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Volume 33, Number 6November/December 1982

In This Issue

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The Cornerstones

With a population smaller than London's scattered over an area the size of western Europe, and a development program heavily dependent on imported services and supplies, Saudi Arabia sees communications and transportation as vital elements - the cornerstones, in fact- of its economic growth.

No government, of course, can function effectively without efficient transport and widespread communications — a lesson the Saudi government learned the hard way when, in the mid-1970's, severe transportation bottlenecks halted - or at least hindered - the movement of materials needed for its development projects. The result was a spurt of inflation and brief disruption of the kingdom's plans.

In response, however, the Saudi government began to build - on an urgent basis - new seaports to receive world cargoes, new airports to link Saudi cities with each other and the rest of the world, new roads to channel progress to outlying areas, and a telecommunications network to speed business transactions. Between 1975 and 1980, the period covered by the Second Five Year Development Plan, Saudi Arabia laid 24,000 kilometers of roadway (14,913 miles), installed some 250,000 new telephone lines, and built the world's biggest and, at times, busiest airport.

Ports, of course, had the highest priority because it was here that the bottlenecks began. At one point in 1976, for example, there were a total of 355 ships waiting to unload cargo at Saudi ports - and one result was sudden, severe inflation, since goods, once ashore, could command almost any price.

Another result was a delay in vital development projects, and since this could not be tolerated, the government took an unprecedented step to break the logjam: it created a national Ports Authority with a mandate to eliminate port congestion whatever the cost. It was an unusual move, but the results more than justified it. Since then Saudi Arabia has completed four new deep sea ports and modernized three others, thus cutting waiting time to zero. Also added were new offshore loading terminals for gas.

Nowhere is this transformation more visible than at the expanded and modernized port of Dammam on the Arabian Gulf. A chaotic scene only a few years ago, Dammam's port now is so clinically clean that visitors hesitate to even drop cigarette butts on its spotless quays, and it is so efficiently quiet that dolphins have been heard answering the horns of giant "straddle" cars whisking containers smoothly and quietly around the docks.

Dammam today counts 38 spacious berths instead of the nine clogged quays available in 1975; cargoes are kept track of by computer rather than overworked shipping clerks; and a six-lane causeway has replaced the old trestle access to the port. As another measure, Dammam's gantries unload containers at the rate of 35 an hour - 10 more than Felixstowe, England, which holds the European record.

Dammam, which serves Saudi Arabia's oil-producing Eastern province, is not the only example of success with ports. Another example is at Ju'aymah where a 10 kilometer trestle (six miles) was built to carry pipelines to offshore loading terminals. In fact, says one Aramco economist, "ports are probably the best... example of the... achievements of the... Plan."

When discussing Saudi ports development experts frequently use the phrase "from chaos to showpiece" - a description graphically illustrated at Jiddah. This port, on the Red Sea, was once typical of the mystery and confusion graphically described by novelists in depicting eastern harbors, but is now thought to be one of the most sophisticated shipping centers in the world. Saudi Arabia's largest port, Jiddah today has 45 berths - 33 of them brand new - a modern computerized container terminal, and a total unloading capacity of 17 million tons a year - more than double what it was five years ago.

Further north, there is Yanbu,' also on the Red Sea, and one of Saudi Arabia's oldest ports. Long associated with sailing dhows and camel caravans, Yanbu' has been propelled into the 20th century with the construction of seven new berths -previously it only had two - and the widening of its entrance channel.

In addition to upgrading these three ports, the Ports Authority has built two new ones - one at Jubail on the Gulf, with 16 berths, and the other at Jizan on the Red Sea, with four berths - and the Saudi Ministry of Public Works and Housing has built two 10-berth ports, exclusively for construction materials. One is at Ras al-Ghar on the Gulf, the other at Qadimah on the Red Sea -bringing the total number of deep-sea berths in Saudi Arabia to 130, compared with 23 just 26 years ago.

Another major problem facing the kingdom in the early days was the lack of roads-asAlial-Ghamdi,a public relations officer in Dammam, makes clear. In 1957, he recalls, it took him 16 days to traverse the Arabian peninsula from his native village of Baljarshi, in the West, to Dhahran, in the East, in search of work — six days from Baljarshi to Taif, seven days from Taif to Riyadh, and three days from Riyadh to Dhahran — driving in six or seven car convoys at between 10 to 20 kilometers (6 to 12 miles) an hour.

Today, however, says al-Ghamdi, the same drive takes less than 15 hours and he frequently visits his family in Baljarshi for long weekends.

To measure that achievement, it must be recalled that 30 years ago there were no paved roads in Saudi Arabia and that in 10 years Saudi Arabia has almost tripled the length of its asphalted and paved road network and increased by nearly seven times its rural road system. By 1981 the kingdom's road network consisted of 11,825 kilometers (7,348 miles) of asphalt highways, 9,760 kilometers (6,064 miles) of paved secondary roads, and 24,186 kilometers (15,029 miles) of earth-surfaced rural roads linking 6,954 villages.

During the Second Five Year Plan period, 1975 to 1980, the Saudi government spent more than 23 billion riyals ($6.72 billion dollars) on road building, the most spectacular result of which was the 753-kilometer Jizan-Taif mountain highway (467 miles) linking the fertile farming areas of the south with major commercial centers of the west through tortuous terrain. More recently, construction has begun on an expressway linking Jiddah with Dammam.

Building roads in Saudi Arabia presents special difficulties in the flatlands because the big winds blowing across the desert can bury a road in hours unless special precautions are taken.

Speeding along the kingdom's smooth new highways now, visitors can see - though they may not recognize - these precautions by the roadside: what appear to be abandoned mounds of asphalt and discarded ruptured tires. In fact, these mounds are carefully molded aerodynamic shapes that deflect blown sand, and the "tires" are bituminized rubber strips that help contain shifting dunes.

Contractors building roads must also be careful in siting sign posts and crash barriers; wrongly placed, they could cause a buildup of sand and even create a dune.

Then - oddly in such an arid land - there is the problem of flash floods — even more of a problem than sand. Rainfall, it is true, is scant, but as sand does not absorb cloudbursts fast enough, floods build up rapidly and thunder down wadis at a terrifying rate. Incongruous as it may look, therefore, dikes and culverts must be constructed.

Despite these problems, the Ministry of Communications is well on the way to achieving the main objective of the massive Saudi road building program; nothing less than integration of the whole country in order to spread industrial and agricultural development to every region.

Because of the size of the Arabian Peninsula, air transport got off to a fast start after U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a Dakota DC-3 to King 'Abd al-'Aziz in 1945. But even air transport has undergone an unprecedented transformation in the last decade.

Today, for example, the national airline, Saudia, operates a fleet of over 60 jets. Internal flights, in fact, are now so regular that a seat can often be obtained shortly before takeoff, and with the completion of the massive new Jiddah and Riyadh airports the kingdom will have one of the most comprehensive air networks in the world.

One of the wonders of the modern aviation world, the King 'Abd al-'Aziz International Airport in Jiddah covers an area of more than 103 square kilometers (40 square miles) - twice the size of Manhattan Island and half again as big as Kennedy, La Guardia, CHare and Los Angeles airports rolled into one.

Saudi officials say the jetport is second largest in area in the world after Montreal's Mirabel Airport. But a spokesman for the Canadian High Commission in London told Aramco World Magazine that Saudi Arabia was being too modest. "Most of the land originally part of Mirabel has since been given over to non-airport use," the spokesman said. "Jiddah airport is the largest in area in the world."

More than 11,000 men from 35 countries worked six years to build the airport in virgin desert 18 kilometers north of Jiddah (12 miles), and the results in statistical terms are spectacular. The new jetport, for example, has the largest air-cargo handling system in the Middle East - it is capable of handling 150,000 metric tons of freight a year - and the special Hajj Terminal can handle 80,000 pilgrims a day - arriving at the rate of 100 aircraft an hour, all landing alternately on its two more-than-3,350-meter runways (11,000 feet) beside the Red Sea.

Beneath a control tower 60 meters (197 feet) high there is a mall with parking for 44 jetliners. In the Royal Pavilion there are 150 antique carpets covering the floors and outside — shading an oasis-like forecourt — are palm trees. The airport, in fact, is surrounded by trees - 70,000 trees -planted as a barrier against sand.

Altogether there are four terminals at the Jiddah jetport. The South Terminal serves passengers of domestic and international flights of Saudia. Spacious and cool, it is floored and walled with 6,500 tons of gleaming white marble and can handle up to 2,200 passengers an hour. The slightly smaller North Terminal is used by the 28 foreign airlines serving Jiddah. Its walls are faced with ceramic, its floors tiled with terrazzo and main passenger processing area completely enclosed in heat-resistant glass. At peak boarding times this terminal can manage 2,000 persons an hour and the airport as a whole will eventually employ 20,000 people.

Impressive as those terminals are, however, they pale into insignificance when compared to the airport's two other - and completely self-contained — passenger terminals, one for heads of state and governments, other important guests and the Saudi royal family, the other for Muslim pilgrims en route to nearby Makkah (Mecca).

The Royal Pavilion, with its copper roof, white marble walls and exquisite interior, is, as its name suggests, fit for a king. Its main reception hall, for instance, boasts Thai silk wallpaper and gold embroidered tapestries, and adjoining it are lavishly furnished banqueting and conference halls - plus an ultra-modern press room with full radio and television coverage facilities

The showpiece of the airport is undoubtedly the Hajj Terminal - a complex comprising 20 enclosed passenger processing facilities, and scores of open air rest and prayer plazas, markets, kitchens, banks and bath houses - all sheltered from the desert sun by the largest fabric roof in the world — gleaming white fiberglass, suspended from 440 steel pylons and shaped by 396 kilometers (246 miles) of cable into 210 conical tents, that house pilgrims at the height of the pilgrimage (See Aramco World, July-August, 1981).

Despite its enormous size, the Jiddah jetport will not be the world's largest airport much longer. A new airport now under construction near Riyadh - and scheduled to open in 1983 - will cover an area of 243 square kilometers (94 square miles) - almost three times the size of the Jiddah facility.

Situated 35 kilometers (22 miles) north of the kingdom's inland capital, the Riyadh airport will be the hub of Saudi Arabia's fast-growing domestic air travel and an international gateway as well. By the end of the century it is expected to handle an estimated 15 million passengers a year.

Like Jiddah's jetport, Riyadh's $3.2 billion airport will have a number of terminals and special architecture: two international terminals and two domestic passenger terminals, each triangular in shape and roofed by 72 triangular sections stepped up in tiers. In addition there will be one of the largest mosques in the kingdom at 12,541 square meters (135,000 square feet), one of the tallest control towers in the world, its operation floor 76 meters (250 feet) off the ground, and multi-story garages nearly as long as the terminal complex itself, that will house 10,000 cars.

And even this airport could be dwarfed by still another new airport; planned for the Eastern Province, between Dhahran and Dammam.

In addition to three international jet ports, Saudi Arabia today has no fewer than 22 domestic airports. The five main domestic airports are at Tabuk, Medina, Taif, Abha and Jizan in the Western Province. Other domestic airports are located at Wajh on the Red Sea, at Bishah, Najran and Sharrah in the South; and at Badanah, al-Jawf, Ha'il and al-Qasim in the North. There are also nine smaller local airports scattered around the country and eventually every settlement of any size will have reasonably easy access to air travel.

Another cornerstone is communications. Not long ago foreign correspondents visiting Saudi Arabia had to fly to neighboring countries to file their stories because adequate facilities simply didn't exist in the kingdom. As recently as 1978, for example, there were only 125,000 telephone lines in the entire country compared to 5,913,942 lines in New York city alone.

By 1982, however, there were some 650,000 lines, according to a Ministry of Post, Telegraph and Telephones release last February - a five-fold increase in as many years. The kingdom's Telephone Expansion Program, moreover, is the largest single project in the history of the telephone; it will provide more than one and a quarter million lines by 1985.

This is no mean feat when one considers that the ministry's trenching and cabling teams frequently had to work in cities and towns for which no maps or plans existed, and in which social norms forbade them from entering a house to work if no male member of the family was present.

To meet the rapidly growing needs of the kingdom, major companies from The Netherlands, Sweden and Canada have installed some of the most advanced computerized exchange systems available in the world today, with the result that Saudi Arabia was the first country in the world with a nationwide computer-controlled telephone network.

The most important aspect of the system is its flexibility and speed. If, for example, somebody wants to make a call from Jiddah to Riyadh, the computerized exchange first tries to connect the call through a coaxial cable link, then, if all lines are busy, it tries a microwave network until a free line is found—all in the space of a few seconds.

The coaxial cable and microwave system, of which Saudi Arabia's "Backbone Project" are part, stretches 10,000 kilometers (6,214 miles) from Jiddah, on the Red Sea, via Makkah, Taif, Riyadh and Hofuf, to Dammam, on the Arabian Gulf. Between them they provide a total of 42,000 channels for telephone conversations, four television channels, and facilities for Telex, telegram and radio transmission.

Saudi Arabia also has a domestic satellite system of 11 mobile and three fixed earth stations, linking its cities with the international telecommunications satellite organization Intelsat, and allowing almost anyone with a telephone in the kingdom to dial anywhere in the world direct.

This article appeared on pages 6-13 of the November/December 1982 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1982 images.