Billboards on the highway outside Turaif, a remote desert town in the far north of Saudi Arabia, foretell a glittering future of glass offices and palm-shaded residential streets. A future that won’t rely on Saudi oil.
Early this month, an array of government ministers gathered in a tent near this barren outpost, 1,100 kilometres from Riyadh, to sign contracts to develop an industrial complex around a phosphate mine, with a new railway link to a Gulf port and total investments estimated at more than $9 billion.
The Waad Al Shimal Project, or “Northern Promise”, is part of a wider strategy in the kingdom, the world’s largest oil exporter, of building downstream industries and boosting the private sector instead of simply exporting raw materials.
It follows in the footsteps of Jubail and Yanbu, massive industrial cities on the Gulf and Red Sea coasts that were built in the 1980s as Saudi petrochemical production grew.
Riyadh is also pushing the King Abdullah Economic City near Jeddah, run by Emaar Economic City, as a private sector scheme along the same lines.
“I think this approach is something that will help diversify the economic base,” said Paul Gamble, director, sovereign risk, at Fitch Ratings. “It will help diversify export revenues. It will have an impact on employment, though not a large one. The one thing it doesn’t address is diversifying budget revenues.”
Recent diversification efforts through industrialisation have had little impact on official figures showing the size of the oil industry relative to the wider economy as increased crude revenues have outpaced growth in non-oil sectors.
Oil and gas accounted for 49.7 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012, up from 37.7 per cent in 2002, the most recent central bank data shows, as the price of Brent crude quadrupled over the period.
But many analysts expect oil prices to fall in the next few years as the United States ramps up shale oil production, which will shine a light on the virtues of diversification.
“We started out exporting crude oil, then we moved into refining, then we moved into gathering gas and creating a petrochemical industry. Then we moved into large-scale mining. The benefit of it is that it has large downstream industries,” Economy Minister Mohammed Al Jasser told reporters at Turaif.
The desert stretches in all directions from the spot where he spoke to an unbroken horizon, but when complete, Waad Al Shimal will be a major producer of phosphate products including the industrial fertiliser ammonia, animal feedstock, plastics and detergents.
The project could make its biggest shareholder, half state-owned Saudi Arabian Mining Company (Maaden), a significant player in the global minerals industry, modelled perhaps on Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), which was built from nothing in the 1980s and is now one of the world’s biggest industrial chemical companies.
SABIC is not only Saudi’s main source of non-oil exports, but provides the raw materials for a host of downstream factories in Jubail and Yanbu.
“There [will be] many industries that also have high employment value in the region,” Finance Minister Ibrahim Alassaf told Reuters.
A measure of the importance attached to job creation at Waad Al Shimal is that the kingdom’s technical training institute plans a new college nearby, to educate 300 graduates a year for white-collar jobs in industrial fields.
Saudis increasingly work in technical fields that were once the preserve of expatriates, something government labour reforms are aimed at encouraging.
However, many companies still say they prefer to hire foreigners, who cost less and often have more experience.
Mineral production has been largely neglected by the Saudi oil ministry and for decades has been restricted mostly to small-scale gold mining.
The government set up Maaden in 1997 and opened the sector to private and foreign investors in 2001.
“Saudi Arabia is hardly explored. We expect very high potential for additional mineral resources. Saudi Arabia is virgin. There is a lot of activity and interest in the development of minerals,” Oil Minister Ali Naimi told reporters.
Maaden was part privatised in 2008, floating half its shares on the Saudi bourse, and it moved towards large-scale minerals developments supported by extensive state-funded infrastructure.
The thinking behind Maaden and other former state-owned companies set up with an eye to privatisation was as a means of distributing wealth and bringing private-sector nous to development projects.
“They have so many foreign partners for these big projects, which gives more confidence in the due diligence process, and therefore their chances of success,” said Fitch’s Gamble.
A first project, Maaden Phosphate Company (MPC), started up in 2011 in partnership with SABIC, had capacity to produce 11.6 million tonnes a year (t/y) of ore at Al Jalamid in the Northern Borders region, supplying a 3-million-t/y diammonia phosphate (DAP) plant at Ras Al Khair on the Gulf coast.
Last year, Maaden inaugurated a second major development, a $10.8 billion aluminium joint venture with US-based Alcoa, with an alumina refinery, aluminium smelter and rolling mill at Ras Al Khair.
It currently imports raw material, but will eventually use bauxite from a mine at Al Ba’itha near Quiba in Qassim Province scheduled to start up this year with output of 4 million t/y.
The phosphate mine at Al Jalamid, the bauxite mine at Qassim and the processing facilities at Ras Al Khair are connected by a new rail network built by state-owned Saudi Arabian Railways that will be extended to Waad Al Shimal.
The government built the port and some other facilities at Ras Al Khair, but Maaden developed a power and water desalination plant for its aluminium and phosphate projects.
Waad Al Shimal, a joint venture with SABIC and US phosphate and potash producer Mosaic, builds on these earlier developments with a mine at Umm Wual near Turaif and nine large processing facilities.
In December, Maaden said it had secured $4.2 billion financing commitments from banks, while government bodies would supply $3 billion. First production is expected in 2016. Government agencies will also pay for rail and port expansions.
Engineering, procurement and construction contracts for the main facilities have already been awarded, with the largest jobs going to Daelim Industrial Co., Spain’s Intecsa Industrial, SNC Lavalin, Sinopec Engineering Group and Hanwha Engineering & Construction Co.
The engineering consultant is Fluor Corp., and the project manager is Bechtel.
Saudi Arabia is already a major exporter of urea and ammonia, two of the most common artificial fertilisers, via Saudi Arabia Fertilisers Co. (SAFCO), a unit of SABIC.
“It’s about using what they have and producing value-added goods instead of just exporting the raw material. Around that is an industrial cluster strategy that you hope will create jobs and industries you never had before,” said John Sfakianakis, chief investment strategist for Saudi investment company Masic.
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