In September 2012, after a decade in retirement, John Sulzbach ’56 accepted a project management assignment in Saudi Arabia, where he and his wife, Ann, spent three years in the mid-1970s. Working for an Egyptian engineering company, the mining engineer supervised the engineering and construction of highly automated chicken farms in the desert that will be largely monitored and operated remotely from Holland. Here’s Sulzbach’s experience, in his own words:
A Saudi Last Hurrah
When the Pakistani taxi driver delivered me to my friend Jack’s apartment compound in Dammam-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, at 2 a.m. last September, I was weary from the 26-hour journey from California, but also stimulated to have a challenging project management assignment after a decade of retirement. I had kept busy and active with my mineral-collecting hobby, volunteer work, travel, hiking/camping, and competitive swimming, but still I missed the action and challenge of working.
I spent most of my career managing overseas projects for Kaiser Engineers International, and then later worked as a consultant. Many of those projects were far from my metal-mining course of study at Mines, including a Greek hydro project, an aluminum smelter in Libya, a telecommunication satellite launch facility in Australia, and oilfield-equipment manufacture in Romania. So I had long been convinced that the strenuous Mines curriculum had equipped me to mange practically anything, anywhere.
Thus, when my old friend and colleague told me about his new job in Saudi Arabia, and I expressed some envy, he offered me a chance to join him on a short-term consulting basis. So here I was, back in Saudi where Ann and I had lived (Jeddah) for 3 years, some 38 years ago.
As a point of interest, my job back then was to manage the joint company that Kaiser Engineers had formed with some of the older sons of Mohammad Binladen, the illiterate Yemeni immigrant founder of a huge construction company, then and now, the largest in the Middle East. Mohammad had recently died in a plane crash, and so the king had decreed that the main company to be operated in conservatorship until the sons were able to take over. Mohammad had 52 children, with 13 wives (but no more than four at any time, and all the divorcees were well-provided for). About half were boys, and we had partnered with the oldest son, Sheikh Salem. Osama Binladen, of more recent fame, was one of his younger brothers, and no doubt passed through the office at some point during my three years there, like all the brothers did, to get Salem’s advice/approval on their schooling, finances, marriages, etc.
Next day we drove about 4 hours southwest, to Riyadh, while Jack briefed me on my assignment. Along the way we passed a rather iconic example of the local cultural excess, the abandoned frame of a large, half-built home, perched on a small hill, with a full-size Ferris wheel erected in the front yard!
My client was an Egyptian engineering company (Advanced Construction Center, or ACC) that has a series of project management contracts with ARASCO (Saudi Arabian Agricultural Services Company), which in turn, is building and operating various animal feeding and farming enterprises in the Kingdom. My job was to supervise and mentor the ACC project managers, and also liaise with the senior ARASCO personnel and their Dutch advisors and suppliers, all in order to improve progress and client relationships on two poultry projects: a chicken hatchery and a broiler farm. Chicken farms? In the desert?? Managed by a mining engineer?
These are in fact, extremely sophisticated projects, based on the very latest, highly automated poultry technology, and will be remotely monitored and operated from Holland. The hatchery will take in truckloads of fertile eggs, incubate and hatch them. Then, after 4 days, the baby chicks will be transported by air-conditioned trucks to a broiler farm. There, in stacked rows of cages, in climate-controlled hangers, the lights are kept on all night to encourage near-constant feeding, which bulks them up in only 30 days to their optimum weight, and then they take a final ride to the slaughter house, and on to the supermarkets. These are definitely not free-range chickens! And they are huge operations. The broiler farm for example, will house 1,200,000 birds. Because these poultry plants are so susceptible to disease pathogens, they are preferably sited in remote locations, far from any sources of infection, and operated under very strict hygienic controls.
Riyadh is a sprawling city in the conservative Wahabi heartland of the country, where its founder, King Abdul Aziz, started his campaign to conquer and unify the Arabian Peninsula. It is an eclectic mix of bold, contemporary skyscrapers, and shabby, low-rise shops and buildings, all crisscrossed by crowded 3-5 lane freeway/boulevards, where traffic is fast and free-form. Trash and litter is a huge problem. An army of uniformed workers from East Asia is deployed daily to clean streets and pick up the garbage, but the task is Sisyphean.
After two days of orientation meetings, we drove about 120 km southeast, to Al-Kharj, another spread-out dusty town, smaller and strictly low-rise, and then about 60 km further east, to the chicken hatchery site. This was the northern edge of the ‘Empty Quarter,’ in the midst of real desert, with flat expanses of windblown reddish sand in all directions. There were no trees or plant growth of any kind, except for the occasional isolated farming or dairy operation, supported by deep wells, and the lush green disks of pivot, irrigation alfalfa.
The contractor was running late on construction of the hatchery, and ARASCO had pressured ACC to apply more resources, so I was asked to spend the next several weeks working out of Al-Kharj. Meanwhile, the construction contract for the new broiler farm, my other responsibility, was out for bid. It will be located at Shakra, northwest of Riyadh.
I checked in to the Al-Jawhara Furnished Apartments for the bargain rate of only SAR 2500 per month (about $83). My room was small, about 230 square feet, mostly filled by the double bed, but was clean, and did have a mini-fridge, microwave, gale-force air conditioner, shower and toilet. The AC is needed, as the daytime temperature that day was about 106 degrees, and reportedly, can reach 122 maximums in mid-summer. Fortunately, the very low humidity made the heat more bearable.
My routine was to get up about 5:30, do some exercises, or maybe a short run, and then walk a block to the larger, more-expensive, but not- necessarily-better Hotel Shamsah for a big breakfast of eggs, cheese, and toast. This had to hold me for the day, because at the jobsite, we survived on water, tea, and Nescafe as prepared by the ubiquitous ‘tea boys’ that are a feature of all Middle East offices. Then at night, it was back to the Shamsah, which actually had a very appealing Leventine dinner menu, and a gregarious headwaiter from the Nile Hilton, in Cairo.
Early on, before I rented a car, Hani, the Syrian Site Engineer, would drive me out to the jobsite at warp speed. All the rental cars have a default warning chime that rings when you hit 120 kph (75 mph), but it conveniently gives up if you persist, and so Hani was sometimes hitting 150 kph (93 mph!) on the long straight, 3-lane asphalt highway out of town. There is a lot of traffic with many trucks, and most drivers are pretty aggressive and fast by American standards, but they are also alert, and I haven’t yet seen the horrendous car wrecks that were a common roadside feature in Jeddah, years ago.
At the site, we worked out of a small portable cabin, with an air conditioner, lights, and a water cooler that also provided hot water for tea. Dust settled daily on everything, and nearly everyone smoked. Although standard OSHA safety rules were supposedly in force, the Hatchery project was the poster-boy example of what not to do. No one wore hardhats. Most of the workers were wearing sandals, and the loose, long shirt and blousy pants common in Pakistan. Few had gloves, and they seemed to be short of electrical plugs, since many tool connections were made by sticking a cable’s bared wires into the socket receptacle!
Because there was no Internet access at the hatchery site, and cell phone service was poor to nil, I had to send/receive emails and phone calls from my hotel room. I did have a short Internet cable on the wall of my room, but it was on the wall opposite from the small desk. So, I typed my emails and reports at the desk, sitting on both bed pillows because the chair was too low for the desk, and then took the laptop over to the bed, plugged into the Internet, and knelt on the floor to send them out, or get my mail!
Transport and electric power costs were relatively cheap, subsidized by their abundant oil and gas resources. Gasoline (91-octane) sold for 0.45 Saudi Riyals (SAR) per liter, or about $0.41 per US gal. (The exchange rate, unchanged since I worked there 38 years ago, is 3.75 Saudi Riyals to the dollar.) The largest power plant in the Middle East is a huge constellation of oil-fired generators, located just south of Riyadh.
One Friday, the local ‘prayer day’, I walked over to a nearby farm-produce market, located in a large concrete hall, open on all sides, and elevated to truck-dock height to ease deliveries. It was crowded with vendors and buyers of a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, melons, etc. It all looked pretty good, with the produce stacked in neat rows and piles, belying the barren desert surrounding the town. An irrigation engineer I met at the hotel had explained that the desert sand actually contains lots of natural fertilizer chemicals, and so can support lush growth simply with the addition of water. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, no one minded my taking photos, and some insisted on it. This town could be seen as an analogue to the dusty spread-out farm towns in California, like maybe Fresno or Stockton, or even better, Indio. Hot, provincial, based on irrigation, etc.
One thing was still the same as I remembered from years ago. The main water supply for most of the local buildings is a cistern beneath the ground floor, refilled by tank truck, and equipped with a pump operated by a water-level float switch in the roof-top storage tank. The water in the roof tank gets pretty warm in the summer, so the trick is, turn off the water heater, and use the cold-water tap for hot showers, while the air conditioning cools the water heater and thus provides cold water.
After several weeks, I rented a car, and moved to an older residence hotel in Riyadh, staffed entirely by Yemenis, to focus mainly on the bid evaluations for the broiler farm project, but with occasional overnight visits back to the hatchery in Al-Kharj. Most of my colleagues were either Syrian or Egyptian. Our client, ARASCO, was staffed mostly by Saudis, with some expatriate help from Holland and India. The site contractor had mainly Pakistani, Indian, or Bengali engineers and workers. The hotel staffs were from all those places, plus Nepal, Sudan, and Yemen. So, of necessity, the common language was bad English, although I was pleased to find that my Arabic was gradually coming back.
In early November, we had a four-day break for the Eid Al-Adha holiday. This is the feast at the culmination of the Haj pilgrimage, when over two million faithful from all over the world arrive to join the 3-day ritual in Mecca. Seizing the opportunity, Jack and I drove about five hours south, to the nearby emirate of Qatar, on a small peninsula off the Saudi Gulf coast. We were hosted in Doha by an architect friend, who is supervising a huge urban development there. The Qataris have created a stunning cityscape of very avant-garde architecture, nicely integrated with older, historic buildings and areas, all surrounding a scenic circular harbor. Traffic was fast but orderly, there was no trash, and we could enjoy international cuisine and alcoholic beverages at the nearby hotels. A real holiday!
Back in Riyadh, our ultimate client, ARASCO, was still deliberating on the contract award for the broiler farm, so, shortly before Thanksgiving, I flew home for the holidays, anticipating a possible return after New Years. In the interim, there was a management change at ARASCO, and a consequent decision to re-bid the broiler farm project. As of now, it is still on hold, the hatchery is finishing up, and I have no firm plans to return, but I have a five-year visa, and would welcome another bite of the apple.
The conditions were a bit rough, and electronic technology has changed many things, but not the basic principles of getting things done on time. Even if this was indeed, my ‘last hurrah,’ I am grateful for having the opportunity to again experience the challenge and satisfaction of providing project management services in an international setting.