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Volume 32, Number 4July/August 1981

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The Other Minerals

Written by George W. Windsor
Photographed by S. M. Amin

The geologists who waded ashore at Jubail in 1933 to pioneer the search for Saudi Arabian oil have long since passed into legend. But today, in other parts of the kingdom, other pioneers have launched other searches for other minerals: silver, copper, iron and zinc, industrial minerals such as limestone, phosphates and gypsum, and - an exciting possibility - gold.

Behind the search for other minerals is the determination of the Saudi Arab government to diversify its one-crop economy and, as Shaikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, has said, provide Saudi Arabia with other sources of revenue when its petroleum reserves are depleted, and also produce raw materials for the kingdom's nascent industrial base.

No bonanzas are expected - or predicted. But since 1961, when the Directorate General of Mineral Resources (DGMR) was established, the government has invested some $450 million in mining projects and has earmarked more than $1 billion for mining in its third Five Year Economic Development Plan and by 1981 mining was progressing steadily, if unspectacularly. In January, for example, the Ministry reported the first discovery of bauxite ore, the basic element in the manufacture of aluminum.

In the southeastern areas of Saudi Arabia, for example, near the kingdom's border with North Yemen, a company called the Arabian Shield Development Company has blasted a 3,505-meter (11,500 feet) tunnel into the rock of Wadi Sa'ada in search of zinc and copper at a place called al-Masani ("the workings"), where fragments of slag from an earlier period plus pits and shafts suggest that ancient people once mined it too.

Today's techniques, of course, are quite different from those of past ages. Last year, for example, Arabian Shield had brought in mobile drilling vehicles called "Jumbos" - at $265,000 each - to drill dynamite holes into the rock face of tunnels, "scoop trams" to shovel the debris into trucks after each blast, and 20-ton dump trucks to haul it away. The rock is not ore, but spoil from the tunnel that the company is driving into the walls of the wadi to reach what the company believes will be rich veins of zinc and copper.

At this stage, the process is not actually "mining" but mine development; actual mining will not begin before 1983, according to the man who is leading the search at Wadi Sa'ada - and elsewhere. This is Hatem al-Khalidi, president of the Arabian Shield Development Company.

According to al-Khalidi, diamond-bit drilling, which began in May, 1980, has already proven enough ore to justify a 1,000-ton-per-day operation and two Canadian consulting firms hope to complete the final feasibility study - including design of an ore treatment plant - by October. If mine development proceeds on schedule, al-Khalidi said, commercial mining could start in 1983 with an expected yield of 17,600 tons of copper concentrates, 24,000 tons of zinc concentrates, 19 tons of silver and one ton of gold per year. An optimist and a trained geologist, Hatem al-Khalidi has been searching for minerals in Saudi Arabia since 1964 by flying over an area in his twin-engine Beech and following up promising areas on foot. In 1967 he eventually, discovered "gossans" - rusty mineral deposits on rocks - at Wadi Qattan and Wadi Sa'ada.

From that discovery, recalled Greg Fernette at the mine site, came further exploration showing the gossans at Wadi Qattan to be nickel bearing and the gossans at al-Masani to be copper and zinc bearing. It also reminded al-Khalidi that there were both Islamic and pre-Islamic era smelters at Wadi Sa'ada and Shi'b al-Hura in the al-Masani area.

By 1971, Fernette continued, Arabian Shield had joined forces with the National Mining Company and by 1978 had drilled 46 holes which showed the existence of sulfide nickel deposits and sulfide copper-zinc deposits. As the terrain was unsuitable for deep drilling, however, the firms had to tunnel to potential ore zones to determine their content (or grade) and their size (or tonnage).

By September, the miners had completed nearly four kilometers (2.4 miles) of tunneling: a main tunnel driven 700 meters (2,297 feet) to the west and two "drifts" driven north and south - 95 meters (311 feet) beneath the ore zones so that miners could drill upwards into the ore from the tunnel. Concurrently, mining teams - up to 25 miners, plus engineers, surveyors, geologists, electricians and mechanics - drove small tunnels into the ore, extracted three 20-ton samples and sent them to the Colorado School of Mines Research Institute for pilot-plant metallurgical testing. They also started the diamond-bit drilling -from drilling stations in the drifts - and drilled 140 holes totaling over 13,716 meters (45,000 feet) to check reserves and locate new ore.

In addition to al-Masani, al-Khalidi has been searching for gold at Jahal Quyyam; by the spring of 1980 he had drilled 1,920 meters (6,300 feet) of holes. Then, however, he had to suspend work until the other discoveries could be evaluated.

Al-Khalidi, a Jerusalem-born American who studied geology at Michigan State University, is confident that Saudi Arabia could be a major producer of minerals within 20 years. One reason for his optimism, he says, is that the underground mineralization and the massive sulfide deposits in the Arabian Shield area - a region in the west of the kingdom with pre-cambrian rock more than a billion years old - are very similar to those in some regions in Canada, a country rich in both minerals and petroleum.

On the other hand, al-Khalidi admits, successful mining ventures demand more than promising ore analyses. One element is labor; with no tradition of mining technology left in Saudi Arabia, Arabian Shield must import all its trained labor. Another - vital - element is water - to cool diamond drilling bits, for example - and for flotation, one of the ways by which minerals are separated from the rock and from each other. Zinc must be concentrated from the five percent in the ore to the international standard of 27 percent, and copper from 1.5 percent to 55 percent. At al-Masani, this means that Arabian Shield will need 1,892,706 liters (500,000 gallons) a day to process the 1,000 tons of ore they hope to extract daily - the reason the company conducted a hydrological survey and engaged the Arabian Drilling Company to drill test wells.

A third element is transportation -inward with supplies, outward to the port of Jizan (See Aramco World, September-October 1980) with the metal concentrates. The company has already bulldozed and graded more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) of roads to link the mining site at al-Masani with the paved road network, but its still another 240 kilometers (150 miles) to the coast.

According to 1980 estimates, the ores at Mahd al-Dhahab may contain about an ounce of gold per ton of rock. This compares with a half-ounce-per-ton yield from some South African mines, and the two-tenths-of-an-ounce yield expected from a vein in California that an American mining company decided to exploit last year. If the estimates are correct, this ancient mine could yield as much as 3,703 kilograms (120,000 ounces) a year.

Even if the estimates are not close, mining operations at Mahd al-Dhahab still might be worthwhile. Estimates made for the DGMR suggest that in addition to gold, the ore could produce up to seven tons of silver, 1,000 tons of copper and 2,500 tons of zinc.

For the last four years, Saudi Arabia - along with The Sudan - has also been searching for minerals in the Red Sea, an attempt to exploit a rare geological situation.

According to geologists, the entire Arabian Peninsula is slowly rotating counterclockwise, and - over geological lengths of time - gradually closing the Strait of Hormuz, narrowing the Arabian Gulf and widening the Red Sea. As a result of this tectonic movement, deep rifts have opened at the bottom of the Red Sea through which mineral components from within the earth are being spewed into the seawater by volcanic processes.

In 1948 the first of these 18 known "deeps" - where the seawater is very salty, mineral-rich and hot - was discovered by the Swedish survey vessel Albatross. Since then, scientists have learned that the minerals-precipitated from the seawater near the deeps - tend to collect in the seabottom mud; mud samples show the presence of zinc, copper, silver, lead, cadmium and cobalt, plus traces of other minerals.

Recognizing the potential value of this discovery, Saudi Arabia and The Sudan began, in 1976, to study and map the Red Sea, and eventually focused on the Atlantis II Deep, an area of nearly 65 square kilometers (25 square miles) west of Jiddah, halfway between Saudi Arabia and The Sudan. According to the studies, the muds in the Atlantis II Deep contain some 2.5 million tons of zinc, half a million tons of copper and 9,000 tons of silver, among other things, with a potential value in the billions of dollars.

Then there's the matter of profitability; I with $12 million already spent on exploration, development, labor and infrastructure, will the mine be profitable? Al-Khalidi thinks it will, if metal prices - of about $.95 a pound for copper and $.40 a pound for zinc-remain stable. Ifs a big "if" - metal prices fluctuate wildly, as silver showed in 1980 - but in April, 1981, prices were holding; if they continue to do so, al-Khalidi estimates profits of between $7 million and $20 million, depending on ore quality and the world market when the mine goes into production.

Another exciting possibility is the centuries-old Mahd al-Dhahab ("Cradle of Gold"), about 290 kilometers (180 miles) northeast of Jiddah, the site, according to legend, of one of the fabled King Solomon's Mines. Here, under license, a Saudi-British joint venture - Petromin and Consolidated Goldfields of London - has already collected more than 13,762 cubic meters (18,000 cubic yards) of ore for analysis from a 1,538 square kilometer (615 square miles) tract, pronounced the finds "small but rich", and established a mining camp less than a mile from the original Mahd al-Dhahab mine.

The prospect of gold is always exciting and at Mahd al-Dhahab the excitement is stronger still. Though no one can prove that it was one of King Solomon's Mines, it is by no means unlikely. Its ore has been mined extensively during at least three periods: about 950 B.C. - in the time of King Solomon; from A. D. 750 to 1150, during the Abbasid Caliphate; and from 1939 to 1954, when nearly 28,350 kilograms (a million ounces) of gold were extracted.

Not much is left of the past ventures except a few buildings and a flooded shaft marking the search by a firm called the Saudi Arabian Mining Syndicate - the farm founded by the famous Karl Twitchell - but in the fourth attempt to find gold at Mahd al-Dhahab, the new mining company has already set up some prefabricated buildings near the new mine for some 30 miners, and in a few years will build an entirely new community among the region's hills, acacia trees and brush. Plans call for an expenditure of $60 million to provide a new processing plant - to extract gold from the ore - and to build housing, water pipelines, a power plant and communications equipment.

Saudi-Sudanese studies in the past two years have attempted to determine the cost and feasibility of extracting minerals from the sea-mud and it is already dear that there will be problems. One is that the deposits lie at depths of 1,981 meters (6,500 feet), another is that there would be an immense volume of mud to process: even when dried and free of salt more than 100 million tons of material would have to be processed to extract minerals.

A third problem is that extracting minerals from the mud might be technically difficult because the mud is so fine. More that half the mud consists of particles smaller than.203 millimeter (.008").

Governments in Saudi Arabia and The Sudan are also concerned about the possible effect of mining on the plant and animal life of the Red Sea (See Aramco World, September-October 1980). This was the main point of a "pre-pilot" test of probable mud-mining technology carried out in March 1975 - and that itself followed intensive physical, chemical and oceanographic studies. Using a 2,195-meter (7,200 feet) pipe string with a suction head, a converted oil-drilling ship was used to mine 15,000 tons of Atlantis II muds. Once on board, the mud was passed through a flotation process that separated the 95-percent waste product from the useful five percent of minerals, chemicals and water.

The waste mud is the cause of the ecological concern: siltation cuts off light and oxygen from benthic and bottom-dwelling creatures and can prevent the growth of plankton on which, ultimately, much ocean life depends. In the pre-pilot test, the waste - or tailings, as miners call it -was pumped down a 1,300-foot outlet pipe with enough force to send the jet down 1,300 feet on its own, there to be diffused in all directions, while, in space, a NASA satellite monitored the plumes that returned to the surface.

Initially, the diffusion pattern suggests that mining of the mud would not pose any ecological problems, but to be absolutely certain, the governments' scientists have identified certain trace elements in the tailings that can be tracked and studied over a period of years to gauge possible long-term effects.

The net results of these extensive studies suggest that extracting metals from minerals from the Red Sea is feasible; of four companies given mud samples, and using four different extraction processes, two have reported that metals can be profitably extracted, and the environmental tests have shown no immediate threat. The governments, therefore, will probably proceed with further tests - such as tracking the trace elements in the waste mud from the Atlantic II Deep - and, if there are no negative results, authorize a pilot mud-mining project in 1983.

On land, the DGMR has signed contracts with a bevy of international agencies and corporations in its efforts to survey and map the kingdom's geological features and to investigate, inventory and help develop, in an orderly way, the mineral resources. Included so far are the United States Geological Survey, the French Bureau de Recherches Geologiques et Minieres, Rio Tinto Finance and Exploration, the British Steel Corporation, the Japanese Geological Mission, Minatome, a French uranium company and a Royal Dutch Shell company. British Steel, for example, is carrying out feasibility studies on an iron ore deposit at Sawawin, about 96 kilometers (60 miles) southwest of Tabuk where, unfortunately, research indicates that a 300-million-ton body of ore contains only about 40 to 45 percent iron. That percentage is too low to allow the ore to be used directly in the carbon steel facilities planned for Jubail and Yanbu, but might be high enough to provide an internal source of iron which, by massive mining or intermediate enrichment, might be made useful.

Elsewhere, a Swedish firm has taken out an exploration license on the Nuqra area and is now carrying out the underground work to prepare a feasibility report on the small but high-grade deposits of silver, gold, zinc and copper it has found. Mining could start there in 1984.

There are promising deposits of the other minerals elsewhere, too: at Jabal Sayid, where copper deposits seem to contain 40 million tons of 1.7 percent ore; at al-Zabira where the bauxite is and at Khaniqiya, where deposits of zinc - with probable reserves of 15 million tons of better than five-percent ore - might be mined by cheap open-cast methods, if ecological considerations permit. And at Ghurayya in northern Saudi Arabia there are deposits of columbium, tantalum and uranium, for which new extraction methods will have to be developed.

The government, of course, would like such projects to be profitable, but developing its other minerals will in any case result in advantages that balance sheets cannot fully measure. The mineral projects, for example, are part of a larger plan to encourage the growth of local industry and reduce the need for imports -and the accompanying cash out-flow.

Thus, the DGMR is helping local companies locate deposits of ornamental stone, clay, limestone, gypsum and various aggregates - all raw materials for the kingdom's burgeoning construction industry - and the Red Sea Commission is discussing mineral processing facilities in the new industrial center of Yanbu - to produce zinc, copper, silver, cobalt, gypsum and cadmium sulfide in commercial quantities.

Further benefits, almost incidental but nonetheless valuable, include better mapping of the Red Sea and the western part of the kingdom, and the training and experience provided to young Saudi geologists and workers in related fields.

For all those reasons, Saudi Arabia is demonstrating its commitment to the other minerals by offering foreign companies, such advantages as five-year tax holidays, interest-free capital loans and solid backup from the DGMR and its advisers - a long range commitment appropriately, if accidentally, suggested by the fact that the first producing mine of the new age of mining will be the Mahd al-Dhahab, three millennia after it was first opened in the time of King Solomon.

George W. Windsor, Jr., an instructor of English at the University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, writes regularly for the Arab News, an English language daily newspaper published in Jiddah.

This article appeared on pages 25-30 of the July/August 1981 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1981 images.