Oil development in the Middle East

Year:2018 continuing

Duration:68 years

Cost:Unknown

Country: The Middle East

What did this project achieve?

Create the means to exploit highly valuable oil reserves and invest in wider infrastructure

Although the first large deposit of oil was discovered in 1908 in Persia (now Iran) large-scale oil production in the Middle East didn’t really take off until after World War 2 ended in 1945.

In 1908 the motor vehicle was still in its infancy. There weren’t many cars on the road. Power stations and many ships ran on coal.

In 1945 transport, water and sewage systems in the Middle East were almost non-existent or largely inadequate. There were no deep water ports to unload ships and many roads were little more than dirt tracks.

Kuwait imported water supplies from the Shatt Al-Arab river and distributed it around the country in goatskins on the backs of donkeys. Oman only had 10km of metalled roads. Much of Abu Dhabi’s housing was made of earth or palm leaves. Cairo, the capital of Egypt, was one of the few major cities in the region with sewage systems.

The growing demand for oil meant many Middle Eastern countries could now pay for a more effective infrastructure. Hundreds of engineering projects in the 1950s and 1960s transformed the lives of entire populations as a result. The results were similar to those achieved by Victorian engineers in Britain in the 19th century.

Engineers – many of them British – built transport, water and sewer systems. Cities grew and health and life expectancy in the region improved.

Kuwait, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia were among the first countries to benefit. Many early schemes aimed to improve water supplies. Projects included major dams, irrigation systems and desalination plants on coastal sites.

Despite political upheavals, revolutions and wars in the region over the years, engineers have continued to design and build infrastructure projects throughout the Middle East.

Difference that oil has made

Development of infrastructure in the Middle East has allowed those countries with reserves – such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia - to exploit their oil fields.

As an example, by 2002 the 3 main Middle East producers - Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia – were jointly producing an average of 13m barrels of oil a day. This was about 17% of global supply.

Oil sales have created immense wealth and boosted the economy in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait. Millions of people in these and other parts of the Middle East have homes, jobs and education as a direct result of oil.

The downside has seen illegal funding of terrorism in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen using money made from oil sales.

How the work was done

The Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) began production in 1946 – making the state the first country in the region to use oil revenues for significant infrastructure projects.

Schemes designed and built for KOC included a deep water port as well as the Gulf’s first municipal power and desalination plants.

Saudi Arabia has seen the greatest transformation as a result of its enormous oil wealth. The 1950s saw Aramco – a US/Saudi joint venture company – construct the Tapline, a major pipeline to the Mediterranean. Other schemesincluded irrigation systems which made the country self-sufficient in the production of wheat.

Dubai – part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – has seen the construction of the massive 39 berth Port Rashid and an industrial dock at Mina Jebel Ali.

Abu Dhabi, also part of the UAE, has seen new deep water ports and an airport modelled on Paris’ Charles de Gaulle air terminal.

Infrastructure in Iraq has included irrigation systems and underground drainage systems to combat excess salinity – too much salt – in agricultural areas.

Early schemes in Iran included the 107m high Latiyan dam and the 105m high Lar dam as well as sewage treatment projects for the capital Tehran.

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The Middle East was transformed… by the boom in infrastructure projects made possible through the discovery [of] oil.

Gwilym Roberts

former ICE President. From his paper on the Middle Eastern infrastructure boom 1945-1995. November 2009

Fascinating facts

The 3 largest oil producers in the Middle East are Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are next in the region’s oil league table – experts describe them as having ‘midsize potential.’

Bahrain, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen have a combined output of around 1m barrels a day. Observers say Syria’s output peaked in 1995.

Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon have small or no oil reserves. Egypt ‘only’ produces around 600,000 barrels a day. Because of its large population, this translates into roughly $220 a head.

Most of Egypt’s oil is used domestically. In 2011, its exports were worth about $32 per head of the population compared to an average figure of $1,605 per head for the whole of the Middle East.

People who made it happen

Many engineering companies have worked on Middle East infrastructure projects over the years.

They include Amey, Arup, Bechtel, Black and Veatch, Halcrow, Buro Happold, Mott MacDonald and Scott Robinson.

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