Aramco the Builders

When King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) was announced about two years ago, one of the interesting aspects about the project was the way it was planned to be developed and built. From the beginning it was clear that KAUST will be independent and not under the umbrella of the Ministry of Higher Education, and instead of relaying on a real estate or a construction company to build the university, the project was handled by Saudi Aramco, the national oil company.

Choosing an oil company to build a world class university seemed strange to many people, but to me it made some sense. The King’s bold vision meant things must be done differently. There are only two construction companies in the country that can handle a huge project like KAUST: Saudi Oger and Saudi Binladen Group (SBG). Both companies are already developing major megaprojects, and both companies have been linked to corruption allegations related to government contracts before.

To turn the King’s vision into a reality in the short time span that was announced, he needed people who are efficient and trustworthy. Many of those people can be found in Saudi Aramco, the largest oil company in the world. Now that the KAUST development model has been a success, I guess the King wants to use the same model to pull off another megaproject that has been delayed for years.

I previously wrote about King Abdullah Stadium. The Ministry of Finance repeatedly refused to allocate a budget for the project because proposals made by the General Presidency of Youth Welfare seemed so exaggerated and so… fishy. Rumors have been flying during the past few weeks that Aramco will build the new stadium, but honestly I found that hard to believe. I know that they have done an impressive job with building KAUST, which should be ready to receive students this fall, but I thought that was an exception. Well, I was wrong.

Aramco distributed a statement last week saying the Ministry of Petroleum and Minerals have entrusted them to build the new King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah. According to the statement, the project will include a big stadium, an 18-hole golf course, a hospital and a sports academy.

Is it right to hire an oil company to build a university and a sports city? It is probably not the most conventional approach, but from a pragmatic point of view it is effective and working. This way of thinking says that if this is what it takes to get the job done, then we will go for it. I really don’t mind such approach, but I think it should not make us overlook the problems and circumstances that got us here. Also, this makes me remember some questions and concerns that I have about Aramco, but that’s another post for another day.