Remote Access

Saudi Aramco quickly overhauled a vital transportation link to keep business flowing

2020 PMI Project Excellence Award Winner



From left, Ahmed Al-Aredhi, PMP; Hélder Martins, PMP; Fahad A. Al-Ammari; and Nezar Al-Khalifah, PMP

Saudi Arabia is home to some of the most remote oil fields in the world—and Saudi Aramco’s Shaybah reserve is no exception. Located deep in the Rub’ al-Khali desert, the field is more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) from the petroleum and natural gas company’s headquarters in Dhahran. That’s why Saudi Aramco in 1997 built its own airstrip, the Shaybah Airport, to transport employees, contractors and government officials to the site.

But after nearly 20 years, the runway had begun to crumble. Built on salt flats and surrounded by sand dunes, the strip handled more than 1,500 flights per year and endured harsh weather conditions—including winds reaching 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour) and temperatures soaring to 131 degrees Fahrenheit (55 degrees Celsius). To restore a vital transportation link, the organization launched a US$34 million upgrade project in May 2016.

“First, the concrete pavement was reaching its life expectancy. It needed more frequent maintenance to ensure the paved surface was intact and would not break during flight landing or takeoff,” says Nezar Al-Khalifah, PMP, senior project manager, Saudi Aramco. “Second, it was built to an old standard, and it needed to be upgraded to the new international aviation standard.”


The initial plan, drafted by the facilities planning department, called for a four-phase rehabilitation, reducing the runway from 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) to 7,000 feet (2,134 meters) to allow for continuing operations during reconstruction. But risk assessments—including real and simulated flight tests—concluded that the shortened runway would not meet safety standards.

The project team turned to an alternate approach called rubblization, in which the existing concrete is pulverized into smaller pieces that form the base onto which hot asphalt is poured. The technique would speed up construction and close the airport for just seven months.

But Saudi Aramco teams had never tried rubblization. To build knowledge and limit risks, the team researched the technique extensively. So Saudi Aramco took a trip to King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, where a team had completed a rubblization project. The project team also brought on rubblization specialist Antigo International Inc. to work on the project.

“We completed initial site investigation and rubblization assessment tests two years before starting construction to ensure that the rubblization was feasible,” says Hélder Martins, PMP, project leader and project engineer, Saudi Aramco. “Obviously, if we end up starting the construction works without those tests, and by chance rubblization was not feasible, it could be a disaster.”


—Hélder Martins, PMP, Saudi Aramco


The site’s harsh and desolate environment proved challenging on multiple fronts. Pouring hot asphalt in Shaybah’s scorching temperatures would have made for unbearable conditions for workers. And using an alternative airstrip in intense heat would have introduced safety risks. So project leaders and the sponsor agreed to schedule most of the work and the Shaybah Airport closure from October to April, Al-Khalifah says.

“Even during that weather you could have a rainy season, which would pose a complication, especially with pavement execution, but at least you could work around it and you could have high productivity,” he says.

Securing supplies on time was another risk. With the nearest Saudi commercial airport 600 kilometers (373 miles) away, replacing a broken part on equipment could create delays. To secure even small tools or gadgets, a flight or bus would have to be dispatched. Before the construction phase, Saudi Aramco converted and recertified inactive asphalt and concrete plants to meet demands.

“We identified in the early stages that it was mandatory to have asphalt and concrete plants at Shaybah, because it was completely not practical to mobilize from anywhere else,” says Martins.

Getting workers to and from the project site proved another potential hurdle. Employees and contractors were bused in and out of Shaybah—some 20 trips per day—to and from the government airfield on the same narrow road suppliers used. To manage congestion, Saudi Aramco hired a third-party traffic controller to schedule all travel. In all, there were 300 flights into the government airfield and 2,000 bus trips to and from Shaybah, moving some 40,000 people.

“We tried to alternate the buses for the passengers so they weren’t on the road at the same time as asphalt trucks,” says Ahmed Al-Aredhi, PMP, project director, department manager, Saudi Aramco.


Managing logistics wasn’t the only way to mitigate delays. Project leaders also created incentives for the main contractor, Chinese construction firm Sinohydro Corp., to complete its work ahead of schedule, as well as penalties if it contributed to delays. The contract included quality and safety controls to ensure no corners were cut in an effort to prevent delays, Al-Khalifah says.

The incentivized contract—a first for Saudi Aramco—paid off big time, with Sinohydro Corp. completing construction four months ahead of schedule, says Al-Aredhi.

“One would say that they could have relaxed since they were getting the full target anyway, but the collaboration really helped the project come in ahead of schedule.”

Finishing early allowed Saudi Aramco to reopen the airport earlier—and within budget. The team also mined a treasure trove of lessons learned to improve planning and collaboration for future projects, Martins says.

“Based on my 20 years of experience in projects, this was the first time I had been in one project where all the stakeholders were totally aligned and pushing in the same direction toward early completion.”

Within Saudi Aramco, the 77-day turnaround garnered more recognition across the enterprise, including from top management, than many larger endeavors that have taken up to three years to complete, Al-Khalifah says.

“It’s a role model of executing projects with the actions and ideas that we implement from the initial phase of the project until the completion of the project.” PM




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