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Saudi Mega Projects And The American Cowboys – OpEd

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By Abdulateef Al-Mulhim

AFTER the liberation of Kuwait from the Iraqi occupation, every Kuwaiti oil well was on fire. These fires were set by the Iraqi forces before leaving Kuwait. At that time, every non-American analyst, firefighter and environmental expert said that the fires needed more than four years to be extinguished and tens of billions of dollars in cost. The Kuwaiti government gave a blank check to the companies that could extinguish the fires and the Kuwaitis gave no deadline when to finish the job. Many of the world’s known firefighting companies wanted to participate. But at the end of the day, the highly experienced American companies got the deal. The companies were Red Adair, Boots and Coots, Wild Well Control and Safety Boss and many others. The American firefighters extinguished the fires in about six months and at a cost of only $ 1.5 billion. After the fires were extinguished, I heard an American firefighter say, why the rush, didn’t we simply fire ourselves from a job. This was on November, 1991.

In Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, we all see American companies do and finish their job ahead of schedule and with better results. It is a known fact that many Saudis have a respect for American goods and products, so, where are the American companies when it comes to the current Saudi mega projects?

Since the day oil well number 7 started producing oil in 1938 near Dhahran, Saudi mega projects started to change the face of Saudi Arabia. We saw Ras Tanurah oil refinery, Trans Arabian pipe line, hundreds of kilometers of rail road tracks, highways connecting major cities, huge sea ports and many other projects. And in the process, new towns were built, such as Dhahran, Abqaiq, Ras Taburah, Udhaylyah, Othmanyah, Shadgam and many others. The common thing about these mega projects is that, they are all planned and built by American companies. Aramco (CASOC) was the main brand name.

Saudis saw these projects being finished ahead of time and with quality. All the mentioned projects and hundreds of other projects done by American companies are still holding and working after tens of years from the day they were built. The Saudis used to see the American engineers who supervise the projects wearing cowboy hats or safety helmets and the Saudis started calling them either cowboys or Abu Kaboos (wearer of a hat). At that time, they were Americans who are with Aramco or the companies associated with it before it was called Aramco (CASOC). And with these projects, Saudis love the words (Made in America).

The Saudis loved the American way of building mega projects for many reasons. The American engineers finished the work before schedule with top of the line quality and the American companies helped the society in many ways. They built the necessary infrastructure for the oil production and exportation and with it built many useful infrastructures for the local Saudis. American companies built roads, hospitals, schools, sports facilities and helped their Saudi employees to own a home. This is something unique at the time and not seen anywhere in the world. Only in Saudi Arabia, a Saudi owned company will employ you and give you the best health care and help you own a home. And I am not talking about two-bedroom home. I am talking about more than eight-bedroom home. And the most important thing which had the most positive impact on the Saudi society was the training of the Saudis. After many years, other companies from other different countries came to Saudi Arabia and nothing was gained by the local Saudis. For example, we saw Japanese companies getting mega oil projects in the northeast of Saudi Arabia, but the local Saudis were not benefited by any type of development in that area. These days we see Chinese companies getting contracts in the billions, but they are always slow in finishing the job and they do not contribute to the Saudi job market in any way.

Until the 1990s, mega projects were carried out by American companies. The American projects and infrastructure are easy to maintain and the manuals are very easy to read. But, the question again is — why are the American companies not involved in the Saudi mega projects?

I am not trying to downplay what other companies from different places did for infrastructural development in Saudi Arabia, but, I have noticed that mega projects are finished faster when done by American companies. Also, from legal and cultural perspective, the US is the only country where you would see the brother in law of the CEO of an American company volunteering to be your lawyer and be on your side against his national company and relative if the contract is not fulfilled. In some other cultures it is not heard of.

At present there are many mega projects in Saudi Arabia which are in the billions, but many of these contract are won by non-American companies. We have solar, electric, desalination, major highways, rail road tracks, ports expansions, new refineries and many more, but most of them are being built by non-American companies. As a Saudi, the most important thing for me when I hear about a mega project costing billions of dollars is to see the project being finished on time with top quality finishing and see the company give the Saudis a priority to be part of the work force. In 1938, Saudi Aramco was able to hire and train many Saudis in the complicated oil industry technologies. While we see many foreign companies getting billions of dollars through the Saudi mega projects but the Saudi youth are not given the opportunity and training to do many of the jobs. In future article, I will talk from a Saudi perspective about why the Americans didn’t win the billion dollar projects in Saudi Arabia and who really is more loyal to Made in America products, the Saudis or the Americans?

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Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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