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It's grim up north

Part of the modernisation plan for Saudi Arabia is the “Vision 2030”. An aspect of this is the diversification from the current oil based economy and there is a drive to exploit the mineral wealth that had been so far largely ignored. A great quantity of valuable mineral deposits exist in the north of KSA and the country has started to harvest these and also build and operate the associated processing plants.

The relatively new “SAR” railway connects the bauxite and phosphate mines in the north to the ports on the Arabian Gulf near the new industrial city of Jubail. Mineral trains of over 2km in length ply the routes and a rail network of over 1,500km has been built over the last few years for them. Next year new flows of molten sulphur and phosphoric acid will start to be moved on the network and the associated processing plants are nearing completion. So a couple of weeks ago I had cause to travel up to the north of the Kingdom and inspect two of these new plants for their railway interface and railway safety. This was part of the process of awarding safety certificates and operational licenses.

The first place I went to was at Wa’ad al Shamel, some 20km from the Jordanian border. It is near the town of Turaif, and it is just about the most northerly building in the country. The plant will produce phosphoric acid using local phosphate deposits, and molten sulphur will be brought in by rail from factories elsewhere. The acid will then be shipped out by rail for its next use.

There is one flight to Turaif each day from Riyadh, and this arrives at 09.15, the return departs at 10.00. Turaif is quite sizeable, with a population of around 50,000, making it larger than Perth or Inverness (if Wikipedia can be relied on). It is there by dint of being on the international TransArabian oil pipeline (TAP) from the Saudi oilfields (in the Eastern Province) to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. During its heyday the pipeline moved 500,000 barrels of oil per day for use in middle east countries and export through the port of Sidon, but it closed in 1990 due to political changes following the first Gulf War. So what industry does Turaif support today? Presumably the new plant at Wa’ad al Shamel and the phosphate mines employ a few thousand, so I am guessing the others may be involved with the security of the northern border.

When the plane landed at Turaif the pilot announced the weather to be minus one degrees, and it was indeed cold. In fact a couple of days later there was snow there, not entirely unknown as it is inland and at an elevation of 2,800 feet. It seems strange to see the Arabs dressed in their winter garb. The usual pristine white thobes have given way to brown or grey ones, and these are often accompanied by overcoats. I have taken to wearing a jersey after sundown in Riyadh as it gets a bit chilly there in the evenings. But once the sun is up it is generally quite acceptable.

Once I had finished the business of the day, I was driven 200km to the town of Ar’ar which also has a single flight per day - this one in the evening - and I was able to return to Riyadh on it. The road to Ar’ar is a six-lane motorway and it follows the route of the TAP. There was very little traffic on the road which made it a much more pleasant driving experience than around Riyadh. And the journey was even better as it afforded superb views of a desert sunset, often a spectacular sight.

Ar’ar is another place which owes its existence to oil and the pipeline. The very name comes from the old oilfield designation of “Field RR” and this has become the name of the town. With a population of around 170,000 it is larger than Dundee and similar to Oxford. Wiki states its principal employment is sheep and animal herding, but I find that hard to believe. Either herding is a highly labour intensive business or Wiki is wrong. You decide. I suspect there is a lot of border security activity in this northern border area, as the town is only 50 kms from Iraq. It has the potential to be unstable, and in 2014 the Ar’ar border crossing was as far south as the ISIS got with a suicide bomb attack before the Saudis repelled them.

I looked for a meal before the flight, and from experience knew that regional Saudi domestic airports are not the place to go for that, so I asked the driver to recommend somewhere. He suggested the main shopping mall and we stopped off there. In the food court I fancied a pizza, so ordered one, and when it was handed over in its box I asked for a fork to eat it with. When I got to the table an opened it, I found a spoon instead – probably the most inappropriate implement of all for pizza. Never a dull moment here. But that was not the most surreal thing in the mall, the indoor zoo was. A small retail unit contained a number of green cages, and you could pay an entrance fee to look at the animals within them. I didn’t want to support the supposed indignity that these animals were subjected to so looked at them from afar. As well as monkeys, parrots and peacocks, there was a solitary tiger and this was cheek by jowl beside a cage with a couple of very nervous looking deer. All very strange.

The next day I flew from Riyadh to Dammam and then travelled two hours to Ras-al-Khair, which is the coastal processing plant and port for the minerals from the north. Here I found the world’s largest aluminium smelter and also a huge fertiliser factory. Both of these are rail served and there are all sorts of unloading facilities. In addition there is a huge gypsum bing as this is a waste by-product. There were no cultural stories to accompany this visit apart from commenting on the huge expanse of the new industrial chemical facilities that have been built in this area over the past three years or so. I have no idea what levels of protection have been installed to prevent or minimise pollution, but I do hope it is substantial.



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