Archive, Features

Case Study: Road-building in the Empty Quarter

Saudi Arabia has built a highway through the world’s largest and most barren desert — the Empty Quarter — with the help of a fleet of 95 Volvo machines, writes the team at Volvo CE.

The Rub’ al Khali desert, also known as the Empty Quarter, is the largest and most barren sand desert in the world, spreading itself across parts of four Arab nations — Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen — and covering 600,000 square kilometres. This is an area comparable in size to France.

Traversed by British explorer Wilfred Theseiger in the 1940s, the desert measures 1,000km long by 500km wide, and has an elevation ranging from 800m in the southwest to sea level in the northeast. The terrain is covered with steep sand dunes with heights up to an incredible 250m.

In 2010, Al-Rosan Contracting was one of the contractors hired to build the first ever road connecting Saudi Arabia and Oman — a 519km-long highway — and engaged Al-Futtaim Auto & Machinery Co (FAMCO) as its equipment partner.

The longest part of the road which Al-Rosan Contracting was commissioned to build comprises 256km of single-lane carriageways with secondary lanes added for trucks and slower-moving traffic in sections where there are steep inclines.


Challenging conditions

“The entire project was a challenge from day one whether it was the climatic conditions, topography of the area, the distance from the nearest inhabited city or availability of spare parts, logistics and services,” Al-Rosan Contracting general manager Fahad Hazza Aba Alros says.

Trying to build a road on shifting sand dunes was always going to be difficult. The project involved building sand bridges across salt flats and high rising dunes, so the selection of adaptable and reliable equipment was critical for this project, not least  because of the aggressive environment, intense heat, sand and remoteness of the site. 

“The road through Rub’ al Khali is a fine example of how service, product support, customer engagement and on-site maintenance all came together for the contractor,” FAMCO senior managing director Paul Floyd says. “This is a project that is extremely important to Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure development and we are extremely proud of being part of this iconic but ambitious project, and rising to the challenge.”


Shifting sands

“The challenges were mainly the climate and enormous amounts of sand moving,” Al-Rosan workshop supervisor Eslam Reddah says. “Volvo Construction Equipment machines were chosen because of their reliability in extreme conditions.”

The construction of the 256 km road was completed in sections and involved gigantic amounts of sand ‘cut and fill’. About 130 million cubic metres of sand was transported to construct the bridge was, and another 12 million m3 of material was needed to protect the sand embankment from wind and water.

Ordered throughout several stages of the project, the equipment eventually totalled 95 Volvo machines, including a range of articulated haulers, excavators and motor graders. As the project progressed, a lead excavation team tackled the dunes while aiding the excavation and building of the raised surface and foundations for the road.


Battling the desert

Hundreds of drivers, excavator operators, technicians and auxiliary workers — almost 600 in total — were employed over the three-year project. They lived in self-contained camps strategically designed with facilities to support this unique development.

The remote location, 1,000km away from the Saudi capital Riyadh, presented FAMCO service and maintenance teams with a demanding schedule in extreme desert temperatures: 50C during the day and freezing at night.

Every day the construction team worked 14-hour shifts excavating and depositing sand that was then compacted using naturally salty ground water. The time constraints of this project depended on the Volvo machines working relentlessly.

The road has been completed successfully and will soon establish a vital connection between the two Arabian Peninsula neighbours. It’s set to have a huge beneficial impact for people and businesses travelling between Saudi Arabia and Oman, as the direct route through the desert will reduce journey times dramatically.                         

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