Saudi Aramco heightened its profile as a world-class engineering and construction organization with a presentation before the prestigious Construction Industry Institute recently. The presentation, entitled The Shaybah story: Oil From Deep in the Desert, was given at the organization’s annual conference in Minneapolis.
Abdulrahman F. Al-Wuhaib presented the Shaybah story to the Construction Industry Institute.

Abdulrahman F. Al-Wuhaib presented the Shaybah story to the Construction Industry Institute.

Abdulrahman F. Al-Wuhaib, then vice president, Project Management, and currently vice president, Ras Tanura Refi ning, reported on the series of construction accomplishments before an attentive gathering of some 500 Institute members representing 83 companies. Assisting him in a panel presentation and discussion that followed were four key members of the project team. They included Nadhmi Al-Nasr, manager, Shaybah Development Projects Department; Abdullah M. Okab, manager, Shaybah Producing Department; Rudy Ionides, project director, Overseas Bechtel, Inc.; and Hamid Amin, area general manager, Consolidated Contractors International Company. J.G. Palmer, quality coordinator, Project Management, served as moderator.

The Construction Industry Institute is a research organization with an all-encompassing mission: to improve the quality, safety, scheduling, competitiveness and cost-effectiveness of the engineering and construction process. Established in 1983 to develop a national research center for construction, it consists of a consortium of leading owner companies and contractors who join together to find better ways of planning and executing capital construction programs. Al-Wuhaib saluted the construction industry organization in his presentation, giving credit to the national forum for planning, engineering and construction techniques developed and fostered by the organization. He indicated that the techniques had strong influence particularly in team building and schedule compression, two important areas that played a major role in the successful completion of the Shaybah program.

The Shaybah presentation marked the first time that Saudi Aramco has appeared on the annual conference agenda. Saudi Aramco has been a member of the Construction Industry Institute, through ASC, since 1992, and has participated on a number of research teams over the years.

“Picture yourself, a project manager, sitting in a nice cool office in the headquarters building,” said Al-Wuhaib, as he began his presentation. “Suddenly the boss stops by and says the company needs to develop a grass-roots oil field in Shaybah, one of the hottest and harshest environments on earth. It is 340 miles from the nearest town. Vehicular travel will take four days over sand dunes. No problem, you say. It will be a challenge, but it can be done.

Oil From Deep in the Desert

The first steps in Shaybah presented a picture of overwhelming challenges—all to be overcome.

“Just after the front-end engineering is underway, the boss comes back and says your schedule is cut by 25 percent—a whole year! You have a total of three years to start production. Now this is a real undertaking.”

Al-Wuhaib challenged his audience: “How would you manage and execute a project this big, in such a remote and harsh environment, in only three years?”

The Shaybah team, he said, actually built Saudi Aramco’s largest oil production plant in this extremely short time frame.

“Success was achieved through the combined efforts of a committed team of employees, contractors and suppliers, from the President of Saudi Aramco to the welders in the field. One team, with one vision and one mission—that was Shaybah.”

Panoramic view of the project

Using slides as he spoke, Al-Wuhaib took his audience through a scenario that has become familiar to many in Saudi Aramco acquainted with Shaybah’s background and development. He covered the project scope, the obstacles faced, and explained how the project team met a myriad of challenges.

A map showed Saudi Arabia, the pipeline network and fiber optic cables, and the Abqaiq Plants and mammoth gas/oil separation plants (GOSPs) and related facilities. His audience saw scenes depicting the local topography, large salt flats surrounded by sand dunes towering 700 feet, and viewed pictures of early construction work where bulldozers leveled the imposing dunes to make way for men and machines.

“The desert environment has been undisturbed for thousands of years,” Al-Wuhaib explained, “and the project team felt that its protection had to be one of their top priorities. Environmental impact assessments were conducted to minimize and mitigate potential harm to this delicate landscape, and all of our protection measures were enforced throughout construction.

“As you can see, the terrain is starkly beautiful, but treacherous and unforgiving. With temperatures sometimes reaching 135 degrees Fahrenheit, anyone unfortunate enough to get lost in this environment would most likely pay with his life. The location is 340 miles from the nearest town, 240 miles from the nearest road. Until the new road was finished, surface travel took four days, men digging out stuck vehicles and sleeping on sand dunes under the stars—nice in winter but a different story in summer.”

The team faced extraordinary difficulties, Al-Wuhaib said, with transportation, equipment maintenance, and worker safety, health and morale. His rapt audience chuckled when he explained that even sand and gravel for concrete had to be imported because none of the local sand was suitable.

The Shaybah Story:

Biggest hurdle

A major milestone was reached when the access road was completed, allowing much easier and speedier access to construction and operations sites.

Transportation achievements were legendary during the development of Shaybah. Every capital item, as well as all expendables, had to be transported deep into the desert.

The availability of pipe when and where needed was an indispensable part of the Shaybah story.

But of all the challenges, Al-Wuhaib said the schedule presented the biggest hurdle. Six months into front-end engineering, management requested that the completion be advanced. The plan called for startup only 30 months later. According to Al-Wuhaib, not everyone in the company believed it could be done.

The steps the project took to meet the challenge were team building and schedule optimization, concepts promoted by the Construction Industry Institute, and strong management and team-member commitment.

An integrated project team structure was developed whereby members of Project Management and Operations and other involved organizations became members of a single team. This approach worked well as it streamlined communications and approval procedures and greatly expedited the progress of the work.

A second innovation was to expand the team concept to all stakeholders in the project. The team not only included such routine members as design and construction contractors, but also team members’ families, turnkey suppliers, and local officials and agents.

Each and every stakeholder was impressed with the importance of the project and his role in it, which was key to establishing commitment. “The commitment had to come from the top,” Al-Wuhaib explained, “and it did. Upper management communicated its commitment to complete the project on time to all Saudi Aramco organizations and explained its importance. Members of our team were committed to success, and everyone worked overtime regardless of his role, to ensure that the schedule was met. You never heard the words, ‘It’s not my job.’ ”

Al-Wuhaib went on to explain numerous other innovative approaches— such as early release of bid packages, unique transportation arrangements, Customs clearance assistance and compression of commissioning and startup—that contributed to the successful and timely completion of Shaybah. But underlying them all was team building, the members working together as a team to meet the aggressive schedule.

As a result, Al-Wuhaib said, the team effort accomplished:

  • On-time completion with start of production just three years after the start of front-end engineering and only 18 months after start of construction;
  • Less than 3 percent change orders;
  • Capital expenditures well under the original budget; and
  • Proven methods of organization and schedule improvement that are being used on other projects in Saudi Aramco.

Construction scene in early stages

Shaybah GOSP-2 pipe rack under construction.

Crude-handling facilities designed to process 500,000 bpd

A city grows from the desert as the Residential/Industrial Complex takes shape

Access by air was also indispensable. Runway and hangar facilities tie the desert operations into  everyday schedules