline Road," a 17-year-old graded-earth and gravel road running from the Tapline (The Trans-Arabian Pipe Line Company) pumping station at Qaisumah to Turaif near the Saudi Arab-Jordan border—a distance of 514 miles.

The old road had come into existence during the years when Tapline was constructing its pipeline. In those days it was used exclusively by the mammoth trucks and trailers brought in to haul the enormous quantities of pipe and building materials up the line from Ras al-Mish'ab on the Arabian Gulf, the point where ships unloaded the materials. Later, Tapline maintenance crews and security patrols assigned by the Saudi Arab Government to protect the pipeline began to use it, too. Then, as word got around that the Tapline Road offered a new overland shortcut for the movement of goods from Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to Eastern and Central Arabia and to the Gulf states, big commercial trucks soon began to outnumber all Tapline and government traffic. In almost no time the road had developed into a major traffic artery. In 1963 the Saudi Arab Government, wishing to incorporate the road into its expanding highway system, made an agreement with Tapline under which Tapline would improve the whole road from Qaisumah to Turaif, surface it with asphalt, and make an annual payment for the upkeep of the road upon completion.

Upon the signing of the agreement Tapline, which had decided to supervise the work itself, immediately dispatched engineers to resurvey the road and began to recruit workers and draw up bid tenders for parts of the job that would be handled by Saudi Arab contractors. Within three months work was underway and within 10 months crews were applying asphalt to the Qaisumah end of the road. By the end of 1964 the rebuilt road had reached "kilometer 200" on the pipeline—which meant that 125 miles were ready—and by November 15, 1966 had reached kilometer 642. By this June if there are no unusual delays the project will be completed.

Roads, like housing, are necessities almost as old as mankind itself. The first ones were probably no more than foot paths or trails leading from places where man had found shelter, to other places where he could find food. Longer and wider roads developed when he discovered that goods available in one place were in demand somewhere else. Some of those roads later became famous trade routes—like the great caravan trails from South Arabia to Jordan, or the fantastic "Silk Route" which ran all the way from the Middle East to China. Roads as we know them today developed when man set out to conquer other lands and discovered he needed dependable tracks over which he could march his armies, swiftly carry his supplies and, if his venture were successful, send back the treasures, the prisoners and the slaves he had captured.

Some of the most famous roads are thousands of years old. The Egyptians spent 10 years building the road on which they carried the materials needed for the creation of the Great Pyramid at Gizeh. Traders some 4,500 years ago established a 1,755-mile-long trade route between Smyrna on the Aegean Sea and Susa in southwest Iran. In Europe the famous "Amber Road" or road system was built 2,000 years before Christ to haul precious amber from the Baltic Sea to Rome, Greece and Asia Minor. In Britain there was a "Tin Road" which started at Cornwall in the southwest and ended at Colchester on the North Sea; in South America the Incas built roads across wild Andes Mountains from present-day Peru and Columbia to Chile. Probably the most famous road builders were the Romans. To link the distant points of their great empire they constructed a vast network of highways throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East, roads so good that many exist to this day. Roman achievements in road building, in fact, went unchallenged right up to the beginning of the 20th century, when that revolutionary new means of transportation, the automobile, began to require a whole new network of roads. Since then, and especially since the 1920's, road construction has been going on at a tremendous pace almost everywhere. In World War 11 a number of long-distance highways were built for strategic purposes in North America—the Alcan Highway, for example—Africa, Asia and Australia, and today one can travel by bus from London to Calcutta or drive directly from Alaska almost to the tip of South America.

Compared to those giant undertakings, the Tapline Road is a relatively short one. But in proportion, its importance is enormous. Before it existed many vital goods going to the eastern and central section of the Arabian Peninsula, to Kuwait and the Arabian Gulf states, had to be transported by ship—a long slow trip from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Gulf—or had to be flown in at great cost. Even before its surfacing with asphalt, the Tap-line Road had become the preferred route for many commodities. When surfacing is complete, the hearts of the truckers will be gladdened by this smoother, faster and more economical trade route from the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean.

From the air, the Tapline Road, where finished, is a dark narrow strip alongside a long steel tube bolted to the desert floor—the pipeline that carries Saudi Arabia's oil to tankers in the Mediterranean. Like an endless strip of black carpet, it stretches out across arid ochre plains, never more than a few hundred feet from the pipeline, or from the markers in the sand that show where the pipeline runs underground. Sometimes it stretches off as straight as the shaft of an arrow; sometimes it curves and twists like a ribbon of black silk. Sometimes it comes to a sudden end at places where clouds of choking dust boiling high into the air signal the presence of the men and machines who are rebuilding the road.

Reconstruction of the road has been done in five stages. The first stage was no more than a fast, but thorough, field survey to recheck the original road for any minor changes in design that might be required to accommodate the constantly increasing traffic. The second stage was carrying out the work after the survey. Earth-moving crews, with their six DW-20 earth-movers (each with a capacity of 18 cubic yards), their bulldozers and their motor graders, began to level hills, fill in low places and straighten sharp horizontal curves. By the time the whole project is finished, the earth-moving crews alone will have moved a staggering 2,350,000 cubic yards of earth.

In the third stage, layers of earth are dumped on the road, soaked with water, rolled, and then shaped and graded by a succession of bulldozers, graders and rollers. In the fourth stage, a layer of approximately four inches of crushed rock is spread, smoothed, watered, mixed, reshaped and then rolled with heavy rubber-tired rollers until it is ready for the first coat of hot asphalt, sprayed over the crushed material. This new coat is left to cure for a day or two, depending on the weather, and then is rolled with pneumatic rollers, until it can accommodate traffic.

The final stage is reached when the first armor coat is applied. It consists of a heavier grade of asphalt covered with a layer of crushed rock, which is then rolled, first with a heavy steel-wheeled roller and then with rubber-tired rollers. As a last step the road is tidied up by power brooms, which brush off excess chips, and then is opened to traffic.

A second armor coat will follow approximately 12 months after the first, to give an opportunity for traffic to expose any defects in the surface or subgrade, and for such defects to be repaired. Application of the second armor coat is identical with that of the first.

Since it was started, the reconstruction of the road has moved along at about 11 miles a month, a pace that has required skillful advance planning to insure a constant supply of marl, crushed rock, water, and asphalt. "Our asphalt comes from Aramco's refinery at Ras Tanura which is pretty far away," says Elwood ("Woody") H. Gray, Tapline's senior project engineer. "All our spare parts and other supplies are drawn from Tapline's central facilities at Turaif which, in turn, receive them from sources all over the world." ('Pretty far away' is a bit of an understatement. The average distance from Ras Tanura to the job site is just under 500 miles which is roughly the distance from Washington D.C to Indianapolis, or from London to Zürich.)

But for the rest, according to Mr. Gray, the whole project is "a road material engineer's dream." Rock, for example, which is used for the final surfacing and armor coating of the road, is simply gathered in the desert and pushed by bulldozers to two movable rock-crushing plants, one with a capacity of ISO cubic yards per hour. (The crushed rock is stockpiled according to size and, when needed, hauled to the job site. A total of 800,000 cubic yards will be used by the time the road is finished.) Water, an essential element in any road construction, is provided by Tapline's own pumping station wells and augmented from some of the old wells drilled by Aramco during the first years of oil operations in Saudi Arabia. Huge quantities are needed: 288,000 gallons for the completion of each mile of road. The asphalt, hauled in bulk from Ras Tanura, is pumped into eight 6,000-gallon mobile storage tanker trailers near the job site, which, in turn, load distributor tank trucks. By last November when 400 miles were completed more than 4,400,000 U.S. gallons of asphalt had been used.

Working in the desert, however, has other advantages too. One is in design. The desert, with the exception of a few low hills and dry river beds, is flat. The prevailing soil is solid and strong. It hardly ever rains in the area and, best of all, there is an absolute absence of frost action—fill of which adds up to fast construction and, as any Tapline engineer will be glad to testify, good results. "The first thing we did when our stretch, from Qaisumah to Rafha, was ready," reported one, "was to remove the sand tires from our automobiles and replace them with regular tires." Another old-timer commented: "You're driving along this new road and what do you feel? Nothing! Besides," he added, "it's a pleasant sensation to hear the old tires sing again."

As they will soon along the entire length of the Tapline Road.

Jan van Os, now working as a journalist in the Netherlands, is the former Assistant Editor of Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 22-29 of the March/April 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1967 images.