Industrial Mecca Gives Saudis Solace Amid Oil Dependence

On the scale of public-works projects, only China's Great Wall is bigger than the Saudi Arabian city of Jubail

For the Saudis, the word "Jubail" resonates with the same sacred tones that Augustine's "City of God" does for Christian theologians. Here is the promise of bliss - of Heaven, underpinned by endless barrels of Saudi oil - and confirmation that Saudi pride in modern life is not misplaced.

In the mid-1970s, this huge industrial complex sprang forth from the desert, turning a dusty, 2,000-year-old camel stop into Saudi Arabia's industrial workhorse.

The city is even listed in the Guinness Book of World Records under "largest public-works project in modern times." And according to Guinness, it is second only to the Great Wall of China in the size of such public projects.

And as the Great Wall protected the Chinese from invasion, the Saudis see Jubail's industrialization as some protection from fluctuating world oil prices. The economy relies heavily on oil revenues, so Jubail's refineries, as well as its production of petrochemicals and plastics, steel, and other industrial materials relieves some of that dependence.

"It is the pride of the nation" says Jassem Al-Ansari, director general of the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu, the Saudi agency that planned and financed this complex on the shore of the Persian Gulf, and its sister city, Yanbu across the Arabian peninsula.

"Twenty years ago this was salt flats and wasteland, and we were flaring [burning] off the gas," he says. "Then there was some very ambitious thinking. We used to be known for producing oil, not for doing anything with it."

Back in the 70s, the idea was simple: Create in one place an integrated state-of-the-art city to refine oil, create an array of petrochemicals, and foster the industries that would turn those raw materials into consumer goods.

Power the complex with "associated gases" that were once burned off as waste, design it to expand trouble-free for a generation, and link it with a deep-water port. Inject $50 billion in capital, and - behold - a miracle in the desert.

Construction began in 1977, and now 90,000 people live in Jubail's residential area. Jubail and Yanbu together account for 12 percent of Saudi Arabia's Gross Domestic Product. Last year's profits topped $1 billion, and officials expect about $13 billion in new investment for expansion over the next five years. The infrastructure built in the '70s is only half used, and the city now requires some major technological upgrading.

Underground utility hook-ups for power, gas, sewage, and water desalination make Jubail a prime choice for investors. Also enticing is the saltwater river used for industrial cooling. It stretches 7.5 miles, then flows underground to individual factories. It is the longest "river" in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi officials enforce strict environment rules so effusion from more than a dozen primary industries and secondary factories is virtually odorless. To maintain the shine and promise of Jubail, however, will require continuous hard work. "It takes a lot of guts to make a decision to build this," says Nabil Mansouri, president of the Petrokemya Arabian Petrochemical Company. He has followed Jubail as an engineer "since it was an idea on scratchpaper."

"We have - God willing - succeeded," he said. "Now we have to upgrade it."

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