Taming the Empty Quarter with a full tank of petrol

Due to open by the start of the Islamic New Year later this month, the Empty Quarter Highway links Oman and Saudi Arabia with 565 kilometres of tarmac.

The first road has been built across the mysterious and dangerous shifting sands of the Rub Al Khali desert. Courtesy Muhammad Ajanji.
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Contractors have achieved a once-insurmountable goal, building a road through the Empty Quarter. A motorway finally opens this month to link Oman and Saudi Arabia.

'The country grew more arid; every plant and bush was dead. Skeletons of trees, brittle powdery branches, fallen and half-buried in the drifting sand, and deposits of silt left by ancient floods, but now as dry as ashes.

“At sunset we saw the Sands stretching across our front, a shimmering rose-coloured wall, seemingly as intangible as a mirage.”

This was the Rub Al Khali, the vast desert known as the Empty Quarter, as witnessed by the explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger during the first of his historic crossings in 1945.

If Sir Wilfred had lived another 70 years, it would have been much easier. He could have swiftly crossed the Empty Quarter in his car.

This month, the Rub Al Khali will be tamed by the forces of progress. A new motorway will reduce a journey that might have once taken weeks and possibly ended in death, to a few air-conditioned hours behind the wheel.

Due to open by the start of the Islamic New Year later this month, the Empty Quarter Highway links Oman and Saudi Arabia with 565 kilometres of tarmac.

Building the road, though, was every bit as difficult and arduous as those first crossings on foot and camel. Machines had to dig through 1,000-foot sand dunes, working 14 hours a day in shifts in temperatures that ranged from minus-1°C to 50°C.

“The goal of this project was to establish the first-ever land connection between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman,” says Paul Floyd, senior managing director at Al Futtaim Auto and Machinery Company (Famco).

It has taken five years to build. Sections of the Saudi road were overseen by Saudi company Al Rosan Contracting, with Famco providing up to 100 machines from Volvo Construction Equipment.

With headquarters in Dubai, Famco entered the Saudi market in 2011 by taking over a Volvo equipment dealership.

“The nature of the Empty Quarter desert was the biggest challenge for us, as only highly engineered and sophisticated construction machinery can survive such work conditions,” says Mr Floyd.

Covering an area of nearly 600,000 square km, the Empty Quarter is the size of France and contains as much sand as the entire Sahara Desert.

It is a place of mystery and danger, with legends of lost cities, singing winds that hypnotise, misleading mirages and mischievous Djinn (supernatural genies).

Crossing it was one of the great challenges of the 20th century, comparable in difficulty with traversing the South Pole. But whereas the South Pole was reached in 1912, the Rub Al Khali did not yield for another 20 years.

In 1931, the British explorer Bertram Thomas left Salalah in Oman, emerging triumphant in Qatar. The news was broken by The New York Times with the headline “White Man Crosses the Arabian Desert for the First Time”.

Thomas wrote that he “travelled in an Arab kit, but otherwise as an undisguised Christian”, with an Arab tribe led by a “tough” Omani, Sheikh Salih, for more than 900 miles on camels.

His success sent his great rival, Englishman Harry St John Philby, who was in the service of Ibn Saud, into a deep depression.

Philby, father of the notorious Soviet agent Kim Philby, later recovered to make his own crossing in 1932, to be followed by Thesiger, whose two expeditions reached what is now Al Ain in 1947 and Abu Dhabi in 1948.

The new motorway follows an east-west route, connecting Muscat and the port of Sohar to the main cities of Saudi Arabia. It is also expected to become a new route for pilgrims to Mecca.

From its Riyadh branch, Famco set up a logistics “bridge” to supply construction equipment to the remote and isolated area. Spare parts were taken the worksites each week and Famco’s technicians were on rotation bi-weekly.

The distributor built four 40-foot-high containers for storing spare parts and installed portable cabins that were highly resistant to strong winds and sand infiltration.

“The extreme temperature called for both a reliable workforce and machinery to work together to overcome that factor,” says Mr Floyd.

“Not to forget also, the distance between the work sites and the nearest inhabited city, which demanded we come up with a practical and effective solution which was manifested in establishing mobile workshops to provide 24/7 service and maintenance support to the equipment.”

Huge articulated haulers had to move about 130 million cubic metres of sand for bridge construction, the equivalent of 26 Great Pyramids. Protecting the sand embankments from the elements required 12 million cubic metres of material.

With no local settlements or safe drinking water, Al Rosan built desalination plants and temporary accommodation for its 600-strong team of drivers, operators, technicians and auxiliary staff.

Famco staff reported having to run from packs of wild dogs that would appear the middle of nowhere, while some labourers feared Djinn would make trouble at night.

A road building venture of such epic scale has attracted its own fan club. A video made by Famco Saudi and posted on YouTube last year has attracted more than one million views for the Arabic language version, something almost unprecedented in the construction industry.

“This project is a testament that where there is a will, there is a way,” says Mr Floyd. “The Empty Quarter has stood for centuries as a natural barrier between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman, and with this road project, the first-ever land link will be a reality between the two neighbouring countries.”

The new road is expected to cut the distance between main points in both countries by up to 500km. Oman and Saudi Arabia are currently linked via road only through the UAE, a total distance of 2,000km. Until this project, those who wanted to go to Oman from Saudi Arabia had to pass by the UAE.

The new road extends 160km inside Oman, and 565km in Saudi. In Oman, the road starts from Tanam area of Ibri province, until it reaches the Oman-Saudi border in the Empty Quarter. Tanam is an equal distance from Muscat and Sohar – an important port city.

The Saudi section links the Khorais-Bathaa Road to the Omani border, via Shayba and Umm Zamoul, and connects the Haradh-Batha Road with Al Shaybah oilfield, a distance of 319km.

The distance between Al Shaybah, operated by Saudi Aramco, and Oman is 256km. This is the part that has been completed by Al Rosan and comprises single-lane carriageways, with secondary lanes added for lorries and slower-moving traffic in sections where there are steep inclines.

Reports say Oman has spent up to $519.2m (OMR200m) on the road’s construction, while Saudi Arabia has spent up to $266.6m (SAR1bn) on the project.

While there are no services yet along the road, the Saudi Ministry of Transport is providing 24-hour maintenance to remove sand from accumulating on the top surface. There are also barriers and sand mitigation walls set up to prevent sand from obstructing the road.

The contract for builders stipulates that the road must be monitored for one year following its completion. This will involve crews driving up and down the length of the motorway with graders to clear the shifting sand.

In addition, the stakeholders must provide spare parts and technical assistance to vehicles that run into difficulties along the route due to the region’s unpredictable weather conditions.

“This project was one of the most challenging projects which Famco undertook in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and in the region, but certainly not the only one,” says Mr Floyd.

“It is the unique nature of the work environment that made it a bit different from the other projects which we normally work on. For example, in the UAE we had a similar mobile workshop support concept in place for the construction of the Palm Jumeirah and Palm Jebel Ali.”

The road promises to create investment opportunities and to boost tourism and business between Saudi Arabia and Oman.

It may also need some courage to travel along a road still so desolate, with unreliable communication and no fuelling stations yet set up. But given what past explorers had to endure to make the crossing, by comparison this journey will be an easier trip.