Site visit: KSA-Oman road build, Rub' al Khali

Al-Rosan Company and FAMCO explain how a 95-strong fleet of Volvo CE machines is helping to blaze a trail from Saudi Arabia to Oman

Al-Rosan started by trialling 15 Volvo machines. At the time of writing, the firm had purchased 95 Volvo units from FAMCO.
Al-Rosan started by trialling 15 Volvo machines. At the time of writing, the firm had purchased 95 Volvo units from FAMCO.

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Hadi Khatib finds out why KSA-based contractor Al-Rosan Company opted to purchase 95 brand-new Volvo CE machines from FAMCO to facilitate the building of a 256km-long highway that will ultimately stretch from Saudi Arabia to Oman

If you’re like me and you spend your days in an office, you probably work nine-to-five in an air-conditioned space, stroll around to the deli at lunchtime for a bite to eat, and return home to a cosy apartment or villa. You might become annoyed if you have to swipe at a fly a few times before it decides you’re not worth its while. Aside from that, life is fairly comfortable.

With this in mind, imagine working 15 hours a day, waking up at four o’clock in the morning to be greeted by a blinding sand storm. Later that day, you’ll probably be scorched by temperatures in excess of 50°C, your only shade courtesy of 250m-high dunes.

By eight o’clock in the evening, the sand storms will find their strength again, but this time, in sub-zero temperatures. In the worst-case scenario, these storms will lay waste to your day’s work.

Finally, you’ll retire to your sleeping quarters to contemplate the local wildlife – wild dogs and scorpions – in search of easy prey. Then, you’ll wake at daybreak to do it all again.

Welcome to the moving sands of Rub’ al Khali, or the ‘Empty Quarter’: the largest sand desert in the world. It is here that a group of the planet’s toughest construction workers – and toughest construction machines – are busy building a highway between Saudi Arabia and Oman. “It’s just a road,” you might say, but this is one of the world’s hottest, driest, and most unforgiving environments. A trip to Mars seems fairly pleasant in comparison.

At nearly 600,000km2, the site covers a huge tract of the Arabian Peninsula, comparable in size to the country of France. On this project, heroics are a day-to-day occurrence.

“What we’re doing is truly art, like painting a masterpiece,” said Amal Almizyen, managing director of FAMCO Saudi.

“I thought a road should be something easy to construct, but sometimes, a small section of this highway can take anywhere from days to months to complete,” he explained.

Al-Rosan Company submitted the winning bid to construct the 256km-long highway, and FAMCO became the main supplier of heavy machinery and aftersales support for the project.

“We had not worked with Al-Rosan before,” explained Almizyen.

“It was a difficult process to introduce new equipment, but together with Volvo Construction Equipment representatives, we held intense meetings with Al-Rosan for two-to-three months, comparing our heavy machinery specifications with the competition. Subsequently, we were awarded parts of the project, and later, we were given more substantial ground as Al-Rosan discovered our unique competencies and capabilities,” he said.

The mammoth highway begins at a site near to the Shaybah Oil Field, owned by Saudi Aramco, and once finished, will run to the border between KSA and Oman. FAMCO, Volvo CE’s exclusive distributor for the Kingdom, became the key heavy machinery supplier for the road build by demonstrating its reliability and dependability, according to Al-Rosan.

“All the heavy equipment that we use is new as the jobsite conditions do not allow for frequent downtime for repairs,” commented the contractor’s owner, Hazza Ayesh Aba Alrous.

“Though we work with other suppliers, Volvo and FAMCO have been top notch as far as logistical support, spare parts, expertise, technical assistance, and aftersales service are concerned,” he explained.

From its Riyadh branch, FAMCO has established a logistics ‘bridge’ to supply Volvo CE equipment to the remote and isolated area.

“With a distance of 1,000km from the nearest inhabited city, we were determined to prove that we are worthy of our reputation in the region, and capable of taking on such a challenge,” said Almizyen.

The distributor has built four, 40-foot-high containers for the storage of spare parts, and has installed portacabins highly resistant to strong winds and sand infiltration. Bespoke flooring has also been integrated to aid the ingress and egress of both men and machinery.

“We did not originally plan to build such an advanced workshop, but we had to answer to the contractor’s challenge: How are you going to provide maintenance?” Almizyen recounted.

To this end, FAMCO enlisted the help of special Toyota Shas 4x4 vehicles, which are typically used to patrol borders in arid and sandy regions of Saudi Arabia. The equipment supplier identified these rough-terrain roamers as the only vehicles capable of facilitating mobile maintenance in the Empty Quarter.

On the ground, FAMCO keeps a permanent four-man team for technical assistance and preventative maintenance. Led by a site supervisor, this crack squad is joined every week by a seven-to-eight-man team that commutes from Riyadh and assists with more challenging tasks.

Braving 50°C daytime temperatures, the workforce uses Volvo A35F articulated haulers and EC700 heavy-duty excavators to remove sand and transport it to where it’s needed. Motor graders then smooth the way so that road construction can continue.

The articulated haulers – a technology that the Swedish manufacturer devised – are all-wheel-drive, off-highway machines with self-compensating, hydro-mechanical steering. Each of the units’ wheels is able to spin independently and adjust automatically, meaning that the A35Fs are at home whether in sand, mud, or water.

“[In an A35F] we can go up a 45° slope at full capacity without any problems,” said Almizyen.

“Other machines would stop dead in their tracks. When the project started, Al-Rosan bought 10 A35F articulated haulers and five EC700 excavators. To date, a total of 95 Volvo CE machines have been purchased,” he added.

Fayez Subbaheen, Al-Rosan’s project manager for the road build, remains convinced that in the form of Volvo CE, he
and his colleagues selected the best machinery for the job. As he explained, the Volvo units have proved themselves perfectly equipped for heavy-duty sand extraction and transportation.

“We are grateful to Volvo CE and FAMCO, our partners with whom we discussed the project in terms of heavy equipment and support,” he said.

“We quickly discovered that they are the very best. These units use highly advanced engineering, and with close to 170 heavy machines on site in total, we have been using the Volvo equipment to perform the most demanding jobs,” added Subbaheen.

With no local settlements or safe drinking water, Al-Rosan has had to erect desalination plants and temporary accommodation for its 600-strong team of hauler drivers, excavator operators, technicians, and auxiliary staff.
“It’s an important project with incredible challenges that we have been able to overcome,” explained Alrous.

Even after the highway has been built, the hard work will continue. The contract 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 highway 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.

“We now have the capability to offer consulting services for similar future projects,” explained Alrous.
“We have become a reference point; pioneers in this field,” he stated.

Al-Rosan proved itself to be the most competitive of 12 companies that bid for the job, winning the contract at a price of $250mn (SAR945mn). This is impressive, especially when one considers the varying temperatures, vicious sand storms, challenging topography, and quantities of sand that have to be moved (130mn cubic metres in total).

On a typical day, engineers, surveyors, foremen, and technical crews meet to plan the work ahead. At 04:30, following morning prayers, crews are transported by bus to the site. The machinery is then checked for oil and water leaks before sand shifting and compaction activities begin.

A Volvo A35F is able to haul 33.5 tonnes, or 20.5m3, of heaped sand in a single load, and each machine works from dawn till dusk. Frequent evening sandstorms make an overnight, double-shift rotation impossible, which in turn necessitates 15-hour days for both Al-Rosan’s workers and the Volvo CE machines.

It goes without saying that this is a time-consuming and difficult endeavour, so how did Al-Rosan manage to outbid so many other contractors, all the while using brand new, premium-quality machinery? Subbaheen contends that this was only possible due to the support that he and his colleagues have received from FAMCO.

“Al-Rosan has over 30 years’ experience in sand compaction, but this job presented its own unique challenges,” he said.

“We have had to build service roads and detours so that logistics operators can troubleshoot, change parts, and deal with problems on site. The challenge is that these roads often close the next day when the sand storms hit.

“Time is our enemy, but we have a very good partner in FAMCO, which has helped us to troubleshoot our way out of every situation. They are fast, adept at keeping costs down, and have superior knowhow in terms of spare parts. FAMCO engineers and technicians travel from Riyadh, Jeddah, and even the UAE to check on us and to optimise the machines’ onsite performance,” explained Subbaheen.

Of course, FAMCO knew from the outset that in order to secure an order of this magnitude, it would need an edge.
“FAMCO Saudi’s aim for Volvo CE is not to become number one in terms of sales,” Almizyen conceded.

“Compared to Caterpillar, which has a history in the Kingdom stretching back approximately 80 years, Volvo CE is relatively new. Our aim, therefore, is to become number one in terms of aftersales service. This is our mission. Anyone can sell equipment but we go for the ‘wow’ feeling,” he said.

They might not have KSA sales comparable to Zahid Tractor and Caterpillar, but FAMCO and Volvo CE hold a sizeable 11% share of the market in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the distributor says that it is aiming to grow this figure to 15% in 2015. In the meantime, FAMCO is continuing to work diligently to minimise downtime in this unforgiving environment.

Indeed, despite its many challenges, this mammoth road-construction project has done much to strengthen the respective reputations of both Al-Rosan and FAMCO Saudi. By demonstrating their ability to overcome obstacles in the region’s most arid desert – safely, to budget, and with minimal time loss – the partners have gained significant kudos in the Kingdom.

And yes, this might be one of the most remote locations in the world, but don’t let that fool you. Plenty of interested parties have been paying close attention to the progress of Al-Rosan and FAMCO in Rub’ al Khali.

The site has acted as a research ground for other contractors, university engineers, large corporations including Saudi Aramco, and even Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Transport, who has visited the project on several occasions to observe the work that is taking place.

At present, the project is approximately 85% complete, with 121mn cubic metres of sand having been excavated, transported, and compacted thus far.

Some 10mn cubic metres of related materials, required to stabilise the surrounding sand, have also been deployed.
“There is now talk of building a parallel highway, changing it from a two-way route to one that has a road heading in each direction,” revealed Almizyen.

Of course, the FAMCO Saudi managing director has no qualms about nominating Al-Rosan as the right contractor for the job, should these talks translate into action.

“Our partner’s success is our success, and as such, FAMCO would go out of its way to help Al-Rosan win a second contract, should it be announced” Almizyen confirmed.

An example of this ‘above-and-beyond’ philosophy is the free training that FAMCO has provided for Al-Rosan’s operators.

“When a client buys equipment from us, we train their operators,” said Almizyen.

“If the any of these operators move on, we train the new ones. We also educate site engineers and offer coaching at both Volvo CE and FAMCO training centres. This is one of the most important facets of our business,” he said.
Of course, this work is not only uncomfortable; it is also potentially dangerous.

“Despite the fact that everyone wears safety helmets, jackets, and shoes – and we all follow safety regulations such as not moving when visibility is low – this is not an ideal environment, and danger lurks,” said Subbaheen.
With this in mind, both firms ensure that their workers are taken care of. For instance, each site employee earns an additional desert allowance equal to half his standard salary.

“Living here is difficult; we change teams every 15 days because few can survive the harsh conditions for lengthier periods of time,” explained Almizyen.

“Sand is another enemy, but a soft one. It’s so difficult to handle – it’s like water. You push it one way and it goes the other, but have learned how to deal with it.

“Even so, we provide comfortable accommodation, food, and sports activities, and so does Al-Rosan,” he commented.
Approximately eight months of construction remain, and when completed, the road will slash the transportation time for goods being moved between Saudi Arabia and Oman. Currently, such commodities have to make an extended journey through the UAE via multiple road networks.

Naturally, it will take courage to travel on such a desolate highway; telecommunications networks are patchy and a flat tyre could prove troublesome in sweltering heat or sand storms.

Nevertheless, Al-Rosan and FAMCO are confident that the highway – and in turn, their companies’ respective reputations – will stand the test of time. The partners and their Volvo CE machines have had to travel a long and arduous road to reach this point, but success is now less than a year away.

Pioneers of the Empty Quarter
Al-Rosan, FAMCO, and Volvo CE might be pioneers of the Empty Quarter in terms of road construction, but they are by no means the first to brave the perils of Rub’ al Khali. Aside from the Bedouin, who have roamed the region for hundreds of years, the Empty Quarter’s desolate allure has attracted a plethora of non-resident explorers.

The first documented instances of such journeys include those of Bertram Sidney Thomas and Harry St John Bridger Philby in the 1930s. Between 1946 and 1950, Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger embarked on several expeditions across the desert, making significant contributions to the cartography of the area. So deep was Thesiger’s affinity with the region, he was bestowed the moniker, Mubarak Bin London.

More recently, in 1999, Jamie Clarke became the first Westerner in half a century to traverse Rub’ Al Khali. In late-2011, ex-British Army officer, Adrian Hayes, retraced Thesiger’s steps in celebration of the UAE’s 40th National Day.

One thing all of these outsiders have in common is that their expeditions would not have succeeded without the support of local expertise. Conversely, within the context of the KSA-to-Oman road build, it is the residents – Al-Rosan and FAMCO – who are blazing a trail with the assistance of Volvo CE.

Fortunately for them, the Swedish-made machines are proving to be as competent in the sand as they are amidst the snow.

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